The Vendor of Sweets by R. K. Narayan explores generational conflict in the setting of the author’s fictional town of Malgudi in southern India. The novel features a traditional father and his restless son. The two test each other’s resolve and beliefs.
Jagan, the owner of a sweets shop and a widower, is a traditionalist with an identity invested in Indian culture and the recent history of Gandhi and the independence movement. He is described as having “the outlook of a soul disembodied, floating above the grime of this earth,” suggesting an idealistic personality. Jagan insists on herbal and natural remedies, reads the Bhagavad Gita while at work, and holds philosophical conversations with his cousin. The structure of Jagan’s daily life and habits revolves around his creed of “simple living and high thinking,” even though this lofty idea is at odds with his sharp business acumen. Jagan’s personality can be symbolized with three items: his chair at the sweets shop which is referred to as a “throne” where he reads the Gita, his charka, the traditional spinning wheel he uses every day, and the margosa tree, which he recommends to his wife as a natural cure when she complains of headaches.
However, Jagan’s adherence to traditional ways borders on the stubborn and sets him up for almost constant conflict with his son Mali. Jagan loves his son and feels responsible for his upbringing after his wife’s death, but he doesn’t understand him. Mali is ambitious and believes in modernization as the best course for India’s future. He rejects tradition and resents his father’s obsession with it, annoyed by the hypocritical aspects of his father’s behavior. In a move to establish his independence, Mali drops out of the local college to study creative writing in America, securing the necessary money on his own. Jagan is surprised and doesn’t quite understand Mali’s goal to be a writer, but then he is proud to have a son studying in America.
When Mali returns to Malgudi, he arrives with his girlfriend, a Korean-American woman named Grace, and his invention, a computer prototype he calls a “story-writing machine.” When Mali asks Jagan for money to start a factory to produce more writing machines, Jagan refuses, dismayed by his son’s attitude toward India’s traditional literature. He later argues that if Mali wants success, he should find it the traditional way by taking over the sweets shop. Mali rejects this proposal, and the father and son experience a lengthy period of misgivings during which they refuse to change their minds. Grace acts as a go-between, but when Jagan finds out they’re not actually married, he refuses any further interaction with them on the belief that their unmarried state has sullied his home.
By the novel’s end, Mali’s recklessness and lack of discipline catch up with him when he is arrested for driving with alcohol. In a conversation with the cousin, Jagan understands he must let go of Mali and allow him to face the consequences of his actions so he can grow up. In turn, Jagan can then enter the next part of his life by letting the cousin run the sweet shop so he can dedicate his time to spiritual matters.