In The Vendor of Sweets, author R. K. Narayan brings readers back to the community of Malgudi to examine themes of tradition, modernization, and family in post-independence India.
Jagan, a former follower of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, operates a successful sweetmeats shop. He lives by a philosophy of “simple living and high thinking,” spins his own cloth, eats a plain diet, and studies the Bhagavad Gita. But despite his idealism, Jagan hangs on to a worldly life of business and status while experiencing ongoing conflict with his son, Mali.
Distraught by the death of his wife Ambika, Jagan overcompensates by spoiling Mali, but over the years, father and son become emotionally estranged. The main way Jagan knows about Mali’s life is through a manipulative cousin who acts as a “man-about-town” and go-between. Mali then turns away from Indian tradition by moving to the United States to study creative writing. At first, Jagan romanticizes Mali’s goal by comparing him to the classical poet Kalidasa (at the cousin’s suggestion). But when Mali returns to Malgudi with Grace, his Korean-American wife, and a plan for a new business, Jagan finds his traditional beliefs and ways are now openly challenged.
Chapter 6 brings the conflict between father and son to a turning point. During a conversation at the shop, the cousin mentions that Mali has a “scheme” involving a “story-writing machine,” news which surprises Jagan. At home, Jagan arranges with Grace to speak with his son. Mali shows Jagan his invention and demands financial support to open a manufacturing business that will bring India into the modern era. Jagan is offended by Mali’s criticism of India’s literary status and defends the legacy of the country’s epics, noting they were composed orally. Symbolizing the opposing values of the charka, the Indian spinning wheel and Americanized machine, father and son hold their positions and won’t budge.
Jagan protests to the cousin that he doesn’t have the money. He falls back on his Satyagrahi identity and adopts prayer and “a sort of non-violent non-cooperation” method to cope, but Mali and Grace continue to pressure him. Jagan is disappointed to learn that the printer Nataraj is willing to print Mali’s business prospectus but not his book on natural cures and is then displeased when Mali buys a car. Jagan suggests to Mali that he take over the sweetmeats shop if he needs money, an idea which Mali rejects. In a closing conversation with the cousin, Jagan resolves to make changes at the shop and no longer wants the cousin to speak to Mali on his behalf.
The events of chapter 6 set the stage for Jagan’s epiphany and character development in the second half of the story, in which he understands he’s entering a new janma, a spiritual rebirth leading to the next stage of his life.