Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963
When Raju is released from prison after serving two years for forgery, he goes to the temple located on the Sarayu River in his hometown of Malgudi. He thinks prison is not too bad a place, and he is wondering what to do next with his life. Then a villager named Velan shows up and, taking Raju for a holy wise man or guru, consults with him about his sister, who refuses to marry as the family wishes. Well aware that he is not a guru, Raju is evasive, but Velan brings his sister anyway, and after their meeting she conforms to her family’s wishes. So begins Raju’s life as a holy man.
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He recalls his boyhood in a poor family; his father, who kept a very small shop; and his mother, who often complained of their life. Meanwhile, Velan returns with others from his village after work. No matter what Raju says, or even if he says nothing at all, they bring him food and beg him for words of wisdom. They feel the need for a spiritual adviser, so they make one out of a very unlikely prospect.
Raju then reflects on his father’s small stall at the railroad station and on how he built up the business himself after his father’s death. His memories are interrupted periodically when other villagers come to seek his advice. Almost by accident, Raju finds himself appointing an old man to run a school at the temple for the village children. This increases his fame, and Raju begins to bask in the light of his own glory.
Later, Raju recalls, he became known as Railway Raju, and people began to ask for him when their trains stopped at Malgudi. Before long, he had become a guide, even though he knew relatively little about the historic and scenic sites in the area. He simply learned from what he heard others say. He called on old Gaffur, who had a car, to act as chauffeur, and soon he was prospering.
One day he met a beautiful traditional dancer named Rosie—an odd name for an Indian—and when he took her to see a cobra and watched her do a snake dance he was charmed himself. Rosie’s husband was a cold, distant art historian named Marco, and it was obvious to Raju that she had married him only for social status and financial security. Marco refused to allow Rosie to dance, and he ignored her for his scholarly research. Raju remembers the day he became romantically involved with her.
Back at the temple, Raju is growing a long beard, and people are referring to him as “swami.” He is just beginning to enjoy the advantages of the position when a great drought hits the region. As the drought worsens, disease spreads and the villagers resort to violence against shopkeepers and one another. A feeble-minded villager misinterprets Raju and tells the others that the swami would undertake a fast in order to bring rain. When Velan turns to Raju as a “saint” who can bring rainfall, Raju feels obliged to tell him his life story. He wants Velan and the others to see that he is just an ordinary man, perhaps even a worse sinner than most.
Indifferent to his wife, Marco had accepted Raju and, apparently unaware of their love affair, kept on paying Raju for his services as a guide. When he discovered the truth, Marco deserted Rosie, and she had nowhere to go but to the modest home of Raju and his mother. Raju’s mother was scandalized, but she liked Rosie and endured the disgraceful situation as long as she could. Then Raju discovered that his business had been ruined while he was carrying on with Rosie, and his creditors took him to court. Finally, his stern, patriarchal uncle appeared to reprimand Raju and to take his mother back.
After several months, Raju decided to encourage Rosie to dance professionally, and he gave her the poetical name Nalini. She was a great success, and both of them became very wealthy. From the first, Raju, who acted as her business manager, showed that he was extravagant and unable to deal with economic realities. Ironically, Rosie had a master’s degree in economics, but she had devoted her life to her art. Marco sent Raju a copy of his book, but Raju concealed the fact from Rosie. When she read about the book in the newspapers, she was angry, but Raju avoided a confrontation over the matter.
One day a registered letter arrived for Rosie, requiring her signature for a box of jewels. Fearing that Rosie, who had gotten increasingly bored and dissatisfied with their relationship, would return to her husband, Raju forged her name. When he was caught, he was ruined financially and sent to prison. Rosie had to continue dancing to pay his court costs, and by the time he was released, she had settled down elsewhere. Raju spent his two-year prison term in relative ease, tending the superintendent’s vegetable garden, and emerged feeling no resentment.
As he ends his story, a rooster crows and Raju assumes he has convinced Velan that he is neither a saint nor a true swami, but this does not prove to be the case. Raju considers leaving town, but he feels compelled to go on with his fast. It is the first time he has done something in which he has no personal profit or interest. Much weakened by his abstinence from food, Raju has himself carried to the nearly dry river. On the twelfth day of the fast, he dies, proclaiming in his last words that he can feel the water rising up his legs from rains high in the mountains.