The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

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The Vendor of Sweets Summary

The Vendor of Sweets is a 1967 novel about Jagan, a widower who runs a sweets shop while attempting to live a life inspired by the teachings of Gandhi.

  • Uninterested in Hinduism or the family business, Jagan's spoiled son, Mali, moves to the United States to become a writer.

  • Mali later returns with Grace, a woman whom he says is his wife, and demands that Jagan fund his new business venture.

  • When Mali ends up in jail, Jagan abandons his worldly concerns and retreats to an abandoned garden to live in freedom and solitude.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Jagan, the sweets vendor of the book’s title, lives a life built around strict values and beliefs that he has developed after being inspired in his youth by Mahatma Gandhi’s ascetic practices. Now fifty-five years old, he reads the Bhagavad Gita daily, follows a rigid diet, and ponders philosophical dilemmas. He is constantly espousing naturopathic remedies and plans to have his theories published in a book.

Jagan is a widower, and his life revolves around his store and his son, Mali. The store is very successful, and Jagan has a reputation as someone who has accumulated wealth yet is stingy in his spending. He is tremendously proud of Mali, but also permissive, for he worries that losing his mother at a young age has made Mali particularly sensitive. Ever since Jagan’s wife’s death, Jagan’s relationship with his son has become increasingly estranged.

Jagan’s daily life in the Indian town of Malgudi is one of routine. He spends his days at the store, overseeing his workers and reading from the Bhagavad Gita. In the afternoon, his cousin comes to visit, and they talk about philosophical matters or about Mali. Then Jagan returns home, washes, prays, and goes to sleep.

One morning, Mali tells his father that he is dropping out of school. Rather than insist that he remain a student, Jagan allows him to do so. With the help of the cousin, Jagan comes to understand that Mali aspires to be a writer and wants to go to school in America. Though he is initially against the idea, for he has tremendous national pride, he soon changes his mind about Mali’s decision. He learns that Mali has used the money Jagan stores in the house to buy a plane ticket and new clothes for his journey, and is proud that his son is so resourceful.

Mali communicates regularly from abroad, and Jagan saves all of his letters. He worries about Mali’s becoming corrupted by American culture, which includes the drinking of alcoholic beverages and a more relaxed attitude about the ways in which women may express their sexuality.

When Mali returns to Malgudi, he brings with him a woman whom he introduces as Grace, his wife. Grace is Korean American, and Jagan is both horrified and embarrassed by this. However, he slowly comes to appreciate Grace for her enthusiasm, her help with household chores, and her willingness to converse with him, which Mali never does. Indeed, Mali seems even more reticent now that he has returned from America and has adopted superior views about Western civilization, making cutting barbs about the provincialism of his hometown.

Mali explains to Jagan that he has come up with a wonderful business scheme: a story writing machine. With just the push of a few buttons, an electronic device generates an entire cast of characters and a plot for a writer to create a novel. Mali imagines that this machine will finally have India producing just as much great literature as other countries. In order for his scheme to commence, however, he needs money, and he asks Jagan to fund $51,000, which his American collaborators are asking for.

Jagan claims that he does not have that much money, but Mali knows that Jagan’s shop is successful and that Jagan secretly stows away pre-taxed money from the shop in his house. Unwilling to back the scheme, Jagan offers his shop to Mali, who sneers and announces that he is destined for bigger things than being a mere sweets vendor.

Now Jagan feels like an interloper in his own house, for he senses that Grace and Mali are constantly waiting for him to tell them that he will provide the money for Mali’s business. He spends as little time there as possible. One morning, as he’s passing the printer’s, he sees that Mali has printed up his business proposition and listed Jagan’s name as an investor. Rather than confront Mali about what he has done, Jagan impulsively decides to lower the cost of his sweets. Soon, his shop is selling out every day, and crowds clamor around his stall for the discounted treats. He says that he has made the change so that more people may enjoy his sweets.

Upset by this change in practice, local restaurateurs visit Jagan to explain the toll it is taking on their own businesses. Among these men is a man named Chinna Dorai, who is now a hair dyer but was the apprentice to a master carver who made carvings for temples. Chinna Dorai invites Jagan to come with him to visit his master’s home and workshop, and Jagan readily accepts.

The master’s home is a quiet place in the jungle, overgrown now by vegetation and taken over by wildlife. Being there, Jagan feels as though he has been transported back in time, to a century in which his current problems—with his son, with his money—have no relevance. When Dorai asks Jagan to buy the garden, Jagan thinks about his longing to escape from the world.

Back at the house, Jagan’s thoughts churn in his mind. He feels that his identity is undergoing a change and that his house, his shop, and his son have become obstacles that stand in the way of a life of spirituality, asceticism, and simplicity.

Mali confronts Jagan about whether or not he will give the money to help start Mali’s business. He says that if Jagan does not provide the money, then Grace will have to return to the United States. Jagan determines to speak with Grace by himself, for she seems to have been avoiding him. When they talk, he asks her if she wants to go home. She answers that she is no longer useful to Mali, because she came with him to work, but now there is no business. She reveals that she and Mali are not married.

This news is greatly upsetting to Jagan, who feels that Mali and Grace have “tainted” his house by living in it out of wedlock. Jagan limits his contact with Grace and Mali as much as he can, even shutting the ventilators in the house so that he does not have to breathe their “tainted” air. Jagan tells Mali that he and Grace must marry.

The next day, Jagan spends the entire day worrying, and when he leaves his shop, he sits at the foot of a statue at the edge of town. He begins to reminisce about how he met his wife. His brother accompanied him on the long journey to ensure that Jagan respected traditional rituals. It was an arranged marriage, but Jagan grew to love Ambika, his wife.

After ten years of marriage, Jagan and Ambika still had not had a child, and there was much consternation in the family. After a trip to a temple known to cure barrenness in women, Mali was conceived, bringing much joy to everyone.

This reminiscing lulls Jagan to sleep, and when he wakes, it is dawn. Now resolved in his path, he returns to his home to pack a small bundle of his things. On his way through town, he encounters the cousin, who frantically informs him that Mali has been arrested for having a bottle of alcohol in his car. The cousin is already thinking through all the ways that Jagan can solve the problem for Mali. Instead, Jagan gives the cousin some money, then tells him that he is putting him in charge of the shop until Mali can take over. Jagan himself is retreating to the garden that Chinna Dorai showed him, to live as a free and unattached man.

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