The Vendor of Sweets by R. K. Narayan

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What happens in The Vendor of Sweets?

In The Vendor of Sweets, Jagan makes a handsome living in his sweets business. His son Mali is uninterested in the business and wants to be a writer. Mali starts dating Grace, a half American, half-Korean woman, and this relationship forces Jagan to reexamine his life.

  • Jagan was once an activist in Gandhi's satyagraha movement. He's now almost sixty and lives a life of avarice and hypocrisy, pretending to be spiritual yet succumbing to greed.

  • Jagan's son Mali isn't interested in the family business or in Hinduism in general. Intent on becoming a writer, he steals some money and moves to America, but later returns to India with a half-Korean, half-American girlfriend, Grace.

  • Jagan meets a dye-maker on a mission to complete a carving of Gayatri, the Hindu god of Radiance. This casts Jagan's situation with his son into perspective. He prepares to start a new chapter of his life.

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Summary

The Vendor of Sweets was published in 1967 by Indian writer R. K. Narayan. The novel begins with Jagan, a fifty-five-year-old man who operates a sweetmeats shop in the fictional town of Malgudi, India—though Jagan himself doesn’t eat sugar or salt in accordance with the asceticism practiced by Ghandi, whose life and teaching Jagan follows closely (including close reading of the Bhagavad Gita). He is boastful about his humility to his family members.

Jagan’s late wife, Ambika, died from a brain tumor. The two had only one son, Mali, who blames his father for his mother’s death, as Jagan refused to treat her with modern medicine. Mali’s dream is to become a writer, so he steals some of his father’s money and goes to America for a writing program. While in America, Mali starts eating beef and corresponds only occasionally via letters—until one day, after being in America for three years, Mali explains in a letter that he is coming home with someone else.

Mali arrives home with Grace, a Korean American who is very ingratiating toward Jagan and keeps house for him. Jagan eventually suspects that she is only trying to milk the family of their money. Though Mali introduces Grace as his wife, he soon learns that they are not in fact married. Mali asks his father for money to start a writing factory. Instead, Jagan offers to hand his business over to Mali, which the latter rejects.

Jagan experiences an epiphany when a craftsman, Chinaa Dorai, who is intent on completing a sculpture of the deity Gayatri, asks Jagan to buy a grove to finance his work. Jagan agrees, as he recognizes that he needs a retreat. Disappointed with Mali’s comportment with Grace, Jagan decides to hand over his business and retire into the grove he has purchased. He has learned that Mali was arrested and put in prison. Jagan goes off to his retreat, hoping that his son learns his lesson and vowing to leave money for Grace’s return to America.

The novel is written in simple prose that allows readers to access the novel’s larger theme: namely, the clash between a father and son—who represent traditional and modern India, respectively.

Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Close to sixty, an age when orthodox Hindus are supposed to enter a new spiritual phase of detachment from worldly affairs, Jagan is a prosperous widower who combines handsome profits from his sweets business with high-minded Gandhian principles. The contradictions between Jagan’s greedy materialism and his ascetic sense, however, are all too evident. A former activist in Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in the turbulent 1940’s, who received a jail sentence as a result, he is now experimenting with nature diets and cures. His book on the subject still awaits publication, for Nataraj, the printer, is a master of delays.

Jagan’s pride and joy is his son Mali, who abandons his studies in order to try his hand at writing. Jagan’s consternation is exacerbated when Mali coolly announces that he is going to America to become a writer. Jagan believes that the West will corrupt his son, who is already hostile to many...

(The entire section is 944 words.)