The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Narayan’s work is often noted for its realistic presentation of ordinary people living regular lives. Though the writing style and characters seem simplistic, the issues they wrestle with are complexly human. In The Vendor of Sweets, Jagan worries about his legacy, which will be carried on by both his shop and his son. He wrestles with living a life on which he can reflect with pride and contentment while malignant forces—the corrupting influence of capitalism, the desires of his needy son—threaten to lead him astray. While he strives to follow the teachings of Hinduism, he lives in a world that makes such piousness increasingly difficult. For example, when he reduces the prices of his sweets, hoping that more people will be able to enjoy them, his cousin suggests that perhaps people are buying them at the discounted price and then reselling them at their usual price in order to make a profit. This thought is greatly dispiriting to Jagan; while he fundamentally wants to believe in the goodness of others, he must also face the reality of a world in which the worship of wealth is beginning to supplant the worship of the Hindu gods.

While some of Jagan’s ideologies and practices may seem quaint and outdated, Mali functions as a warning against uninhibited modernity and progress. He is entitled and snobbish, looking down upon his hometown and its people and carrying himself “like a celebrity avoiding the attention of the rabble.” Though he claims that the story-writing machine will elevate India to the same status as other countries with more prodigious literary outputs, he fails to realize that by mechanizing an art form, he is belittling the very culture he hopes to amplify. It is symbolic that he ends the novel in jail, having violated India’s prohibition laws; his recklessness in the name of being “progressive” actually inhibits his ability to live freely.

Though the novel never explicitly addresses the circumstances surrounding Ambika’s death, it is heavily implied that Jagan’s insistence on using only natural remedies in her treatment contributed to her fate. The anecdote about Jagan’s refusing to give her aspirin when she had a headache and his belief that such pills are “poison” are further evidence that Jagan may have resisted the intervention of modern medicine in treating his wife. That her death is the turning point in Jagan and Mali’s relationship indicates that Mali feels resentment and anger toward his father. Mali’s rejection of all of Jagan’s beliefs about diet and healthy living is also testament to this anger. However, just as father and son are unable to have an honest, straightforward conversation, so, too, is the novel unable to address this issue directly, instead relying on hints and insinuations to convey the root of Mali and Jagan’s conflict.

Religion and spirituality as a retreat from the world and a healer of ills is a constantly repeated motif in the book. Jagan reads the Bhagavad Gita daily to remind himself of the importance of keeping its words at the root of all he does. It is in the carver’s grove, looking at the abandoned carvings of gods and goddesses, that Jagan experiences a revelatory moment of peace and contentment and begins to hatch his idea to retreat from society. Later, as he sits at the foot of the Sir Frederick statue, Jagan recalls that when he and Ambika had not yet had a child after ten years of marriage, they journeyed to the temple of Santana Krishna to pray for help in conceiving a baby—-and their prayers were answered. Thus, Narayan suggests that religion contributes to a better understanding of and connection to the self; no matter how tumultuous the external world may be, spirituality can act as an inward anchor of stability.

This book is notable for its refusal to offer a single solution or answer to the problems it addresses. The narrative voice also refrains from judging any of its characters; they are all flawed, but they are also real, and their motivations and desires are familiar. Narayan accepts the contradictions and complexities that are inherent to the human condition. A man can ban sugar from his diet yet still be the proprietor of a sweets shop. A son can love his father and still treat him poorly. A daughter-in-law can be a good person, even if she is not technically related to one by marriage. Truth exists at the intersections of these seemingly contradictory facts. Ultimately, Narayan offers the idea that everyone is trying their best, in the best way they know how: the scuffles and scrapes that occur along the way are a necessary side effect of being human.

Further Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

R. K. Narayan explores the relationship between worldly achievement and spiritual devotion through the character of Jagan, the sweets vendor of the title. Nearing retirement, Jagan reflects on his earlier dedication to just causes, planning to spend his last years in healthy, pious activities. Meanwhile, he does all he can to overlook the contradictions between having amassed wealth through his business, which wholly depends on other people’s consumption of unhealthy confections, and the concerns that he now proposes to embrace. In part, Jagan is living in the past as he recalls his glory years, when he was involved with Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent independence movement. Narayan shows how Jagan’s hope of ignoring the vast changes that Indian society has undergone is challenged by the current generation, which is represented by his son and other foreign influences, largely embodied by his son’s “wife” (they are actually not married).

This generation gap includes the older man’s resistance to British imperialism—a system superseded by Western globalization, which Mali, his son, seems to embrace: he sets off for the United States to find himself as a writer. His father is not only puzzled by this attitude toward employment and identity but further mystified when Mali returns, ostensibly married to a Korean American woman. Rather than find a calling in writing, Mali has turned into an entrepreneur; while this perspective might be expected to please his businessman father, the author shows how the son oversteps an ethical line, perhaps implying that father and son are alike in their hypocrisy.

As the novel is more than a family drama, Narayan includes a genuinely spiritual character in Chinna Dorai, a hair dyer who was once apprenticed to a carver of sacred Hindu images. As Jagan connects with the importance of the dyer’s mission to complete a carving of the deity Gayatri, he grows even more distant from his son. Through combined disregard of Indian custom and flagrant violation of Indian law, Mali runs afoul of the legal system. With the realization that his parenting has limitations and that India is not the same country he helped to create, Jagan decides to leave his worldly concerns behind, embracing a spiritual life of solitude in the garden he purchases from Chinna Dorai.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access