Last Updated on August 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356
R. K. Narayan explores the relationship between worldly achievement and spiritual devotion through the character of Jagan, the candy seller 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 Mohandas 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This generation gap includes the older man’s resistance to British imperialism—a system superseded by Western globalization which Mali, his son, seems to embrace: he sets off for the United States to find himself as a writer.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, a dyer who wants to reinvent himself as a woodcarver. As Jagan connects with the importance of this 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 moves closer to setting his feet onto a righteous path.
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