Jagan, the titular vendor of sweets, is sitting in his shop in a wooden chair strategically placed on a platform so that he can see everything going on, from the bustling kitchen to the front stall where the sweets are sold. He imagines himself a monarch on a throne overseeing his employees: the head cook, another cook, the counter attendant, the door watchman, and the front-stall boy who collects the money.
Jagan is speaking of philosophical things with his cousin, a man who, every day, arrives at the shop at half past four in the afternoon, goes into the kitchen to eat some sweets, and then returns to sit with Jagan and converse.
Jagan is full of theories on how one should live one’s life. He is a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi and maintains strict principles regarding his own habits. He shares with the cousin that he has given up salt.
Jagan is fifty-five years old and considers himself to be a soul floating above the dirt of the physical world. He wears traditional clothing consisting of a jibba and a dhoti, made of fabric he spun himself.
He tells the cousin that he has also given up sugar and rice, to which the cousin wonders how Jagan has “perfected the art of living on nothing.” Further, he asks why Jagan continues to run the sweets shop, but does not point out that Jagan is hypocritically expecting other people to continue supporting his business even though he himself has given up sweets.
Jagan feels immense contentment. He spends his days overseeing the operations of the store while he reads the Bhagavad Gita, Hindu holy scripture. The stall boy brings in the day’s earnings at six o’clock in the evening, and at seven he brings in the money from the last hour’s sales.
Jagan waits for his employees to leave before counting the money in solitude. All of the earnings from before six o’clock are entered into the official ledger. The cash that comes in after six Jagan keeps for himself, thinking himself entitled to it without tax; he bundles it and hides it away at home. He bids the door watchman, whom he calls the Captain, goodnight, and locks up the shop for the night.
As Jagan walks home, he passes a printing shop whose owner, Nataraj, has had Jagan’s book, an opus on Nature Cure and Natural Diet, in the process of being printed for years. He walks by a vagrant who always waits for the dinner leftovers on Kabir Lane. Jagan begins thinking about ways the country can improve. He passes the Sir Frederick Lawley statue, intended to mark the limits of the city of Malgudi, but the city has grown since the statue’s placement.
Students tend to congregate on the steps around the statue, and Jagan is looking forward to seeing his son, Mali, among them. He is very proud of his son, and even the brief sight of Mali fills Jagan with joy.
At home, Jagan stands in the open courtyard and contemplates the stars in the sky. The house is the same home he grew up in; his father at first lived in a hut at the back of the property and slowly earned the money to expand the house. His father had also spent his lifetime “perfecting his theories of sound living,” and Jagan has inherited many of those theories, such as using a twig from a margosa tree in lieu of a toothbrush. His wife, who is now deceased, hated Jagan’s self-improvement theories and refused to...
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abide by them. Once, when she had a headache, she begged for aspirin, but Jagan was convinced aspirin was useless, even telling his son it was poison.
One morning, Mali announces to his father that he no longer wants to attend school. Because he is a cowardly father, Jagan does not command his son to go to class.
Mali’s announcement preoccupies Jagan for the entire day, and when the cousin comes to visit that evening, Jagan speaks with him about it. He tells the cousin that he spent his own college years in prison for following Gandhi’s teachings and always dreamed that Mali would earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. He asks that the cousin speak with Mali about Mali’s sudden rejection of school.
That night, the cousin reports back to Jagan that Mali wants to be a writer. At first Jagan misunderstands the word and thinks it means “clerk,” which he deems a degrading position, but he becomes more appeased once he understands the meaning. Mali also dreams of going to America.
Jagan does not understand why writing is incompatible with studying. Mali seems to be avoiding him; their only interactions occur when Jagan makes breakfast and leaves money on the hall table so that Mali can eat during the day.
One evening, Jagan goes into Mali’s room so they can talk. He offers to buy Mali a desk and a good pen and paper for his writing. Mali says that he is working on a novel and hopes to submit the manuscript to a contest that will pay twenty-five thousand rupees to the winner. The manuscript is due on September 30th; it is now May. The more questions Jagan asks, the more exasperated Mali becomes, for he feels as though he’s being examined. Jagan reaffirms to Mali his faith in him; indeed, he has been excessively considerate of his son’s feelings ever since his mother’s death. Jagan thinks back to the day Ambika died, when Mali witnessed him wail in grief. Ever since that day, a barrier has grown between father and son, preventing them from communicating normally.
Jagan now takes pride in describing Mali as a writer, and shares the news with his acquaintances. He says that Mali has emulated his approach to life: “Simple living and high thinking.” The cousin points out that Jagan is not living simply, as he is running a business and accumulating wealth. Jagan responds that it is his duty to work and that he is helping his employees to support themselves by giving them work as well.
Jagan understands why Mali wants to try a new trade, as each generation must change its outlook in order for there to be progress.
The opening pages of the novel describe Jagan as a man of contradictions. While he sells sweets for a living, he himself has given up sugar. Trying to live his life simply and peacefully, he avoids conflict wherever possible; he thus does not ask the printer for a reason why his book has not yet been published, and he is extremely permissive with his son. He announces his piousness and renunciation of materialism at every possible opportunity, thus undermining the virtuousness to which he aspires. For all his flaws, though, Jagan is a likeable character: he means well, he loves his son, and he has endured hardship and worked hard to achieve his station in life.
The seeds of the book’s central conflict are sown in these opening chapters: the tension between what Jagan wants for his son, and what Mali wants for himself. Jagan prizes education above all and is sad that his involvement with Gandhi’s movement of nonviolent resistance kept him imprisoned during his student days, preventing him from obtaining the degree he desired. Mali, of a younger generation that was not alive during India’s struggle for independence, does not value education as his father does; in fact, he scorns it, telling Jagan that his schoolmates are “ordinary fellows, who are not good for anything else” and that he disrespected the librarian for thinking “he was [so] clever.” Mali’s rebellion against his schooling exposes the communication gap between father and son and the frustration that Mali feels toward his father’s many life philosophies. Narayan thus establishes that Jagan and Mali’s relationship, already weakened by Ambika’s death, will continue to experience strain and struggle.