The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

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Chapters 4–5 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on September 14, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1378

Chapter 4

Though Mali and Jagan barely speak to one another, peace pervades the house as Jagan leaves Mali to his writing, telling himself that Mali is providing a service to others. “Service” is a meaningful word to Jagan, as he heard Gandhi speak of it when Gandhi visited Malgudi in 1937, inspiring Jagan to join the movement to free India from British rule.

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September 30th has long passed, and Jagan does not know if Mali sent in his manuscript to the competition. Though the two live in the same house, they rarely see one another, and their only interaction is through the money Jagan leaves on the hall table for Mali to buy his lunch.

The cousin stops in for his usual afternoon visit, and Jagan tries to glean from him information about Mali. Jagan realizes that it’s been three and a half months since he last had a real conversation with his son. Jagan implores the cousin to find out how Mali spends his days.

Four days later, the cousin returns with the news that Mali wants to go to America to learn how to write and to complete his book there. Jagan is furious, for his national pride is insulted. The cousin adds that Mali spends his days at the town’s public library.

Jagan is disgusted by the notion of his son living in America, because it is an impure place where people eat beef and pork, drink alcohol, and permit women to behave more freely than they are allowed to in India.

The cousin further reports that Mali went to Madras to get his passport and arrange his travel. When Jagan asks where Mali obtained the money for such activities, the cousin answers that Mali always knew where Jagan hid his money in the house. At this revelation, Jagan feels admiration mixed in with his shock: he is impressed at Mali’s practicality and self-reliance.

Jagan asks the cousin to dissuade Mali from leaving, but the cousin replies that Mali is quite intent on going. When Jagan appeals pathetically to the cousin, asking if Mali needs any help from his father, the cousin bluntly replies, “What can you do?” Jagan makes a mental note to check on the cash he stores at home to see how much Mali has taken.

That night, when he checks on the money, he notices that ten thousand rupees are gone. He tells himself that Mali should also ask for a monthly allowance when he is abroad. When he hears Mali enter the house, he sits quietly in the dark, feeling more like a burglar than like a person whose son has taken his money.

Chapter 5

Mali is in America, and Jagan takes tremendous pride in this fact. Mali corresponds frequently through letters, and Jagan saves all of them. He now speaks to everyone with great authority on American culture, approaching anyone he recognizes to assail them with the most recent news from Mali.

The cousin is an enthusiastic listener and passes on what he learns from Jagan to the townspeople, so that soon almost everyone in Malgudi knows how Americans responded to the news of Kennedy’s assassination, or how many Americans die in fatal car accidents every year. The only news Jagan does not share is that, after Mali has been in America for three years, he writes that he now eats beef.

One morning, a cable arrives from Mali announcing that he is coming home and bringing someone with him.

When Mali steps off the train, he brings with him an exorbitant amount of luggage and a wife named Grace. She is Korean American, a fact that upsets Jagan. Mali keeps saying that nothing about Malgudi has changed, while Grace finds everything fascinating and charming. Jagan leaves Mali and Grace at the house and hurries back to work.

Jagan now begins to avoid people, anxious that they will ask him about Grace. He is even reticent with the cousin in their conversations about Mali. Now that Jagan no longer has airmail to read from Mali, he has returned to his study of the Bhagavad Gita, which the cousin interprets as a sign that Jagan is mentally disturbed.

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Mali carries himself around “like a celebrity avoiding the attention of the rabble.” Grace has taken to cleaning and tidying the house, saying that it is her job as an “Indian daughter-in-law.” She listens with enthusiasm to Jagan’s philosophies on what one should eat and how one should live.

Jagan asks Grace if Mali finished his studies and earned a degree. Grace is surprised that Jagan doesn’t know, and Jagan admits that most of what Mali has told him has been in his letters. Grace laughs and asks to see the letters. She points to the signature at the bottom, which reads “GM” for “Grace and Mali.” She admits that she wrote the letters, and both Mali and she signed them. She is surprised that Mali never wrote to Jagan himself.

Grace shares that her mother was Korean and her father was an American soldier who served in Korea after World War II. Grace herself was born in New Jersey, and she was at college in Michigan when she met Mali, who was there for his creative writing degree. She admits that she was worried about being accepted in Malgudi because of India’s caste system.

One day, Mali asks his father to have a telephone installed in the house because he is embarrassed not to be able to give his associates a telephone number. When Jagan inquires about who the associates are, Mali summons Grace to the room to “discuss business.” As Mali speaks, Jagan studies his son’s face, missing the substance of what Mali is saying. When Mali concludes, asking, “You get it?” Jagan makes noncommittal noises. Mali tells Jagan to think it over, then leaves the house. Jagan enjoys the fact that Mali had spent such time and care speaking with him, and when Grace asks him if he understands what Mali told him, he answers that he can always return to the subject later.

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Analysis

In these chapters, the rift between father and son continues to grow. Jagan, driven by a fear of upsetting his son, avoids confronting Mali about many things that, as a parent, he arguably finds the money to fund his trip to America, and his life and schooling there; and why Mali expects that his childhood home will simply be waiting for him to live in once he returns to Malgudi with Grace. Mali acts with increasing entitlement as his father caves in to his every wish, exposing the hypocrisy of Jagan’s principled life—principles which Jagan himself cannot follow.

That the cousin becomes the intermediary between father and son illuminates the vast chasm between Jagan and Mali, which the cousin emphasizes when he tells Jagan that he has “carried things to a point where you [Jagan] cannot speak to [Mali] at all.” Jagan’s hypersensitivity about his son’s feelings permits Mali to become spoiled; he essentially steals the money from his father to fund his trip to America (although, it should be noted, Jagan has in a way “stolen” the money himself, as he’s squirreled it away to avoid government taxation). That he doesn’t even bother to tell his father that he’s married shows how poor the communication channels are between the men. When Grace reveals that she’s the one who wrote the letters, assuming that Mali was writing on his own to his father, the rift between father and son is glaringly transparent: neither talks to, or listens to, the other.

That Jagan becomes distracted when Mali does finally sit down with his father to update him about his life plans, allowing his thoughts to carry him away to such an extent that he comprehends not a single word Mali has said, shows Jagan’s own inner contradictions. Though he claims to be interested in his son’s life, his ideology on how a person should live (“socks should never be worn” he thinks as Mali speaks) overwhelms his ability to focus. Each man is so interested in himself that he has no capacity to extend interest to the other.

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Chapters 1–3 Summary and Analysis

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Chapters 6–7 Summary and Analysis