The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

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The Vendor of Sweets Characters

The main characters in The Vendor of Sweets are Jagan, Mali, Jagan’s cousin, Grace, and Chinna Dorai.

  • Jagan is a widower and sweets-shop owner who aims to emulate his life after Mahatma Gandhi.
  • Mali is Jagan’s son, whose ungrateful attitude towards his father drives the two apart.
  • Jagan’s cousin often bridges the divide between Jagan and Mali, acting as a voice of reason.
  • Grace is presented to Jagan as Mali’s wife, though he later learns this is untrue.
  • Chinna Dorai was once an apprentice to a master carver, and he inspires Jagan to seek a life of solitude.


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Jagan is the novel’s protagonist and Mali’s father. A widower, he owns a sweets shop but ironically has banned salt and sugar from his diet, living a life of strict asceticism in the image of Mahatma Gandhi. He has many theories about naturopathy and wellness, which he plans to publish in a book. A devout reader of the Bhagavad Gita, Jagan preaches piousness and nonattachment. However, he makes his living by profiting from the material wants of others. His greatest pride and love is his son, Mali, whom he parents with excessive permissiveness. Because he cannot say no to Mali, he finds himself in an estranged relationship with him, with communication between the two often being facilitated by Jagan’s cousin. Jagan increasingly ponders philosophical ideas as the novel progresses, even though he is continually challenged in these efforts by worries about his son, his business, and his house. He works to negotiate living in a material and contemporary world while holding on to more spiritual and traditional beliefs, ultimately renouncing everything—his store, his house, and the responsibility he feels for his son—in order to live a life of freedom.


Mali is Jagan’s son. He lost his mother at a young age and thus has grown up under Jagan’s care. When he announces to his father that he is quitting school and moving to America to study to be a writer, he uses his father’s money to fund his plans. When he returns years later, with a woman whom he introduces as his wife and a business plan, he likewise expects Jagan to fund his venture. Mali believes that India is stuck in its tradition and history and is thus lagging behind the cultural output of Western nations. He finds his father’s asceticism silly and indulges his own material desires, such as buying himself a car. Mali wishes to live a life of progressivism and modernity, but his ambition causes him to treat others poorly, exemplifying everything that Jagan believes is wrong with a capitalist mindset. His entitlement can be grating, particularly when he sneers at his own father’s business, a business that Jagan has carefully operated to provide financial security for Mali. Mali’s inability to communicate clearly and effectively with his father generates much of the conflict and tension in the novel.

The Cousin

Jagan’s cousin acts as a source of logic and practicality to counter Jagan’s philosophic and theoretical dilemmas. He also serves as the conduit between Jagan and Mali, facilitating conversation between father and son because they themselves are incapable of communicating clearly and honestly with one another. Through the cousin, Jagan learns about Mali’s plans to go to America and study. When Jagan becomes preoccupied with what he views as unsolvable problems, the cousin intercedes and offers actionable solutions, particularly toward the end of the novel, as Jagan becomes increasingly overwhelmed by his responsibilities.


Though Mali introduces Grace as his wife, Grace later reveals to Jagan that she and Mali are not married, a fact that becomes one of the catalysts for Jagan’s complete detachment from society. Grace’s mother is Korean, and her father was an American soldier serving overseas after World War II. Grace was born in New Jersey, where her father left her and her mother. She studied domestic science at a university in Michigan, which is where she met Mali, who had come to America to study creative writing. Grace also serves as a business partner of sorts, helping Mali with his story-writing machine. She invests much of her own money in the scheme, but when it becomes clear that...

(This entire section contains 789 words.)

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Jagan is not going to provide them with the money to start the business, she expresses a desire to return home. However, during the time that she lives with Mali and Jagan, Jagan finds her to be a pleasant, enthusiastic, and caring daughter-in-law.

Chinna Dorai

Though he appears in only one chapter of the novel, Chinna Dorai is significant for the role he plays in helping Jagan begin to detach himself from his daily concerns. Though he makes his daily living by being a hair dyer and thus protecting the vanity of aging men, he also has a spiritual side. Having been apprenticed to an artist who carved images of gods and goddesses for temples, his only desire in life is to complete a carving that his master began before he died. When Chinna Dorai shows Jagan the grove where his master used to work, Jagan begins to think about the possibility of escaping from his current life and retreating to a place of solitude and peace where he can focus on his spirituality.