R. K. Narayan focuses on a single protagonist in the process of spiritual change, and he builds a cast of foils around this central figure. Jagan is the hero caught at a time when most people his age think about retirement. A prosperous widower, he has made only superficial preparations for old age and a different mode of life. He has renounced salt, sugar, and rice—staples in an Indian diet—but he has not yet conquered the self. His austerity is contradicted by his monetary greed. After he piously reads Hindu scripture, he carefully counts out his daily profits (won by some dishonest practices) and then secures the money in a drawer with a strong-lock. A former political activist, he is now given to eccentric ideas about diets and nature cures.
The conflicts between his materialism and spirituality are displaced, however, by the conflicts with his spoiled son, whose laziness and wastefulness eventually yield to a Westernization radically at odds with Indian customs and values. Mali’s cold contempt for his father’s occupation and way of life deepens the gulf of generations. The chasm is widened by Mali’s wife, Grace, a woman who first baffles, embarrasses, and annoys Jagan, before eventually winning his respect and love.
Jagan is never, however, the innocent hero. The long flashback to his youth and marriage demonstrates his own quirks and failures in the past. Like Mali, he also failed as a student, and like Mali, he also failed to be a kind, thoughtful husband. Jagan’s wife turned increasingly temperamental...
(The entire section is 632 words.)