The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Jagannath, called Jagan, a manufacturer and seller of sweets in the fictional town of Malgudi in southern India. A prosperous widower, Jagan has almost reached the age of sixty, at which Hindus are expected to enter into a life of detachment from worldly affairs. Deeply imbued with Gandhian values, he reads from Bhagavad Gita, lives ascetically, and engages in numerous dietary experiments. Jagan is a parsimonious and wealthy businessman who secretly counts his earnings in a daily ritual and hides his profits. He makes and sells a product that he thinks is bad for people but rationalizes that he uses the purest of ingredients. Jagan deeply loves his son Mali but is unable to understand or communicate with him. Repeatedly disappointed by Mali’s behavior, he lacks the confidence to confront his son and solve the problems of their relationship. When pressed to invest in his son’s business idea, he tries avoiding Mali but finally must abandon his old way of life.

The Cousin

The Cousin, an unemployed man-about-town who survives by sponging off of others and ingratiating himself with his benefactors by offering them advice and the latest gossip. A contemporary of Jagan, The Cousin serves as the primary channel of communication between Jagan and his son Mali, and from him Jagan learns of Mali’s plans and behavior.


Mali, Jagan’s restless, modernistic son, who...

(The entire section is 454 words.)