The titular vendor of sweets, Jagan also makes delicacies. A Hindu widower nearing sixty, Jagan has done well in business and is contemplating retirement, which will allow him increased spiritually oriented activity and contemplation. Religious convictions notwithstanding, Jagan is tight-fisted; he also understands the hypocrisy of trying to live purely while profiting from unhealthy products.
Mali is Jagan’s son from whom he feels disconnected despite his deep love. Mali makes numerous bad decisions, including dropping out of college and stealing money from his father so he can move to the United States to become a writer. After becoming involved with Grace, he returns to India with her, introducing her as his wife although they are not actually married. His ambitious new plan is to become a film producer. Although he does not respect India or his father, he tries to persuade Jagan to invest in the film.
The unemployed cousin is a gossip who takes advantage of others’ generosity so he can avoid working. Freely dispensing advice, including to his friend Jagan, the cousin also helps father and son keep in touch.
Grace, Mali’s “wife,” is Korean American. Torn between loyalty to her husband and concern for his father, she encourages Jagan to invest in the film. From the United States, Grace had secretly written letters to Jagan that were ostensibly from Mali. Despite her warm overtures, Jagan is scandalized to learn that the couple is not actually married. Unable to shake the feeling that their sacrilegious behavior has tainted him, he becomes increasingly isolated form the couple.
The Hair Dyer
The hair dyer is a would-be master carver. Having developed a passion for religious artworks while he was apprenticed to a master carver, he longs to continue in the deceased master's footsteps. His dream of creating two wondrous temple statues appeals to Jagan's piety. With the confectioner's financial support, the carver can continue with his good works and help Jagan fulfill his religious devotion in his older years.
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 because of his insensitivity, lust, and periodic silences, and this produced great anxiety for Jagan in the early years of his married life.
Nevertheless, the past is past, and it is Jagan in the present who is the true focus....
(The entire section contains 1417 words.)
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