The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

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Critical Context

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Considered a born storyteller with a fine sense of the tragicomic, Narayan has sometimes been compared to Anton Chekhov by virtue of his underlying sense of beauty and sadness. His writing is wholly Indian, however, in its assumptions, attitudes, and form, in that its protagonists are always circumscribed by an Indian society permeated by a sense of dharma, or duty. The gods and goddesses, too, play instructive (and entertaining) roles in the lives of his protagonists, and the world of politics (sometimes relegated to a shadowy background reality) gives his novels a connection to a larger sphere.

From the beginning of his career, Narayan has been an optimist—at least as far as India is concerned—for he has always been confident that no matter what happens in a sociological or political context, the country will survive and continue. All of his novels concern themselves with questions of identity and a quest for equilibrium, but because behind these questions and themes lies an implicit faith in the transcendental nature of God and human fate, the endings of a Narayan novel sometimes seem much too calm in their detachment from worldly cares and issues. The Vendor of Sweets is not exempt from this “fairy-tale” feeling. To a Western reader, Jagan’s belief that he is a “free man” simply by his walking away from his shop, son, and associates may smack too much of an illusion of tranquillity, and the choice of noninvolvement seems a questionable virtue. Narayan is not, however, writing according to Western values.

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