The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Vendor of Sweets uses humor and drama to elaborate on the need for striking the right balance in life with respect to relationships, spirituality, materialism, and contentment. The conflicts between Jagan and his son, Mali, arise largely because of a clash between tradition and modernity.

The following quotations give the reader a sense of what goes on in the minds of the novel's characters.

I've taken to eating beef, and I don't think I'm any the worse for it. Steak is something quite tasty and juicy. Now I want to suggest why don't you people start eating beef? It'll solve the problem of useless cattle in our country and we won't have to beg food from America. I sometimes feel ashamed when India asks for American aid. Instead of that, why not slaughter useless cows which wander in the streets and block the traffic?

The above extract is from a letter that Mali sends Jagan after Mali has been in the United States for around three years. It causes Jagan great anguish. While he has enthusiastically shared the contents of other letters from Mali with anyone who cared to listen, Jagan cannot now bring himself to tell his relatives and fellow villagers that his son has started to consume beef—anathema to Hindus.

Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self.

This is a maxim that Jagan tries to live by. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi in his youth and tries his best to abide by the principles of simple living that Gandhi espoused. This line also highlights the clear dichotomy between Jagan's personal lifestyle and his means of earning a living. He is, after all, a vendor of sweets. While he tries to present himself as morally superior by having given up salt and sugar, he actually sustains himself and his family by selling confectionery.

This is Grace. We are married. Grace, my dad.

With this line of dialogue, Mali introduces his live-in partner to his father. The introduction serves to further bewilder Jagan and ultimately to alienate father from son. Jagan is already finding it difficult to accept his son's changed physical appearance and mannerisms, to the extent that he can only just stop himself from addressing his son as "Sir." Mali, meanwhile, chooses to lie about his relationship with Grace. It's easier for him to live with the lie and keep his father in the dark than to tell the truth and face questions.

Nature would sooner see us dead. She has no use for a brain affected by malignant growth, that’s all.

Dr. Krishna said this when driven to distraction by Jagan's constant suggestions that instead of modern medicine, some natural therapy could have saved the life of his wife, Ambika. The memory of this interaction with the doctor, and his son's bewilderment about what was happening, has remained with Jagan ever since.

You know it's a country of millionaires. Everyone is so rich.

Jagan says this to his cousin, the most patient of all the listeners whom Jagan regularly accosts to talk about the United States. Over the course of the story, Jagan goes from being infatuated by America's riches to being chagrined and driven to despair by the antipodal cultural norms of the West as compared to those of India.

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