Lecturer in English, D. N. R. College, Bhimavaram


R. K. Narayan’s art is a triumph of ironic transcendence. His irony is a rich compound of broad humour and sympathy, gentle mockery and genial ridicule. The method is ‘to mock at the thing dearest to one’s heart,’ and, of course, irony is always compatible with the most intense feelings. In irony there is no scope either for the arid realms of dreary non-sentimental thinking or for a hysterical and lavish sentimentality. Delicate irony is a measure of detached observation and it illumines the character of a person while exposing his weaknesses. It arouses love in us for the person whom the author intends to be loved and here R. K. Narayan succeeds marvellously.


An outstanding gift of R. K. Narayan as a writer is his capacity to affect, as it were, a comedic catharsis, the cathartic happiness so urgently needed in these days of arid cackle of dry-bones of humour either bitter or disillusioned or cynical. In R. K. Narayan we have a laughter intensely happy, not in the least tainted by cynicism and never by bitterness. There is pure sentiment and good humour corrected from cheap sentimentality by detached and loving irony. The final result is pure aesthetic delight, happiness and peace.


R. K. Narayan’s latest novel, The Vendor of Sweets again to be hailed with great delight and pleasure. It has the un-mistakable stamp of the individuality and genius of R. K. Narayan as a writer. There are the same delightfully vivid and picturesque evocations of a South Indian middle-class life and there is the same inimitable, incomparable and irrepressible humour tempered with humanity and flavoured with irony. There are again his wonderfully keen powers of observation, masterly strokes of satire which softy bite, humour which tickles and pinches irresistibly and yet leaves the mark. Instances may be taken from almost any page of the novel. To take a sample: ‘A street dog lay Snoring on a heap of stones on the road side, kept there since the first municipal body was elected for Free India in 1947 and meant for paving the road.’ In the same way the description of the vagrant waiting to eat the remains on the dining leaves to be cast out of houses after dinner and Jagan throbbing for a moment with several national and international problems and their ramifications is both humorous and deeply touching.


The character of Jagan, the 55-year-old vendor of sweets, is broad and firm in outline, convincing and natural in full personality and essentially true to nature. Jagan’s character is a curious mixture of innocence and shrewdness, humble simplicity and delightful eccentricity and he has a heart full of tenderness for his late wife and his ‘poor boy.’ He is a strict follower of Gandhi in all matters, in Truth, Satyagraha, Charkha-spinning, in dress, not the least, in non-violent footwear. His never-to-be-published magnum opus is on Nature Cure and Natural Diet with his immense faith in the properties of margosa, for brushing the teeth or for relief from headache, incorporating his ideas on ‘the whole secret or human energy’ and dietetic prevention or cure for premature white hair.


And yet we ask, as the ‘cousin’ (to the whole town) in the story asks and never bothers to know, why this man who has apparently perfected the art of living on nothing should go on working and earning, taking all the trouble? The author himself with an uncanny stroke of irony strips him bare by saying that as long as he bears the frying and sizzling noise in the kitchen his gaze is fixed on the lines of the Bhagavad Gita and once it stops he cries out ‘What is happening?’ Another stroke of the author is that Jagan keeps two categories of cash–one that can be inspected by anyone, the other to be viewed as ‘free cash’ perhaps self-generated and entitled to survive without reference to any tax. And why, again we ask, is all this for this devout Gandhian follower, a simple man with harmless eccentricities? Well, perhaps, there is always a fascinating touch of mystery and inexplicability in the humble heroes of R. K. Narayan.


If Narayan’s The Guide was a novel of intricate story, zig-zag narration, complicated technical flourishes, a picture of hectic activity and straining tempo, with a young, romantic, irresponsible type of man as a hero, The Vendor of Sweets is a somewhat straight-forward, conventional but not unexciting novel with a humble, responsible, tender-hearted middle-class parent as a hero. From one point view it is a perfect picture of the ever-growing tension in–son relationships nowadays; a picture of a humble, tender-father, Jagan, facing an irresponsible, ultra-modern, rebellious son, Mali, and at its level of universality, it presents a sharp and disturbing clash of generations. As an old widower fondly in love with his son Jagan suffers the utmost when his son shocks him as a foreign-returned, ostentatiously business-minded would-be celebrity with nothing but mocks and insults and sneers for him, his ideas, his humble profession of the vending of sweets. It is after all with his money and love that Mali is enabled to fly foreign and return ‘foriegn’, as it were, with a charmer from outer Mongolia to be a wife. It is as though the branch tries to cut itself off the roots from which it derived sustenance and breath. As for the story of Jagan, only an R. K. Narayan could depict the pathos and poetry of such a parent and save the tale from degenerating into the lachrymose sentimentality of a fumbling, fatuous, old fool of bygone days.


Jagan at a symbolic level suffers the gall and sorrow, confusion and bewilderment of the traditional, uncontaminated old Indian generation when sneered at and jettisoned by the artificial civilisation with its machine-produced literature and strange values. The Vendor of Sweets is thus from one point of view a vivid picture of traditional India set against modern India that is being rapidly westernised and uprooted to be planted in unhealthy alien soil. Perhaps a synthesis is to be awaited but at present there is only the widening, deepening gulf of generations, the old rapidly receding into the background, the new not yet attaining even material prosperity. A stage has to come, of course, of achieved material prosperity and retained spirituality in India.


From another point of view The Vendor of Sweets recreates most vividly and convincingly the life of the common man in India, with average intelligence, average practicality and average goodness and average spirituality. When one is born one should do one’s duty as a man in the world, as a youth, man, father, and when one becomes old, finally, affect a complete renunciation–it would be the most accredited procedure according to the scriptures. Thus though there are many surprises and twists in the story Jagan’s final act of renunciation from all business, shaking off the painful fetters of attachments and affections, is entirely in keeping with the general trend of the novel, and in fact, it has all the sure inevitability of a well-built, and calculated climax.


Jagan’s business-mindedness and his adherence to the Gita are apparently incompatible traits of this simple good man but these contradictory traits are only superficial because as long as one is in the world, with necessary chains of love and affection one must “do” something for them, to answer the claims of the world. He becomes apparently a man of the world with a conscience that seems to be at once nodding and nagging, with an understanding that is neither too analytical nor outstandingly spiritual and he remains as one essentially true to nature.


A man, of necessity, should turn spiritual, some day or other, young or old, the cause may be frustrated love, or a termagant wife, or a rude shock from too-loved children, or from pure philosophical searchings. When that point comes, from whom the inspiration comes and from which conviction is achieved, we don’t know. And in the story of The Vendor of Sweets it comes through the strange and mysterious sculptor-disciple, now turned hair-blackener. He communicates to Jagan his master’s blissful vision of the supreme five-faced goddess, Gayatri, the Gayatri-mantra being the most universal in its meaning and significance and the most accredited and indisputable in the whole world as the supreme mantra for the highest meditation, in order to know and realise the Supreme, the Ultimate, whose meditation is incorporated (indeed, it occupies the central part) in the Hindu Sandhyavandanam, the daily three-time prayer-meditation of every true Hindu.


Thus, again and again, we see that beneath an apparent puckish lightheartedness, frivolity and flippancy, a mere no-meaning light entertainment there is in R. K. Narayan a true sincerity, an intense preoccupation with the great traditions and values of India. He has a loving admiration for the common man and shows that the average fumbling, blundering, frail humanity is capable of sterner decisions and solid values and act with swiftness and alacrity and decision of purpose, and, with the necessary ‘will-power,’ aim at a transcendence, triumph over the petty weaknesses of the flesh and the world.


Regarding the technical aspect of the novel, it must be said that it is most satisfying in simplicity of plan and wonderful symmetry and arrangement of parts each with exciting twists and sustaining narration. The central crisis or turning point is well-placed and well-worked out and is, in the end, merged with the last climax. The last yet greater climax, the act of renunciation, arises, as it were, out of the earlier climax which is the sudden baffling decision to give up the preoccupation with the profits and which gives rise to the symbolic act of reducing the price of the sweet-packets.


The action, the mental states and the moods are described with wonderful charm. A pure, innocent reflectiveness, given to constant brooding, melancholy or happy, sad or sapient, musings and half-musings over the past, the present or the future–these make up the best technique adopted by Narayan to recreate in flesh and blood the full personality of lagan, to lay bare his innermost thoughts and feelings before us. And in the vague, hazy, foggy reflecting and brooding mind of Jagan there is something sweet and irresistibly attractive. And in the last long brooding over the past just before his renunciation we have a most charming, delicious, nostalgic, reminiscent picture of Jagan’s past life of youth and marriage. There is a special appeal to the heart as the author describes the sweet sentiments, the delicate feelings and noble traditions in Hindu marriages and morals. The description, the recreated picture, of the married life of Jagan covering a pretty span of life, from the exact point of his shedding his bachelorhood to the point of Mali’s estrangement, is very vivid, subtle, delicate yet insinuating and intoxicating. His present life as the vendor of sweets concerned with Mali’s education etc, is already given in the beginning. Finally there are the last exciting glimpses of Jagan’s future life as a completely retired person, retiring from the galling chains of samsara. Thus, here, we have at one point, somewhat midway as we proceed with the novel, a triumph of art and symmetry, the meeting of the three points of climax, a confluence of exciting and charming narratives and we get at this point a thrilling vision of the past, the present and the future of the entire novel. And as a work of art, The Vendor of Sweets has sweetness and sadness, charm and chagrin, ‘old’ morality and the ‘new’ bumper business and Bhagavad Gita, the strings of samsara and struggle for salvation.


R. K. Narayan in a way is a distracting though unobtrusive puzzle to many. Where lies the merit of Narayan, and what is his actual achievement that brings him such a stupendous popularity and higher recognition? Perhaps the answer is that there is a transcendence in R. K. Narayan which conceals itself. There is a Tennysonian deceptive simplicity and lightness concealing the depths and complexities of his art. Here is a good example in Indo-Anglian fiction of art concealing art. Every one is irresistibly attracted to the work of R. K. Narayan. A sense of overpowering intimacy is established and the characters become intimate personalities after our heart. Perhaps there is simple magic, the magic of delicious and divine humour that tickles and tantalizes, thrills and illumines, combining humanity, sympathy and love. He affects this comedic catharsis in the most compelling and in the most natural way in us. And if one is not to be driven to distraction and cynicism and depression by the bewildering couple of modern mechanical and insipid existence, the artificial life of the straining, confusing, drying modernity one is to take a dip in, nay, a full infusion of, the healthy, sweet, invigorating life-springs of R. K. Narayan’s honour which combines in a unique way life’s comedy and pathos, sweetness and sadness.