The Conflict between Tradition and Modernity in R. K. Narayan’s The Guide

The Conflict between Tradition and Modernity in

R. K. Narayan’s The Guide

East-West conflict is a major theme in R. K. Narayan’s novels. This paper is an attempt to delineate the conflict between tradition and modernity–one of the aspects of East-West conflict–in Narayan’s magnum opus The Guide.

The Guide was written between 1956 and 1958 when he was in the United States. It was first published in Great Britain in 1958 by Methuen & Co. Ltd. and in the U. S. by Viking. Its 61st reprint appeared in 2006. That reveals the popularity and greatness of the book.

The Guide is the autobiography of Raju, who is in turn a rail road station food vendor, a tourist guide, a sentimental adulterer, a dancing girl’s manager, a swindler, a jail-bird and a martyred mystic. It follows Raju along a curiously braided time sequence. After describing the early life and education of Raju, the author shows how Malgudi became a railway station and how Raju became the owner of a railway stall and came to be tourist guide. Trying to help a rich visitor, Marco, the archeologist, in his researches, Raju is involved in a tangle of new relationships. Rosie, Marco’s wife, becomes Raju’s lover. Abandoned by Marco, Rosie realized, with Raju’s help, her ambition of becoming a dancer. But Raju’s possessive instinct finally betrays him into a criminal action, and he is charged and convicted for forgery. Coming out of the jail, he cuts off all connection with the past and sets up as a sort of ascetic. Once again he is caught in the coils of his own self-deception, and he is obliged to undertake a twelve-day fast to end a drought that threatens the district with a famine. In vain he tells his chief ‘disciple’ Velan the whole truth about himself and Rosie, and about the crash and incarceration. But nobody believes that he is anyone other than a saint. He has made his bed, and he must perforce lie on it. The reader is free to infer that, on the last day of the fast, he dies opportunely, a martyr. Does it really rain, or is it only Raju’s optical delusion? Does he really die, or merely sinks down in exhaustion? Has the lie really become the truth, or has it been merely exposed? The reader is free to conclude as he likes.

The story of The Guide develops along a bewildering succession of time shifts. Since Narayan was in touch with South Indian film industry he applied cinematic techniques of jump out, flash back, flash forward and montage in his plot construction. Thus the novel has an episodic structure rather than the linear plot of the more usual kind of novel, where the story moves in a singly cohesive curve from the beginning through the middle to the end. The unconventional plot of The Guide circles freely in time and space, both within and between chapters, moving from the past to the present and back again, and from Malgudi to the Mempi Hills to Mangal in a seemingly random way (Sen 15). Modern European and American novels influenced the novelists of Indian Writing in English and Narayan was no exception. Thus the Western fictional paradigms of bildungsroman and picaresque narrative are evident in The Guide. In fact The Guide is a bildungsroman of a rogue.

In his essay “The Reluctant Guru” Narayan recounts his constant resistance to the role that seemed to be foisted on him—the role of an authentic exponent of the mystic East, a guru or a sage, a role that he was most uncomfortable with, but which he could not entirely shake off. Going by the flimsy evidence of texts like The English Teacher and The Guide, his audience often demanded doses of Indian spirituality and mysticism from him. Narayan confesses “I felt myself in the same situation as Raju, the hero of my Guide who was mistaken for a saint and began to wonder at some point himself if sudden effulgence has begun to show on his face.” Narayan is even telephoned by enthusiasts in the wee hours of the morning because it is assumed that he would be up and meditating at 4: 00 a. m.; he is asked if he can communicate with spirits; he is asked to predict the future; he is even importuned to help an earnest diasporic devotee attain a vision of the Goddess Kali! (Paranjape 175). In response to such mistaken adulation, this is what Narayan had to say to his class: “Your search is for a Foundation Grant. The young person in my country would sooner learn now to organize a business or manufacture an atom bomb or an automobile than how to stand on one’s head.” We cannot be in any doubt as to what Narayan meant: the “realities” of India were quite different from the images that the Americans had of them. Narayan himself was also quite different from what Velan and others projected on him (Paranjape 176)

The title “Reluctant Guru” is also well-suited to Raju, the protagonist. Raju, like Narayan, is a most reluctant Guru. Raju has been called a guide, not a guru, because Narayan wishes to underscore, even problematize, the very difficulties of such a traditional appellation and function. “Indeed it would almost seem that Narayan wishes to tone down “guru,” which etymologically conveys the idea of heavy, to something lighter, or Laghu in calling Raju a guide. But the crucial question is whether the slighter, lighter, or more ironic title of guide makes a real difference in the end” (Paranjape 176).

Rosie, Velan, Raju’s mother and uncle, Gaffur, the driver, Joseph, the steward of the bungalow where Marco stayed are all characters exhibiting the traditional Indian culture and ethos. Raju and Marco, on the contrary, bear features of Western or Modern culture and manners. Thus the conflict between tradition and modernity or influence of one over the other is evident in the behaviour and conversation of these characters throughout the novel. Some such situations where traditional or modern elements are visible in the characters are portrayed below:

It was customary or traditional among the Hindus to bow low and touch the feet of elders and venerable persons. But Raju, after his release from the prison, and sitting lonely on the river steps, did not allow the villager, Velan to do so. To quote from the text: “Velan rose, bowed low, and tried to touch Raju’s feet. Raju recoiled at the attempt. ‘I’ll not permit anyone to do this. God alone is entitled to such a prostration. He will destroy us if we attempt to usurp His rights’” (Narayan 16).

Rosie though a post-graduate is never a modern woman. She is not corrupted with modern and materialistic values. She is a traditional Indian wife, longs for affection and care from her husband. She cannot cope up with the archeological interests of her husband, Marco. Marco dislikes being disturbed by any one, even his wife in his studies and professional activities. Rather he longs for appreciation from his wife. This difference in wave-length is the cause of quarrel between Rosie and Marco. Joseph, the steward of the bungalow where Marco stays for his professional work, reads Marco well and has all praise for him. He tells Raju when Raju asked him if Marco bothers him in any way, “Oh, no, he is a gem. A good man; would be even better if his wife left him alone. He was no happy without her. Why did you bring her back? She seems to be a horrible nagger’” (Narayan 129).

When Marco deserted Rosie and took train to Madras, she came to Raju’s house for shelter. Seeing her coming to the house alone in the evening Raju’s mother was wonderstruck. To quote from the text:

The very first question she asked was, ‘Who has come with you, Rosie?’ Rosie blushed, hesitated and looked at me. I moved a couple of steps backward in order that she might see me only dimly and not in all raggedness. I replied, ‘I think she has come alone, mother.’

My mother was amazed. ‘Girls today! How courageous you are! In our day we wouldn’t go to the street corner without an escort. And I have been to the market only once in my life, when Raju’s father was alive.’ (Narayan 141)

The difference in attitude, as well as the temperament is seen here. Raju’s mother is a traditional Hindu woman who is denied public exposure. She was prohibited and hence afraid to go out alone, whereas Rosie is a modern woman. The western influence is evident in her attitude, behaviour and temperament. She is not all afraid to go out alone.

Is Raju a real saint or is he a fake? This question has exercised most readers of the novel ever since its publication. Sally Appleton in the review titled “The Ambiguous Man,” which appeared in Commonweal Magazine, a few weeks after the novel’s publication observes: “The author must decide whether or not holiness will work. . . . The author abandons the reader to choose arbitrarily whether or not, as Raju sinks into the muddy river bed, he is dying, whether or not, as the water rises to Raju’s knees, it rises because “it’s raining in the hills” or because Raju himself is sagging into it (cited in Pontes and Ezekiel 92)” (qtd. in Paranjape 176). It is not surprising that critics are divided on this question. C. D. Narasimhaiah considers Raju a transformed man in the end, a saint, whereas G. S. Balarama Gupta believes that Raju is a selfish swindler, an adroit actor, and a perfidious megalomaniac (Paranjape 177). To quote Paranjape again:

The question is not so much whether Raju is a willing saint or not because, like all of us, every one within the novel notices Raju’s reluctance, even his unfitness for gurudom. But does that really change who or what he ends up becoming? So what we have here is a real problem, one that leads us to the crux of Narayan’s artistry and to his relationship to Indian modernity. Because if Raju is a fake, Narayan is putting into doubt not just an individual but the institution of guru itself.” (177)

It is the belief of village people of Mangal that it will rain and thus put an end to the drought if a true sanyasi does genuine fasting for twelve days. It is a belief prevalent among the Hindus as such in India. Whether that people have direct experience of this miracle or not, does not lessen their faith in it. It might be only hearsay, something popularized by the Brahmin priests for their exploitation of the people. Narayan only wants to portray such beliefs and rites prevailing among his people. He does not want to glorify or condemn such beliefs. There is no clear hint at the end of the novel whether it rained. Rather one has to doubt it based on the description of the topography. The narration of the last paragraph of novel is as follows:

. . . He got up feet. He had to be held by Velan and another on each side. In the profoundest silence the crowd followed at a solemn, silent pace. The eastern sky was red. Many in the camp were still sleeping. Raju could not walk, but, he insisted upon pulling himself along the same. He panted with the effort. He went down the steps of the river, halting for breath on each step, and finally reached the basin of water. He stepped into it, shut his eyes, and turned towards the mountain, his lips muttering the prayer. Valan and another held him each by an arm. The morning Sun was out now; a great shaft of light illuminated the surroundings. It was difficult to hold Raju on his feet, as he had a tendency to flop down. They held him as if he were a baby. Raju opened his eyes, looked about, and said, ‘Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs.’ He sagged down. (Narayan 247)

The description of the eastern sky as red and the apparition of the morning Sun and the great shaft of light which illuminated the surroundings does not match with raining in the hills. To quote Paranjape:

Again, we are invited into what seems to be a terrain of endless indeterminacy: does it really rain? Does Raju survive to see the miracle? Or does he die with the delusion that his sacrifice has paid off? Again, while the novel offers us no conclusive evidence to answer these questions satisfactorily, it definitely compels us to examine our own wishes and hopes for Raju and the villagers. Are we people of faith, those who believe that the sacrifice of a well-intentioned individual can solve social problems, even change the course of natural events? Or are we modern, “scientific” people who refuse to yield to such superstitions? To frame the choices offered by the novel in an even more complex manner, do we want to believe even though we might be unable to? (180)

Though Raju was a fake guru, on whom gurudom has been thrust, he does seem to grow in stature to fit its mantle. He was willing to sacrifice his life. Since the villagers believed that his fasting would bring rain he had no other alternative than continuing the fast to the twelfth day. Raju understood that he could not correct the villagers’ misconception about him. They considered him as a true sanyasi and hence his genuine fast would bring rain. Thus Raju was trapped. He has no existence other than a sanyasi’s. He could have saved himself as the doctors and Velan requested him to stop fasting. But once he stopped fasting what would the hundreds of people assembled there think about him? Wouldn’t it be a betrayal of faith laid on him by the people? So he might have thought that it was better and nobler to die a martyr than live an ignoble life, despised by others. Narayan wants to tell the readers that there are many Rajus or fake sanyasis in our society. Despite being so aware of the dangers of shamming such a serious thing as being a guru, Narayan actually comes out in favour of the institution in the end. He is unable to show the villagers rejecting Raju, or Velan abusing and unmasking him. He does not want the novel to be a propaganda tract against superstitious villagers and unscrupulous charlatans. “The Guide is far from being an expose of phony godmen exploiting the gullible masses. Narayan cannot make a pitch in favour of machinization or development as the cure of all its, including drought” (Paranjape 181).

Narayan does not endorse tradition in a loud or sententious manner. He does not reject or condemn it but rather creates a space for it. He points out that in the struggle between tradition and modernity, tradition wins though in a reluctant manner. Raju’s penance and his ultimate sacrifice are real no matter how painfully flawed his motives may have been earlier or how ineffectual their outcome. There is ample textual evidence to suggest that a gradual but sure alteration in Raju’s inner being does take place. “In other words, the irony strengthens the “Hindu” world view, not weakens it, though at first it appears as if the opposite is the case” (Paranjape 182).

R. K. Narayan portrays a South-Indian conservative society in the village, Mangal. Though the contact of Western culture brought many changes in the village, castes and traditional occupations continue to exist. Marriages are still arranged. Astrology is accepted there. Washing the feet before visiting a temple or a saint as a ritual of purification, pulling the temple chariot along the streets on festive days, smearing holy ash on the forehead, reciting all kinds of sacred verse, consulting an astrologer for auspicious or sacred time, lighting the lamp in the god’s niche, reading the Bhagavadgita are some of the minor rituals appearing in The Guide. Touching the feet of the saint, making offerings in kind or prostrating before god, are other ritualistic forms. Raju’s fasting to appease the rain gods and bring rain to save the people is the most significant ritual in the novel. The people of the village had a clear idea of the fasting ritual and it is reflected through Velan’s words. “Velan gave a very clear account of what the saviour was expected to do—stand in knee-deep water, look to the skies, and utter the prayer line for two weeks completely fasting during the period—and lo, the rains would come down, provided the man who performed it was a pure soul, was a great soul” (Narayan 109). Referring to the fasting ritual by Raju to appease rain-god Narayan writes: “He felt suddenly so enthusiastic that it gave him a new strength to go through with the ordeal.” Ritual is depicted as an ordeal because this is forced on the reluctant Raju who has no faith in it. However, the drought and the plight of the villagers have a persuasive effect on him and so he prays to heaven to send down rain to save the villagers” (qtd. in Rani 67). Narayan does not glorify the superstitious rituals. Similarly he does not deny the existence of a strong strain of faith among the villagers in the native rituals.

Malgudi is a microcosm of India. Just as British India sought the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the post-Gandhian Malgudi looks up to Raju as a saviour. As Gandhi fasted in matters of public interest or concern, Raju also fasted for the redemption of Malgudi from drought. The Guide is a brilliant illustration of Narayan’s artistic talent in creating inner and outer landscapes balanced by a set of traditional values. There are four major symbols that constitute the basic structure of the novel. They are: the temple, the village, the town of Malgudi and the river Sarayu. To quote A. V. Krishna Rao:

The temple’s influence on the democratic consciousness is so profound and efficacious that it results in the ultimate transformation of Raju. It enables the establishment of the identity of the mask and the man. The second symbol of the village, Mangal as well as Malgudi, signifies native strength, continuity of tradition, the ecology of a whole race with its inescapable influence on the individual consciousness and elemental determinism of individual destiny. . . . Thirdly Malgudi is the symbol of modern India caught in the throes of change under the impact of western civilization. Its faith and resilience are effectively affirmative of the root of a changing tradition. . . . Lastly Narayan’s invention of Mempi Hills is paralleled in his creation of Sarayu River, thereby completing the image of a whole country as a structural symbol for the Universe itself. (170-171)

The coming of the Railway to Malgudi is symbolically the impact of an industrial and urban society on a predominantly simple, agricultural community. The cherished values of life give way to the modern ways and their attendant evils. Raju who grew up in a decent home has now picked up terms of abuse from the Railway men and his father’s words ‘Just my misfortune!’ sound ominous in the light of the impending disaster. “The Railway meant the undoing of Raju and his old mother—a small shop keeper’s son becomes a Railway guide who starts living by his wits and runs into Rosie and Marco, two tourists, gets emotionally entangled, neglects his old, honest means of making a living, and brings ruin upon himself as well as a married woman” (Narasimhaiah 132)

In The Guide one finds a clash between castes, classes and their old values on the one hand and the weakening modern social and moral structure on the other. Marco only paid lip-service to a casteless, conventionless society that was slowly taking shape before him by advertising for a good-looking educated young lady regardless of caste. Old prejudices die hard and Marco for all his erudition looked upon dancing as just street acrobatics and he killed Rosie’s instinct for life and love of art by denying her both of them (Narasimhaiah132).

Narayan’s treatment of the English language in the novel is Indian in its restraint, particularly where sex is concerned. Sex though pervasive in the novel is implicit always. Even when Raju decides to enter Rosie’s room and stay alone with her for the night how characteristically Indian and different he is from his western counterpart! He ‘stepped in and locked the door on the world.’ “The only time it is explicit, the utmost he has permitted himself on such an occasion is: Marco, the kill-joy is walking towards the cave swinging his cane and hugging his portfolio and Raju snaps: “If he could show half the warmth of that hug elsewhere!”” (Narasimhaiah 144-145).

Narayan’s novels are written in a bi-cultural perspective. The clash between the ancient Indian traditions and values on the one side and modern western values on the other side is visible in many novels. The three major characters in The Guide are concerned with the revival of indigenous Indian art forms. In the words of John Oliver Perry:

Marco, Rosie’s soon deceived husband, obsessively studies ancient cave art and thus loses his wife, but ultimately his work illuminates older culture for present audiences; Rosie betrays her husband in order to foster what she vaguely calls “cultural traditions” through her inbred, caste-decreed dancing profession, and she is quite successful aesthetically, personally and socially. Raju’s more irregular successes as a guide to local cultural sights and to Rosie-Nalini’s traditional dancing lead directly to his virtual apotheosis as god-man fasting to death to bring villagers’ desperately needed rains. (173-174)

Raju seems to be the psychological projection of the typical individual in Indian social set up. In the social behavioural pattern, Raju is critical of the age-old institutional values, albeit he himself is deeply rooted in the family tradition. Rosie’s caste affiliation is attacked by the general people as ‘public woman’ but Raju negates the prevalent mode of thinking and asserts that Rosie’s caste is ‘the noblest caste on earth.’ To quote Gajendra Kumar from his essay “R. K. Narayan’s ‘The Guide’: The Vision of Indian Values,” “Time is changed and continuously changing. Now, there exists no caste, class or creed. Marco too demonstrates his modesty and embraces Rosie as his wife” (174).

In the novel The Guide, Narayan seems to be particularly fascinated by the ubiquitous presence of swamis and saints, gurus and guides, charlatans and philistines, cobras and concubines in India’s colourful society. With his characteristic humour he is able to capture the spectrum of Indian life, with its superstitions and hypocrisies, its beliefs and follies, its intricacies and vitalities, its rigidities and flexibilities. The action of the novel proceeds in two distinct streams, presenting two different aspects of Indian culture. Malgudi, a miniature of India, presents the rich traditions of classical dances by Rosie-Nalini and the breath-taking paintings that embellish Marco’s The Cultural History of South India. Mangal, the neighbour town village presents the spiritual dimension of Indian culture presented through Raju’s growth into a celebrated Swami. “Thus Raju, Rosie and Marco become temporal symbols of India’s cultural ethos” (Goyal 143). While Marco’s aspiration seek their fulfilment in unearthing the buried treasures of India’s rich cultural past, Rosie’s longing seeks satisfaction in the creative channels of classical dancing in the midst of an ever-present, live audience. Raju is all the time dreaming of an elusive future till a time comes when he is irrevocably committed to a definite future by undertaking a fast in the hope of appeasing the rain-god. “While Marco is cultural historian of the past, Rosie is a cultural ambassador of the present, and Raju is a cultural prophet of the future” (Goyal 143)

The Guide displays many of the structural devices and thematic concerns of the Hindu epics and puranas. In having a rogue as the hero, there is an element of the folk tale also. Krishna Sen is opinion that

we have the idyllic opening scene, the dramatic dialogue format, the layered narrative, the multilateral structure compressing time shifts and interwoven digressions, and the final penance for a divine boon to save humanity. Some elements have been parodied or ironically subverted by bringing them from the mythic past to the imperfect present, elements such as the guru being superior to the shishya, or the dialogue leading spiritual illumination. (22)

Another indigenous pattern working through the novel is the linear progression or varnasrama, or the Hindu belief in the four stages of the ideal life—student, house holder, recluse and ascetic (brahmacharya, garhasthya, vanaprastha and sansyasa). This pattern, too, is parodied. Raju is successively a ‘student’ preparing for life in the platform vendor and Railway Raju phases, a ‘house holder’ and man of affairs in his illegal union with Rosie and as her corrupt business manager, a ‘recluse’ during his days in prison, and an ‘ascetic’ in his role as the fake guru. Raju’s fasting for the rain, the denouement in the novel, is a travesty, reminiscent of the story of the sage-king Bhagirath who conducted severe penance to bring down the goddess Ganga. This story is found in both the Ramayana and the Mahapurana (Sen 24). The entire ritual by Raju may or may not have brought rain, but it did help bring peace to the strife-torn Mangal and turn the community back to religion. Thus The Guide can be triumphantly called a Hindu novel. “The denouement is neither a rejection nor a defense of the Hindu faith—it gestures towards the complexity of life, in which there are no simple solutions. It is this ambiguous and open-ended denouement that raises the novel far above the level of a mere moral fable, or a story with a simplistic happy ending” (Sen 25).

The only minor character in the novel that may be said to exist solely for the plot is Mani, who was Raju’s secretary during his day’s glory. He is like a prop used by Narayan to move the plot forward and communicate necessary information. He is neither characterized in any distinctive manner, nor is he representative of any familiar social type. He remains a somewhat indistinct figure, a name without a face. All the other minor characters, with the exception of Velan who has an important part of play, fall into clearly defined slots, and their typical traits are sketched with Narayan’s characteristic sureness. “Socially the novel charts the transition in India from an old-fashioned way of life to a modern and urbanized one, and the character groupings roughly correspond to these two spheres” (Sen 66). Raju’s parents and uncle, and the old pyol school master represent tradition, orthodoxy, hierarchy and conservative values. The peripheral character who is crucial to the progress of the plot is Velan. His personality is not drawn in detail, nor is it required. Velan would not be a credible character in a western setting. Velan was the sole person responsible for the final plight of Raju. But Velan’s contribution is not merely to oppress Raju. It is he who builds Raju up into a ‘saint,’ and it is Velan’s unshakable faith that finally enables Raju to rise above himself. “Velan is a catalyst for Raju’s apotheosis” (Sen 71)

Narayan is acclaimed as a Regional or Social novelist. The locale of  The Guide is the small town of Malgudi where Raju has his home, the village Mangal from where Velan hails, and Madras (Chennai) and other big cities where Rosie is invited to dance. This semi-urban and largely rural setting is typical of the places in which most Indians live. Thus the locale is almost the microcosm of India. Through the social portrait of a single region, Narayan succeeds in presenting the larger picture of Indian society, both in its general features as well as in its specifically post-independence lineaments. The world in The Guide is “structured along simple binaries—Malgudi and Mangal, the town and the village, urban sophistication versus rural simplicity, modernity versus tradition, cynicism versus faith” (Sen 86).

Raju’s father does not follow the traditional Brahmin calling of priesthood. Thus it becomes ironic that Raju comes back full circle to his caste occupation as a performer of sacred rites in a most ambiguous way. His father is a  worldly man who takes the full advantage of the colonial world trade and commerce. Perhaps his father’s worldliness may be the source of Raju’s worldliness. It is the railway which brings the outside world, with its modernity and hybridity to Malgudi. It bifurcates the world of Malgudi both literally and metaphorically. Western notions of individual choice and self-expression are thoroughly out of place among the people of Malgudi. The locale that oppose tradition are the the westernized parts of the town where Raju and Rosie carry on their assignations—the cinema hall, the Taj restaurant, and the hotel. “This fast moving, individualistic, opportunistic world is as familiar to post-colonial India as the centuries-old traditions” (Sen 88). Paradoxically, it is this newly urbanized rich world of Malgudi, and not the traditional world that Raju’s mother and uncle inhabit, that fosters the renaissance of art by encouraging Rosie to express herself as an artist and classical dancer. The same Rosie who was shunned as a devadasi by those who swore by their traditional norms (people like Raju’s mother and uncle), is reborn Nalini, the respected classical dancer, because of the emergence of and affluent and cosmopolitan class of people in Malgudi. Yet it is the villagers of Mangal who show the quintessentially Indian emotional response—the spontaneous, implicit, unquestioning faith in a person perceived to be a holy man. The holy man or ascetic is an integral part of traditional Indian society. He is respected for representing the heritage of Indian values and wisdom, and it is not customary to question his authority. “Orthodox Hindus believe that there is no spiritual salvation without a guru, and the guru-shishya relationship is considered to be one of the closest and most sacred ties in Indian society” (Sen 92).

The Guide can be called a postcolonial novel. Looking at India from the Indian perspective is felt to be a postcolonial deconstruction of colonialism. Ellek Boehmer is of opinion that

the comic pastorals of R. K. Narayan . . . [which] emphasise the continuity and harmony of small-town India, are actually an instance of the Empire writing back. Referring to the fact that there are hardly any British characters in Narayan’s early pre-independence novels, she observes that ‘through the simple device of ignoring the British presence,’ these novels effectively dramatise a world ‘that existed quite independently of the colonial power’ (qtd. in Sen 107-108)

Narayan’s post-colonialism in The Guide is revealed neither through rejection of Westernisation nor through celebration of tradition. In the politics of representation, his position is that of the critical insider who is alive to the need to negotiate the contradictions of the post-colonial predicament. Narayan is not only aware of the inevitability of change, but also of the problems that attend the processes of change in a traditional society. “The interface between traditions and modernity is mediated with characteristic irony. Narayan is interested in looking at the extent to which the cultural life of the past can be viably integrated with the post-independence reality of India” (Sen 117).

When Raju dissociates himself from society and pursues Rosie he has moral degradation and he faces unpleasant repercussions. When he returns to society as a swami he achieves redemption. In the words of Arun Soule:

Thus, it is seen that in the Western context, the individual can grow and develop, if he dissociates himself from society and becomes individualistic: whereas in the Indian context if an individual dissociates himself from society, he comes to grief, but if he takes society along with him, then he will be at peace with himself and his surroundings, and will be able to grow and develop. (33)

The Guide can be read as a “complex allegory satirising the process by which gods and demi-gods came to be established within the religion, wherein through the centuries’ myths and stories came to be built around a man until he gradually attained the stature of a god and joined the ranks of celestial beings as a divine incarnation” (Sankaran 129). In this view The Guide would be a satire, albeit a gentle one, about the system of worship within Hinduism. Raju is in a sense, the distillation of a type of character that has existed in Hindu mythology for nearly five centuries—‘the trickster sage.’ In Hindu mythology the sages and even the gods are shown to be fallible, and no one is considered perfect or lying so low as to be incapable of reaching great spiritual heights. Similarly in Hindu mythology transformation can occur to a person due to an out side agency without the volition of the person. “Raju would, in this light, be eminent ‘sage’ material” (Sankaran 135).

The characters in The Guide can be reducible to symbolic meanings. Velan is a valid positive Indian average representing in particular the psychological reality of the rural ethos. Velan is the spiritual guide of Raju, the professional guide. Raju remains professional even in his mask. Raju, Velan and Rosie are the central characters in the novel. In the words of U. P. Sinha from his essay, “Patterns of Myth and Reality in “The Guide”: Complex Craft of Fiction”:

Their implicative or metaphoric roles in the novel make a mythic triangle which is a triangle with three points, one indicating the height of spiritual-cum-moral triumph. The point indicating the low, the deep is represented by Rosie, and the vertical one is represented by Velan. The third point at the level, which seems to be vertical but is not obviously so, represents Raju. The first two points act upon this one so that the whole triangle becomes mythical—man facing two opposite-worlds; facing always with very little chance of a smooth and painless arrival here or there. (80)

The character portrayal in The Guide can be interpreted in terms of gunas. In the words of Rama Nair, “Gunas can presuppose the question of basic predisposition called Samskaras and fate (Karma). . . . In Hindu thought, a mental or physical act is called Karma. Karma is the sum-total of a man’s past actions, in the present and the previous lives, which determines his life now. One can achieve liberation only through spiritual self-realization” (44). In Hindu philosophy names of individuals do not matter. Actions determine one’s individuality and character. The names of central characters in The Guide are not individualistic. They are vague, impersonal. The reader is never told either Raju’s or Marco’s real name. Raju’s spiritual triumph at the end of the novel is a reaffirmation of the satwic potential that is innate in every individual. The same critical frame work can be applied to Rosie’s character also.

The ending of the novel is very Indian. The main character narrates his own story to an acquaintance overnight and by the time he concludes, the cock crows. In this traditional way of story-telling, the story-teller, Raju, holds the listener, Velan, in his grip as the ancient mariner had held the wedding guest. Thus Narayan achieved a supreme triumph through this narration. To quote C. D. Narasimhaiah from his essay, “R. K. Narayan’s ‘The Guide,’” “It is not surprising when we know that at all times Narayan writes not merely with an intense social awareness of his own age but with the past of India in his bones. Thanks to him our social sympathies are broadened and our moral being considerably heightened” (198).

From the social point of view The Guide not only depicts Indian society, its customs, traditions, culture, ostentations, superstitions, religious faith but also presents a conflict between the traditional and modern values which are symbolised by Raju’s mother and his maternal uncle on the one hand and by Raju and Rosie on the other. In such conflict, old values have to give place to new values and thus Raju’s mother leaves her home for Raju and Rosie. “The novel also presents a conflict between the Eastern and Western culture and synthesises the two through their assimilation which has been symbolised by Rosie’s transformation in to Nalini. Like Anand, Narayan points out that one has to go to the West in order to come back to the East” (Yadav 28).


Works Cited


Goyal, Bhagwat S. “From Picaro to Pilgrim: A Perspective on R. K. Narayan’s “The Guide.”” Indo-English Literature. Ed. K. K. Sharma. Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1981. 127-135.

Kumar, Gajendra. “R. K. Narayan’s ‘The Guide’: A Search for Socio-Cultural Crisis.” Indian English Literature: A New Perspective. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2001. 25-33.

Nair, Rama. “Gunas as Determinants of Character: A Study of R. K. Narayan’s The Guide.” Osmania Journal of English Studies. 26 (1990): 41-48.

Narasimhaiah, C. D. “R. K. Narayan’s The Guide.” Aspects of Indian Writing in English.

M. K. Naik, ed. Madras: The Macmillan Company of India Ltd., 1979. 172-198.

Narayan, R. K. The Guide. Chennai: Indian Thought Publications, 2006.

Paranjape, Makarand. ““The Reluctant Guru”: R. K. Narayan and The Guide.” South Asian Review. 24.2 (2003): 170-186.

Perry, John Oliver. “Irresolvable Bi-Cultural Conflicts and Other Ironies in Narayan’s The Guide.” Recent Commonwealth Literature: Vol. 1. Eds. R. K. Dhawan, P. V. Dhamija and A. K. Shrivastava. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1989. 170-180.

Rao, A. V. Krishna. “Identity and Environment: Narayan’s The Guide and Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.” Inventing Countries: Essays in Post-Colonial Literature. Wollongong: University of Wollongong, 1987. 165-177.

Sankaran, Chitra. “Patterns of Story-Telling in R. K. Narayan’s The Guide.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 26.1 (1991): 127-150.

Sen, Krishna. Critical Essays on R. K. Narayan’s The Guide: With an Introduction to Narayan’s Novels. Kolkata: Orient Longman Pvt. Ltd., 2004.

Singha, U. P. “Patterns of Myth and Reality in “The Guide”: Complex Craft of Fiction.” Patterns of Myth and Reality: A Study in R. K. Narayan’s Novels. By U. P. Singha. Delhi: Sandarbh Publishers, 1988. 70-94.

Soule, Arun. “The Evolution of The Guide: The Individual-Society Equation in the Indian and the Western Contexts.” Indian Writing in English: Perspectives. Ed. Jaya Chakravorty. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2003. 29-33.

Yadav, B. S. “The Guide—A Psycho-Philosophic and Socio-Ethical Study.” Indian Writings in English. Vol. 4. Ed. Manohar K. Bhatnager. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1999. 24-28.


K. V. DOMINIC is a faculty member of the PG Department of English, Newman College, Thodupuzha East P. O., Kerala, India, Pin: 685585. He has been teaching UG and PG students for the last twenty three years.  His research topics are “Pathos in the Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore” and “East-West Conflicts in the Novels of R. K. Narayan with Special Reference to The Vendor of Sweets, Waiting for the Mahatma, The Painter of Signs and The Guide.” He is the author of the books Postcolonial Readings in Indo-Anglian Literature, Selected Short Stories in Contemporary Indo-Anglian Literature and Pathos in the Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore. He has written a number of poems, critical essays and short stories in reputed journals and books. As the Editor of Indian Journal of Postcolonial Literatures (IJPCL), a reputed biannual published by the Centre for English Studies, Newman College, Thodupuzha, Kerala, he is a well known figure in the universities, colleges and such academic circles all over India. He is an Advisor of the Journal Parnassus: An Innovative Journal of Literary Criticism (Rae Bareli, India) and the Associate Editor of The Journal of Contemporary Literature (Allahabad, India). He can be contacted at:

Mob. Phone: 994794915

Land Phone: 04862 225758