The Conflict between Tradition and Modernity in
R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets
R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets was first published in London in 1967 by The Bodley Head Ltd. Its seventeenth reprint appeared in 2006. East-West conflict is the major theme of the novel. It is the conflict between a genuine Indian or Eastern father and his Western-bred son.
Jagan, a college-educated man in the late fifties has made a success of his sweet shop. Though he grew quite rich as a sweet-vendor, his main interest and concern was his only son, Mali. Mali’s mother died of brain tumor several years back. The barrier between the father and the son came into being the day the mother died. It might be that Mali, a little bewildered and dismayed, felt obscurely that in some way his father was responsible for his mother’s death. Jagan was an advocate of nature cure. Jagan’s love both for his wife and his son was deep and unwavering. The tragedy is that when he lost his wife, he lost also any affection that his son might have had for him. Jagan’s love for the son was so much that he hastened home from his shop in the evenings thinking that the boy would be lonely. But Mali did not rise to his expectations and he preferred to be alone and detached. It led to a total estrangement between the two. Even after having lived twenty years with his son Jagan knew very little about him. Jagan was very proud of his son but he had no control over him. Mali gave up his studies and went to America. Mali’s letters from America only added Jagan’s worries. Jagan could not think of his son eating beef. He was a true Gandhian and a vegetarian. During India’s freedom struggle he had been arrested for hoisting Indian flag. He lived a very simple life. He ate food cooked by his own hands. He never used sugar or salt since he believed that they were detrimental to health. As recommended by Gandhi he spun on his charka and used clothes made of khaddar. Jagan could not use tooth brush as he feared that its bristles were made of pig’s tails. The Bhagawad Gita was always in his hand and he read it whenever he was free. Thus Jagan was a model of traditional Indian values whereas his son was the other extreme, a spokesman of modern Western values. Spirituality in him gave way to materialism. After three years of education in America, Mali returned home accompanied by a Korean-American girl name Grace. When Mali announced to Jagan that the girl was his wife, Jagan was shocked. Still he loved them, gave due respect and allowed them to stay in his house. He accepted Grace as his daughter-in-law. She also behaved admirable towards him. But soon cracks developed not only between Jagan and Mali but also between Mali and Grace. Jagan was unwilling to finance a huge amount of money for Mali’s establishment of story-writing machine. It was too much for Jagan when Grace announced to him that Mali and Grace had been living together without being married; nor was Mali willing to marry her. The ever-growing tension in father-son relationship reached its climax when Mali was caught red-handed for breaking the prohibition laws. Then there came in Jagan’s life the moment of self-realisation and also of decision. He managed to break away from Mali and his scheming and vicious world which he could not approve. He escaped from the chains of paternal love. Jagan abandoned the world and retired into a life of spiritual devotion. He was altogether unaffected to hear that Mali was in jail as the police had caught him with liquor in his car. He thought that a period of jail might be good for the young man.
Jagan is the most vibrant character of the novel from the first page to the last. Mali, his son who returned from America with a half-American half-Korean girl whom he reported as his wife and later said he never married, had been something of a sensation disturbing the placid waters of Malgudi. But Mali is insignificant when compared to his father. To quote P. S. Sundaram:
Twelve of the thirteen chapters of the book deal with Jagan, a widower nearing sixty. He is not likely to celebrate his shashtabyapurti as no one seems to care. The last but one of the thirteen chapters in a flash-back deals with Jagan’s boyhood, youth and marriage, his begetting Mali after years of waiting and prayer; and this, with other references in the course of the book to Jagan’s relationship with his elder brother and the tragic way he lost his wife, completes the picture telling us all we need to know of him. (91)
Instances of verbal conflict between tradition and modernity are many in the text. The dialogues of conflict occurred between Jagan and Mali, Mali and Grace and Jagan and Grace. The main situations and dialogues expressing the conflicts are detailed in the following paragraphs.
Jagan felt very proud and even crazy to narrate his son’s letters to every one he met with, even strangers. But the only letter Jagan rigorously suppressed was the one in which Mali had written, after three years’ of experience of America:
“I’ve taken to eating beef; and I don’t think I’m any worse of it . . . Now I want to suggest why not 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?” (Narayan 56-57)
Jagan felt outraged when he read the letter. The shastras have defined the five deadly sins and the first in the list is the killing of cows. Jagan was an orthodox Hindu, a pure vegetarian and a Gandhian who believed in ahimsa.
Mali, Jagan’s son returning from America arrived at the railway station. There was a girl with him. Jagan was worried at the sight of the girl. “Matters became worse when Mali indicated the girl at his side and said, “This is Grace. We are married. Grace, my dad.” Complete confusion. Married? When were you married? You didn’t tell me. Don’t you have to tell your father? Who is she? . . .” (Narayan 58). Mali was influenced by the modern, western civilization and as a result he did not find it necessary to ask his father’s permission to get married. The selection of his spouse was also done by himself alone. This western style is in contrast to the traditional Indian style of arranged marriages. Love marriages are very rare even at present in India. Jagan had none in the world except his son for whom he devoted his life. He thought it improper and impolite to ask his son why he had married without his permission. That showed the intensity of his love towards his son. Naturally when his son did not return that love and reverence to him, one can imagine his mental conflicts.
Grace, though a Western, wanted to be a true Indian daughter-in-law to Jagan. Hence she wore sarees and did all household works. She started cleaning Jagan’s room and washed the vessels in his kitchen. Jagan’s protests were unheeded. “She clutched the broom and raked every corner of the floor saying, “Father, you think I mind it? I don’t. I must not forget that I’m an Indian daughter-in-law” (Narayan 62). As to please her father-in-law, Grace had to trouble and take much pain. She was not used to kitchen work in her own country.
Jagan wanted to know the whereabouts of Grace. Hence he told her, ““It is a custom in this country to inquire where one was born and bred and who is who generally, and then we go on to other things.”
“Only the passport and income-tax people ask for such details in other countries. However since I am also an Indian now, I might as well get used to things, and tell you something”” (Narayan 65). The conflict of two cultures—traditional Indian and the modern Western–are expressed in this dialogue. Since Jagan was educated he showed enough courtesy in asking her whereabouts indirectly and not bluntly as most Indians do.
Mali’s use of socks in India can be treated as modern western influence. The traditional Indians do not wear socks and they have their own reasons for not using it. Jagan, a professed Gandhian dislikes his son’s use of socks in his house. But he dares not to speak it out to Mali. To quote from the text:
He noticed that Mali wore socks under his sandals, and wanted to cry out, “Socks should never be worn because they are certain to heat the blood through interference with the natural radiation which occurs through one’s soles, and also because you insulate yourself against beneficial magnetic charges of the earth’s surface. I have argued in my book that this is one of the reasons, a possible reason, for heart attacks in European countries.” (Narayan 68)
Jagan’s argument against socks is ridiculous and not scientifically proved. Narayan has deliberately made Jagan speak such unreasonable things as to make the character humorous and comic. The novelist wants to speak out truth through comic situations and conversations. In South Indian climate socks and shoes are not necessities but they only cause discomfort. But Narayan tells this truth in an absurd manner.
The visit to Chinna Dorai’s garden and the spiritual discussion with him made much transformation in Jagan. He took Chinna Dorai, the bearded man as an angel sent to him. After the visit when he reached home his mind became perturbed again. He took the charka and started spinning. To quote from the text: “. . . the slight whirring noise of the wheel and the thread growing out of it between one’s thumb and forefinger were very comforting, stilling the nerves and thoughts. Gandhi had prescribed spinning for the economic ills of the country, but also for any deep agitation of the mind” (Narayan 121). Jagan’s cure of worries is the traditional one done and recommended by the sages. But modern man when confronted with stresses, take haven in drinks and drugs.
Jagan used ten-watt bulbs in his room and so there was only dim light inside. Mali who came to Jagan’s room with a telegram from the associates, complained, ““Why can’t you have brighter lights?”
Jagan replied, “Light rays should soothe the optic nerves and not stimulate them”” (Narayan 124). The present generation, both Indian and Western, never thinks like Jagan and their use of light and sound is highly detrimental to the sense organs. Similarly, under-light, as Jagan uses, is also harmful to the eyes and health.
When Jagan complained to the cousin that his son was living with Grace without getting married, the cousin replied:
“Our young men live in a different world from ours and we must not let ourselves be upset too much by certain things they do.”
. . . Jagan said, “This sort of thing is unheard of in our family. Even my grandfather’s brother, who was known to be immoral never did this sort of thing. When he was not married he never claimed that he was married, although . . .”
“I have heard my father speak about him. He was certainly married to three wives and had numerous other women. He never shirked a responsibility.”
. . . “I can’t understand how two young persons can live together like this without being married,” said Jagan.
. . . “I feel my home is tainted now. I find it difficult to go back there.” (Narayan 137)
Jagan, a traditional Indian man who believes in values can not imagine his son living immorally with a woman in his house. He believes that his house is defiled and hence he can not go back and live there.
The protagonist or the narrator of the story is only ‘the listener.’ In the conventional manner of story telling, comedy is reinforced here. Barry Argyle writes:
To refer to a protagonist simply as ‘the listener’, and to enlarge on him a little later only as ‘a cousin’, though how he came to be called so could not be explained, is to create in the reader’s mind an echo of the comedy of humours. But the echo is inexact. The ‘listener’, even when he becomes a ‘cousin’, is described by function not attribute. His function in the novel is defined by his relationship to Jagan: ‘His role was to help Jagan crystallize his attitudes in crisis. He is referred to as ‘practical, ‘clear-headed’, ‘rational’. (15-16)
The cousin’s name is deliberately hidden by the novelist. Jagan shares his sorrows and happiness with him and seeks advice whenever needed. The cousin visits Jagan’s shop every afternoon and checks the taste of each item. Jagan and the cousin spend in the shop speaking for hours and hours. But it’s very strange that Jagan has never called him by his name. Why his name is concealed is known only to the novelist. Unlike the Quixotic Jagan, the cousin is very mature, rational and practical-minded. The only flaw in him is that he flatters Jagan now and then. Of course it is justifiable since it serves his purpose.
The Vendor of Sweets deals with the trials of relationship and the separateness of generations between a father and his son. It is also a modish tale of East versus West. When one reads these obvious contrasts, he should not fail to notice the similarities. In the words of Barry Argyle, “Narayan is interested in the similarities, in states and feelings that might have been the same; but by using a modish vehicle he not only disguises his true concern . . . but also creates a tension between the apparent and the real. This tension duplicates the novels theme, which is the search for real values among many that are spurious or outworn” (35). Thus this novel may be treated not only as a ‘generation novel’ or a ‘national novel’ but a ‘universal novel.’
Jagan is an orthodox Hindu who tried to live according to Hindu scriptures and traditions. He professed to live by the principles of the Gita and Gandhi, but had to live in the particular necessities of his own condition. “He makes and sells sweets, makes a lot of profit, partially evades sales tax, but at the same time he claims to be a follower of Gandhi and the Gita” (Nanda 89). Jagan is a representative of thousands of Indians who outwardly appear to be very pious and straightforward, but their actions prove otherwise. To safeguard their selfish interests they find justification in their incongruities as Jagan did.
Narayan accepted the Hindu world view. To quote an example, when Mali told his father that he had never seen a more wasteful country than theirs the author made Jagan retort that they found it adequate for their purpose. Commenting on this D. S. Philip says, ““The purport of all this is clear: The West, enchanting as it may appear, threatens to destroy that given traditional life its values. The West, Narayan, says, is not a model Indians must imitate indiscriminately. This results in disruption rather than contentment”” (qtd. in Nanda 92-93).
Mali’s story-writing machine when viewed from Indian tradition is the ultimate profanity in the realms of art. “Mali tries to introduce the final depersonalization in an Americanized, mechanical concepts of art. Even the critical and evaluative process is to be mechanized with “a little fixture, by which any existing story could be split up into components and analysed”” (Nanda 93). Jagan refuses to invest his money in such a perversion of art as well as his tradition.
Towards the end of the novel the image carver, Chinna Dorai tells Jagan about the dancing figure of Nataraj which was so perfect that it began a cosmic dance and the town itself shook as if an earthquake had rocked it, until a small finger in the figure was chipped off. To quote Nanda:
This story of the dancing image gives an account of the Indian view of the perfection of art which partakes of the divine nature. The contrast of this view of art with the western conception of art propagated by Mali is instructive. In the Indian view, one had to strive for perfection in art. In the process one may transcend the illusory world of individuation and discord and achieve Nirvana suggested by the cosmic dance. (93)
Unlike many other novels of Narayan The Vendor of Sweets focuses attention on a limited number of people: Jagan, the protagonist, his son Mali, Mali’s companion Grace, Jagan’s ubiquitous cousin who is not given a name, Jagan’s wife Ambika, his parents, Chinna Dorai, the hair-blackener and sculptor and a few others. As the number of characters is limited it presents greater psychological subtlety and depth of the feeling than many other novels of Narayan (Jayantha 62).
The Vendor of Sweets is not merely an amusing story which depends for its comedy on the improbable and fantastic, but it has much depth than the apparent on the surface. To quote R. A. Jayantha, “While it seems to tell the amusing story of an eccentric and obscurantist father and his upstart son, and the game of hide and seek they play with each other, in point of fact it is built on a few inter-related themes of which the most readily obvious is the father-son motif” (62). The other themes are: youth versus age, the generation gap, tradition versus modernity, East versus West, and search or quest. The quest motif in the novel encompasses all the other themes. “Jagan the protagonist of the novel, by virtue of his circumstances of his life, engaged himself in different kinds of search. But he is not a deliberate and self-conscious quester, nor is he capable of sophisticated intellectual inquiry” (Jayantha 62).
Narayan’s fictional world Malgudi is the microcosm of Indian society revealing all diversity. “From the appearance of Narayan’s first novel Swami and Friends (1935) to the recent, The World of Nagaraj (1990), we are made aware of the steady encroachment of modernity and the resultant conflict between modernity and the traditional Malgudi life” (Nanda 88).
In Jagan, the reader may note of an autobiographical element. He can be called an alter ego of Narayan in some aspects. To quote Macdonald, “It may be that Narayan had a special sympathy for Jagan, since they both married at an early age, had one child (Narayan’s was a daughter) and lost their much loved wives at an early stage in the life of their children. And more important, Jagan and Narayan were both sixty years old at the time the novel was written. In Jagan, Narayan has created a character close to his own image” (155).
Argyle, Barry. “Narayan’s The Sweet Vendor.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 7.1. (Jun 1972): 33-44.
Jayantha, R. A. “Gandhi, “The Gita” and Gayatri in The Vendor of Sweets.” Triveni. 54.1 (Apr-Jun 1985): 61-72.
Macdonald, Bruce F. “Humanity and Aesthetic Order in The Vendor of Sweets.” Perspectives on R. K. Narayan. Ed. Atma Ram. Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1981. 151-159.
Nanda, Bijaya Kumar. “The Novels as a Social Construct: A Study of R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets.” Haritham.12. (2000): 88-94.
Narayan, R. K. The Vendor of Sweets. Chennai: Indian Thought Publications, 2006.
Sundaram, P. S. “The Vendor of Sweets.” R. K. Narayan as a Novelist. By
P. S. Sundaram. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation, 1988. 91-96.
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 international refereed biannual (ISSN 0974 – 7370) 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 in the Advisory and Editorial boards of several reputed journals. He can be contacted at:
Mob. Phone: 994794915
Land Phone: 04862 225758