Review of ‘The Vendor of Sweets’ by R K Narayan

Narayan mentions a pithy 1-liner in the tale that could well serve the purpose of being its synopsis : ‘A money-making sweet-maker with a spoilt son’. But that is a bit too simplistic as the narrative is layered with meaning.

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Jagan with son Jagan & his companion Grace in an episode of Vendor of Sweets  Image Courtesy – Viki

We are back in Malgudi but the tone of the story is sad and sorrowful. There is no longer the cheer and fun that were part of his early tales. And even the fantastic concoction of a factory meant to manufacture ‘novel-writing’ machines and cousin as a variant of the ‘Talkative Man’ can’t quite cheer us up.

The writer’s sympathy is clearly with Jagan as the entire tale unfolds from his point of view and he is the most well-drawn figure in the narrative. And he is a complex character – a frugal Gandhian who is also shrewd & miserly businessman., Although he is a believer of Gita & spiritualism, he still can’t resist the lure of cooking his books (along with his sweets) in order to evade taxes. Even the final act of renunciation of all worldly ties is comically accompanied with him carrying his Bank Book as he doesn’t want to relinquish his control.

And Jagan is a more complex character with shades of meaning attached to his love for naturopathy and his aversion for all foreign things. He is a widower with fond memories of his wife and their early days of marriage. But the most poignant contributor to his persona is his strained relationship with his only child, Mali. Of course Mali has no redeeming qualities (by the time the tale ends he is stuck in Jail for a petty offence) but Narayan subtly blames Jagan for the sorry state of affairs.

Another facet of the story is the interaction Jagan has with the man he simply calls Cousin. The Cousin, a variant of Narayan’s Talkative Man, is extremely dexterous in sensing his moods and troubles. He became Jagan’s interlocutor in managing his various affairs including communicating to his own son Mali. It is most amusing to see the Cousin’s attempt to sense Jagan’s state of mind and respond suitably with soothing and reassuring words. Quite often the discourse flies in the face of logic and common sense but one can’t deny that the Cousin knows how to manage Jagan.

Mali’s three-year trip to America is narrated with great enthusiasm as the father is hopeful of him learning something useful that will provide a suitable vocation on his return. Instead Mali disappoints him first by vaguely mentioning about being married to Grace, a half-Korean and half-American girl.

Grace seems to be an interesting character as she takes a social interest in Jagan and wants to serve the role of an ideal daughter-in-law. But even her narrative is patchy and inconsistent. And finally Jagan loses trust in her when he learns that she is not even married to Mali. Mali’s preposterous proposal to invests lakhs of rupees in manufacturing ‘Novel-Writing’ machine in collaboration with an American partner is creative proposal that Narayan cooks up. It is so bizarre but Narayan paints an earnest air about it since Mali’s devotes all his time and energies in trying to bring his pet project to fruition.

Finally a disillusioned Jagan realizes the meaninglessness of his life and existence. He decides to move away but is still not able to resist the temptation of holding on to the purse-strings. He thus continues to be the guiding force for his ‘sweet shop’ and his wastrel son.

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