The acceptance of one homogenised Indian culture, i.e., Hinduism, in general, and Brahminical cult, in particular, is the basic assumption of this article, which aims at examining the process of transformation from egotism to mysticism in the central character in R.K.Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets. The Hindu religion from time immemorial inspires men and women to follow the principle of tolerance, sacrifice, and mystic belief in the divine. The attainment of these virtues can only be possible by a Hindu if he can annihilate his egotism. This article aims at showing how Jagan, the protagonist of R.K. Narayan with all his Indian values of life, and being intellectually challenged by western ways of looking at life, completes his journey from egotism to mysticism. Prof. Chakraborty in this in-depth research article, explores various layers, exclusively for Different Truths.
Tolerance and mystic realisation are the essential foundations of Indianness. The acceptance of one homogenised Indian culture, i.e., Hinduism, in general, and Brahminical cult, in particular, is the basic assumption of this article, which aims at examining the process of transformation from egotism to mysticism in the central character in R.K.Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets. The Hindu religion from time immemorial inspires men and women to follow the principle of tolerance, sacrifice, and mystic belief in the divine. The attainment of these virtues can only be possible by a Hindu if he can annihilate his egotism. Egotism, i.e., the importance of the first person pronoun ‘I’, which is detrimental to man’s spiritual fulfillment is his most formidable enemy in this world. Belief in the divine, in all living organisms, is an important creed of the Vedanta philosophy1. The Soul that is indestructible is Brahma2. Every devout Hindu believes that the divine exists everywhere. This unwavering conviction of a Hindu that is intrinsically connected with the Vedanta Philosophy makes him tolerant to all. Everything animate or inanimate in this world is sacred. This is the Indian attitude to life. So, every action a devout Hindu is basically altruistic and non-violent. One would not hurt something which one revered. A fundamentalist always welcomes the belief that everything is divided into ‘two often very separate or contradictory parts, and those two contradictory parts are good or bad, man or nature, God and Devil’ and so on. This belief in duality encourages the division of mankind into friends and foes. And in this belief, the principle of non-violence is absolutely redundant. The derivation of sacrifice, tolerance, non-violence and mystic belief is discernible in the Vedas, Upanishads, Dharma Shasta’s, Yoga Sutras and other Scriptures of Hinduism. Let me refer to the relevant excerpt in English translation from the Scripture:
Let the earth, the atmosphere, the heavens, the waters, the herbs, the plants and trees, all the radiant things be each a source of peace and comfort for me. May all the learned people bless me with peace, comfort, and happiness, through all means of pacification. May I attain the perfect state of calmness by all and sundry means of peace. Whatever there is terrifying in the world, whatever there is cruel in the world, whatsoever there is evil in this world; let all that be peace-giving, let all that be gracious, let all that be harmless for us.
(The Atharva Veda, X.p.735)
The virtuous, according to the Veda, are those who are free from ‘hatred’ and ‘inordinate affection.’ Where there is an abhorrence, there must be aggression.The absence of the belief in duality in the Vedanta philosophy is one of the facets of Indianness.
This article aims at showing how Jagan, the protagonist of R.K.Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets with all his Indian values of life, and being intellectually challenged by western ways of looking at life, completes his journey from egotism to mysticism. The novel begins with a direct reference to the fundamentals of the Vedanta philosophy. Jagan, the protagonist of the novel, addresses his cousin saying that he should conquer his taste and then only he will succeed in conquering his self. (“Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self”) (VS, 1). Here the second part of the quote, “and you will have conquered the self” means that your egotism will have been defeated. Once a man succeeds in effacing his own self, i.e., in annihilating of his own ego, he finds no difference between him and any living organism. To him then, his own self remains no longer significant. He finds the presence of the divine in every object of the Universe. To him then, violence or aggression, abhorrence or dislike of anyone in any form, is self-destructive. Thus, the introduction of the central character in the novel at the very beginning makes readers feel that the protagonist is a typically Hindu saint.
But as the novel progresses a reader can hardly overlook the fact that Jagan is a person who is full of contradictions. Jagan champions the need of ‘self-effacement’ and frequently refers to the name of Gandhiji, and at the same time, like a smart business man, he reduces the price of sweets for selling his daily stock within a short time. The cook and other employees in his shop think that Jagan resorts to this business policy only to win the market. He is very much interested in making money by temporarily lowering the price of sweets for ousting other sweet-sellers from the competitive market and at the same time evading sales tax to the Government. The authorial comment on Jagan’s interest in money matters is relevant:
Jagan gave a final look at the cash in the drawer, locked it carefully, tugged the handle four times, . . . He put a huge brass lock on the door, turned the key and put it in his pocket, and said,” Captain ! See if the lock is all right”. (V S, 14)
The authorial comment here leads readers to consider Jagan as either a man of contradictions or a hypocrite, who professes one thing and practises something else. Wearing the mask of a religious Hindu he goes on accumulating wealth by even evading sale tax to the government. Yet he claims to be a champion of the principle of Mahatma Gandhi. Let us see what the narrator says on Jagan’s reluctance to pay sales tax to the government:
He had a habitual, instinctive, and inexplicable uneasiness concerning tax. If Gandhi had said somewhere, “Pay your sales tax uncomplainingly,” he would have followed his advice, but Gandhi had made no reference to sales tax anywhere (to Jagan’s knowledge) (V S, 111)
However, William Walsh characterises Jagan with a little bit of sympathy. He comments:
Jagan is both a comic and an anguished figure: comic in his innocent combination of commercial sharpness, fiscal duplicity, vanity, and genuine reverence for Gandhian spirituality; anguished in his lacerated relationship with his sullen, brutish son Mali. (Ed.C.N.Srinath, 159)
A careful reading of the text reveals that Jagan is not comic in his outlook. He is shrewd enough to increase his wealth.
The East-West Confrontation
Jagan experiences three-tier responses to the East-West confrontation. Here the East-West confrontation refers to the antagonism of two viewpoints; one is the western attitude to life, and, the second one, is the traditional Hindu outlook on life and these two viewpoints are diametrically opposite to each other. Jagan’s strong stand against the Western way of life is the first response. Being the head of the family he believes that his opinion is final and decisive. He is very demanding. He wants everyone in his family to follow what he asks him to do. He believes that the physical ailments of his wife will surely be healed by the medicinal prescription of the Ayurvedic 3 system of herbal treatment. His wife, on the contrary, is in the habit of taking pills regularly for her headache. Jagan has little belief in Allopathic treatment. In his personal life, he dislikes sugar; instead of sugar he takes ‘twenty drops of honey’ every day, he brushes his teeth by margosa twigs. He hates toothbrush and paste. He hates “intolerable European habit(s)”. And he wants his wife to follow him rigorously. He is a typically Hindu patriarch who believes that his role in every decision of the members of his family is final. He expects his wife and his son to accept without any question his ideas of right and wrong.
The second response makes him a little bit confused and confounded when he finds that his son wants to quit college. Mali decides to quit college because he does not like a college education. He wants to be a creative writer and for this reason, he wants to go to America for joining a course on creative writing. Jagan becomes very upset. By that time his wife dies. Naturally, like a typically doting Indian father, Jagan becomes emotionally dependent upon his son. After the death of his wife, Jagan looks very much concerned about the well-being of his son. He starts cooking regularly for his son. But Mali is very much reluctant to see his father cooking for him. He asks his father to engage a domestic help; so that he can cook for them. Jagan becomes very much upset. The conversation between the father and the son in this context is interesting to note:
“I don’t believe in engaging any cook”.
“Do we engage a servant to do the breathing for us? Food is similar”.
“Oh, father! Father!” the boy cried, “Don’t you engage cooks in your sweetmeat shop?”
“Oh, that’s different. It’s like a factory and they are specialists and technicians” said Jagan, giving full rein to his imagination. (V S, 24)
Here Jagan appears to be a Gandhite who believes that one should perform all one’s chores including washing one’s clothes, preparing one’s own food, cleaning the house where one lives, etc. One should not depend on others in one’s daily life. One should even make one’s clothes by Handloom, i.e., Charka. 4 Jagan runs his Charka every day. The father and the son belong to two generations. Jagan’s attitude to his son is overprotective and it is typically Indian. Jagan cannot conceive of the idea that this overprotection tends to preclude his son’s normal growth.
Emotional and Spiritual Predicament
Jagan does not accept what his son plans for his career, nor does he openly oppose him. It is a kind of emotional as well as spiritual predicament that confronts him. It is almost impossible for him to think how his son takes decisions about his own career independently. At the same time, he becomes too helpless to oppose what his son wants to do. ‘An invisible barrier’ between the father and the son gradually grows. With deep anguish, Jagan finally assents to what his son, Mali, plans to do. What finally prompts his assent is his deep-rooted expectation that Mali will acquire the appropriate knowledge in America and return to India. He will thus boost up his father’s social prestige.
Jagan’s expectation after his son’s return to India is not, however, fulfilled. First, it becomes very difficult for him to accept Grace as his daughter in law. Mali introduces Grace saying, “This is Grace. We are married. Grace, my dad” … “Married? When were you married? You didn’t tell me. Don’t you have to tell your father? Who is she?” First of all, to a typical Indian father who believes in Indian heritage, a son cannot marry a girl without the prior consent of his father. Marriage is an arranged one among Hindus. The entire marriage process must go through religious rituals in the presence of parents and especially invited guests who confer social sanction on the newly married couple.
Second, the Brahminical cult of the Hindu society does not permit any inter-caste marriage even among Hindus. The Hindu society is caste-divided. The third factor is more of a sin even than the first two. A Hindu cannot marry a person of a different religion. If he does, he ceases to be a Hindu. According to an old Hindu code of conduct, if a Hindu once visits England or America or any part of the world outside the Indian sub-continent, he no longer remains a Hindu. To be a Hindu again, he needs expiation through a particular religious ceremony, i.e., Prayaschitto. 5 Jagan later comes to know that Grace’s mother is a Korean and her father an American, and she herself is a Christian. How can he then accept the Christian Grace as his daughter in law? Mali upsets Jagan’s innermost Hindu sensibilities. Still, they all start living together in the same house. On one occasion Jagan wants to talk to his son. So he tells Grace to inform him of this. Grace goes up to Mali’s room, returns within a few minutes. She tells Jagan to wait for fifteen minutes because Mali is busy then with his type-writer. In the present social or family context both in India and abroad this event is very common. But to Jagan, it is very humiliating. He is conditioned to the age-old custom that a son under no circumstances can keep his father waiting even for a minute. Seeking an appointment to talk to his son is beyond his imagination. After a couple of minutes, Grace leads him to Mali’s room. Here Narayan uses a noteworthy phrase in his authorial comment, “Jagan took the visitor’s chair” (V S, 76). The phrase “visitor’s chair” is significant. Jagan being the father of Mali cannot be a visitor to his son’s room. ‘Visitors’ are outsiders. The reference to these events in this context is to show the difference in the ethos of two cultures, i.e., the traditional Indian culture and the culture of the West. The tension in Jagan’s mind mounts up gradually because of events like these.
Jagan’s anxiety grows further when he comes to know that Mali wants to start a business at that tiny town in collaboration with an American company and for doing that he wants his father to be a partner of his company against the payment of ‘a little over two lakhs of rupees’. With his father’s money he wants to buy the ‘story-machine’. Jagan finally confesses that he is not interested in investing that money in this entrepreneurship. He justifies his decision with the argument that “Gandhi always advocated poverty and not riches” (V S, 89).The result is an ideological encounter between the father and the son. Indeed this is an encounter between two attitudes to life.
Two Approaches of Life
The tension and anxiety arising out of this confrontation between the two approaches of life reaches its climax when Mali announces that Grace will go back to America. Jagan does not find any connection between his reluctance to spend any money for his son’s business and Grace’s going back to America. Jagan with all his bitterness has accepted Grace as his son’s wife. But when he hears Mali saying, “She has come here for the project, to work with me; didn’t you see her name in the notice?” he is totally confused. He is unaware of what Mali thinks about his wife. Jagan’s world always asserts that “a wife must be with her husband, whatever happens” (V S, 127).The concept of separation between husband and wife is alien to Hindu belief. Later on, he discovers that Mali and Grace are not even institutionally married and this discovery totally disorients him. He is shocked to see that his son has ‘tainted his ancient home’ by living together with a woman in sin. To Mali, nothing is wrong in ‘living together’. This ‘East-West confrontation’ is one of the themes of Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets. The following conversation between Jagan and his cousin is interesting in this context:
The cousin gave a clear-headed statement. “Get through their marriage very quickly in the hill temple. It can be arranged within a few hours”.
“Alas, I don’t know what her caste is; so how can I?”
“Oh, she can be converted. I know some persons who will do it”.
(V S, 139)
One can be a Hindu by birth only. Grace cannot be converted into Hinduism according to the strict rule of this religion but with the change in the values of Indian society in the later part of the nineteenth and the twentieth century, chiefly because of the British colonisation of India, a sort of compromise formula has been evolved for the sake of the individual’s convenience, hence the reference to the conversion of Grace into Hinduism. Jagan has lost his wife. Nobody in his extended family likes him. He is totally ostracised by his brother and sister. His affection for his only son Mali eventually leads him to think of Grace’s conversion into his religion and subsequently solemnising their marriage through Hindu rituals for social acceptability. This scheme suggested by his cousin does not materialize.
Jagan starts living in his house making him totally insulated from the other part of the house where Mali lives. Jagan is not even aware of whether Grace has left for America or not. Jagan’s response to the East-West confrontation reaches its climax at this stage resulting in an expected turn in his later life.
Instead of accepting his son’s way of life, Jagan becomes a totally different person. He becomes a Hindu mystic. This is Jagan’s third and final response to East-West confrontation. The novelist at this moment of Jagan’s emotional predicament shows how the protagonist repeatedly remembers that he is sixty years old and may live another ten or fifteen years at the most. This is very significant in the context of the attitudinal change in his life. He thought earlier that his house was tainted by his son because he and Grace were not married but lived together in his house. Now he feels:
It’s (my house) tainted, but it was not my house that’s tainted. It is his. Who am I to grumble and fret? I am sixty, and I may live for only ten or fifteen years more, whereas Mali, with or without his story machine, will have to go on for fifty years or more in that house. May he be blessed with longevity! (V S, 175)
No Grudge against Son
Now, Jagan feels nothing against his son. He does not bear any grudge against him. His mind is filled with benevolence for him. Jagan only seeks a way of life that will bring fulfillment for him. He now realises that he is alone in this world and belongs to no one-else. According to Hindu religion a man’s life is divided into four stages and they are Brahmyacharjya, Garhasta, Banoprasto and Sannyas 6. Jagan has reached the stage of Sannyas in his life; so he should be in search of deliverance through the process of renunciation of this life and this world.
An excerpt which immediately follows in the same chapter of the novel is quite interesting:
An hour later, after his morning ablutions and nourishment, he came out of his house carrying a little bundle, in which among other things was included his charka. “It’s a duty I owe Mahatma Gandhi. I made a vow before him that I would spin every day of my life. I’ve got to do it, whether I’m at home or in a forest. (V S,176)
Jagan’s progress from egotism to mysticism is not complete at this moment of his life because he owns the key of his house. What would he do with that key? The key is the symbol of ownership and possession. He must free himself from the responsibility of owning the key of his house, for he now realizes the meaninglessness of worldly possessions. He decides to hand over the key of his house to his brother. Finally, he leaves his home and takes refuge in the mystic world of his own. Hindu mysticism is a realisation of the existence of spiritual rebirth. Once a man is in the state of Sannyas, he starts pursuing religious experiences. He then tries to unite himself with the divine. He can also establish communion with the Absolute Reality or God through trance-like meditation. The spiritual quest for this unique realisation has nothing to do with his intellectual comprehension of the life and the world. It is a particular psychic state of mind which no other individual can share. It is a highly private and individualistic realisation. A Hindu mystic is a lone person. Towards the end of his life Jagan attains this mystic realisation. A reference to the Bhagavad Gita in this context is relevant:
Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya
Navani grhnati naroparani;
Tatha sairani vihaya jirnani
Anyani samyati navani dehi
(The Madbhagavadgita, SankhyoJog, p.47)
(As the embodied person throws away a worn out dress and puts on a new one, so does the embodied Self discard worn out bodies and adopt other new ones.—Translated by Swami Ranganathananda, p. 134)
During the last phase in Jagan’s life, i.e. the stage of Sannyas, he is in search of this mystic realisation. This is the realisation of the Brahma. Any attempt to explain this realisation of the Brahma with the help of reason will be futile. He does not even care for his only son when his son is arrested by the police for keeping ‘half a bottle of alcohol in his car’. He develops a kind of indifference to all worldly affairs. Towards the end of the novel, Jagan says:
I don’t care what he does. I am going to watch a Goddess come out of a stone. If don’t like the place, I will go away somewhere else. I am a free man. I’ve never felt more determined in my life. I’m happy to have met you now, but I’d have gone away in any case. Everything can go on with or without me. The world doesn’t collapse even when a great figure is assassinated or dies of heart failure. Think that my heart has failed, that’s all. (V S, 184)
Jagan attains this mystic realisation in keeping with the Hindu view of life. He is not scared of his death because he now realises:
Jatasya hi dhruvo mrtyuh dhruvam janma mrtasya ca;
Tasmadapariharyerthe na tvam socitumarhasi
(The Madbhagavadgita, SankhyoJog, p.50)
Whoever is born, to him or her death is certain; to the dead, birth is also certain; it is not, therefore, fit for you to mourn for this unavoidable fact. (Translated by Swami Ranganathananda, p. 143)
He now believes that ‘everything can go with or without’ him. He realises “the oneness of things”; he is now “free from fear, free from attachment, free from desires”. He is “then really free”. He is “pure”; he is “also immortal” (Swami Lokeswarananda, pp.183-84). At this stage of his life Jagan’s egotism is completely defeated. He seeks his deliverance through renunciation. Even after his son’s arrest by the police, Jagan’s concern for his son is undeniable but at the same time he is determined that he must renounce everything in life. This transformation in his attitude to life is neither abrupt nor casual. The East-West confrontation and its consequent tension which R.K.Narayan has experienced in his own life have been reflected in the character of Jagan.
1. Vedanta philosophy is one of the significant system of Hindu, particularly monistic philosophy—the philosophy that is based on the Upanishads. The Vedanta philosophy underlines the divine is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. According to this philosophy a man is born in this world to complete his unfinished work. He goes on working his specified jobs through several births. Once he completes his work he is then united with the divine. The soul is indestructible. Even death cannot destroy the soul. So every death is a re-birth. The following lines of a poem written by Wordsworth
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who our home;
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
It shows the poet’s belief in the pre-natal or ante-natal existence of Soul – the belief which is one of the fundamentals of the Vedanta philosophy.
2. Brahma is the creator of this Universe. He is the one of the Hindu Trinity that includes Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Brahma is the Soul of every living organism in this Universe. He is infinite and the only ‘source of all space, time, causation, names and forms’.
3. The Ayurvedic system of treatment pertains to Hindu medical tradition. The Ayurveda is also a science of life. The Vedic philosophy believes that human beings are the inseparable part of nature and the treatment is totally based on herbal medicine. “The Ayurveda dates back an estimated 5,000-10,000 years and is widely considered to be the oldest form of healthcare in the world”.
4. The charkha or spinning wheel is a symbol of non- violence, freedom and economic growth during the time of freedom movement in India.The Charkha is an emblem of self-reliance and it is a sure source of earning for the rural Indian folk. It is adorned on the flag of the Indian Congress.
5. Prayaschitto, according to the Vishnu Puran of the Hindu religion, means “expiation”. If one commits anything sinful one needs to make Prayaschitto or Expiation which involves a kind of religious ritual.
6. Brahmyacharjya, Garhasta, Banoprasto and Sannyas are the four stages in the life of a Hindu according to the Veda and a true Hindu needs to pass through all these four stages of his life in this world for his spiritual fulfillment. During the period of the Brahmyacharjya i.e., from his childhood to the youth, a Hindu, according to the caste to which he belongs, will either learn skills or attain knowledge, e.g., if he is a Brahmin, he should study the Vedas and other Classics all written in Sanskrit. A Brahmin belongs to the upper caste of the Hindu society. This period is called Brahmyacharjya.The Garhasta begins with the marriage of a Hindu. After marriage he should take care of his family. He must help his progenies develop both economically as well as spiritually. He is a complete family man performing all his duties to the members of his family. Then he is the supreme authority in his family. The third stage i.e., Banoprasto is a preparatory period in the life of a Hindu for going into Sannyas. During this period of Banoprasto he will try to gradually withdraw himself from all mundane affairs of life. The final stage in the life of a Hindu is Sannyas which means total renunciation of everything worldly. During this period of his life, i.e., the last phase in his life, his only aim is to travel to the next life or to the domain of the divine by “crossing the bar”.
The primary source I have used in my article is the following:
Narayan, R.K., The Vendor of Sweets. Mysore: Indian Thought Publications, 2001.
The Atharva Veda, Trans.Devi Chand, Introduction by M.C.Joshi, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2002.
Quoted from Walsh William, “Narayan’s Maturity: The Man-Eater of Malgudi, The Sweet-Vendor and The Painter of Signs”, R.K.Narayan, Ed.C.N.Srinath, Delhi: Pencraft International, 2005
The Madbhagavadgita, ed. Swami Jagodanando, Belur Ramkrishno Math: Udbodhon Kariayaloy, 1961.
The Bhagavad Gita, Vol.1, Ed. Swami Ranganathananda, Kolkata: Advaita Ashram, 2000 Katha Upanisad Translated by Swami Lokeswarananda, Kolkata: The Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1993.
The abbreviated form of The Vendor of Sweets is VS (found in the following book: Thieme, John. R.K.Narayan, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007
Photo from the internet.
#RKNarayan #ManchesterUniversityPress #TheVendorOfSweets #Books #DifferentTruths
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