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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Guide

I haven't been able to read much since my last post, so I'm going to write about some books I've already read. But I've got a good stack of books ready for my next post(s), including Gone With the Wind, Summer Moonshine, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Devil Wears Prada. I don't generally read the last type of book at all, but I've decided to give it a try...


I read Guide by R K Narayan for IB Literature. So far, I've only read Talkative Man, the Malgudi Days collection of short stories, and Guide by R K Narayan. I think I liked Malgudi Days best. I liked the other two, too, but so far I haven't been able to feel the love he seems to inspire in so many readers. It is a shocking gap in my repertoire as an Indian reader that I have begun to read R K Narayan (and other Indian authors) only recently, and I plan to begin to remedy that (I hope I used the word repertoire correctly).

If you've already read the book, you can skip the detailed summary in the next three paragraphs.

The Guide's storyline is pretty fascinating. Raju, the son of a small-time shopkeeper, grows up to become 'Railway Raju,' the owner of a railway shop and a tourist guide. He becomes quite well-known, and Marco, a learned tourist who wants to study some caves in Malgudi arrives with his wife, Rosie and asks for Raju. Rosie is a talented dancer, but Marco doesn't appreciate her gift; in fact he forbids her to dance at all, because he thinks it's a remnant of her lowly background (she is from a family of temple dancers). Raju, however, does appreciate her, and encourages her to continue dancing. They begin an affair, and when Marco finds out, he is furious and disowns her. Rosie then lives with Raju and his mother. Raju's mother disapproves of her, and the talk in the village is that a 'snake-dancer' has ensnared Raju. Eventually Raju receives an ultimatum from his mother at the prodding of his uncle: if Rosie continued to stay in the house, she would leave. Raju refuses to make Rosie leave, and this causes a break in his relationship with his mother that is never repaired. Raju then concentrates all his energy on supporting Rosie's career, and she eventually becomes famous as 'Nalini' (as 'Rosie' is not an appropriate name for a classical dancer). Nalini is brilliant, but Raju becomes extremely full of himself, convinced that he is the reason for her success. He is very controlling, booking all her appointments, controlling the finances, the household, even breaking up Nalini's time with friends by telling her she should rest. He becomes greedy and power-hungry, and she, dissatisfied; she begins to feel that she is selling her art - like a 'monkey on a rope' (that is a paraphrase, as I don't remember the exact wording). Raju is puzzled by her attitude. By now, his only goal in life is to keep making more money to support the lavish lifestyle he has created and to maintain appearances with the powerful friends he has made. Nalini, however, doesn't see the point in making so much money if they can never enjoy it. Raju tries to comfort her by telling her they will take a vacation as soon as all her present appointments are fulfilled, but she is not satisfied.

At this point, Marco sends Raju and Nalini a copy of a book he has written on the caves in Malgudi, as thanks for Raju's help. Paranoid about the effect this will have on Nalini (she believes that the fault is entirely hers, and he thinks that Marco's 'kindness' will make her regret being with him and cause her to idolize Marco), Raju does not show her the book. Nalini also receives a letter from Marco telling her to sign a document that will allow her to retrieve a jewellery box that is in his possession. However, Raju comes across this letter first, and instead of giving it to her, keeps it to himself in the same spirit of paranoia. Ultimately he forges Nalini's signature (she now signs herself 'Nalini Rose') and posts the document himself, rationalizing that she wouldn't mind, that what belongs to her belongs to him...This forgery is found out, and Nalini is aghast when the police take Raju aside at one of her programmes. She finds out that all of the money she has earned has been put into maintaining their expensive lifestyle, and she works very hard and sells off jewellery and other personal possessions to hire an expensive and reputed lawyer to fight Raju's case. She has, however, lost all faith in him, and after he is found guilty, she breaks off all contact with him.


Two years later, Raju is released from jail, having been the model prisoner, helping the warden with his garden, being very obedient, and never getting into altercations with any of the other prisoners. He is too ashamed to go back to Malgudi, and stops at a village, where he is mistaken for a sadhu (a saint) by a man named Velan. When he is able to solve Velan's problem (a recalcitrant sister), Velan spreads the word, and soon all the villagers are coming to Raju, bringing him fruits, clothes, and problems. He begins to give discourses everyday, pulling mythological episodes from his memory and imparting lessons. Raju never has a problem with talk. He is always able to say what the listener wants to hear. This way of life is very convenient for Raju, until drought strikes the village. The villagers get into a fight over some food, and Raju tells a dimwitted brother of Velan's that he will not eat until they cease to fight. This dimwitted brother twists the message, and informs the villagers that Raju will not eat until it rains. The villagers cease to fight, and rush to him, believing they are saved. He tries to explain what he actually said, but he is overwhelmed. And so begins Raju's epic fast, that results in the book's famously ambiguous ending.

The narration skips between first (Raju's point of view) and third person. This happens very effectively, and without inspiring any confusion. It allows the reader to see both Raju's mentality, and gain an insight into the viewpoints of other characters. The narrative style does not in anyway hamper the interesting-ness of the story. It does not bore anywhere, and keeps the reader quite hooked till the end.

The characters are all beautifully drawn. Raju, charming, corrupt, manipulative, adaptive, clever; Rosie/Nalini, loyal (I know that sounds odd considering she strays from her husband, but she refrains from abusing him after he disowns her, and helps Raju when he is caught, despite the fact that he is in the wrong and she really has no obligation to), passionate, frank, able to independently sustain herself once she has no men in her life; Marco, pedantic, cold, coldly just, indifferent, dispassionate; Velan, loyal and trusting; and a number of colourful supporting characters.


One of the nice things about the book was Raju's realization that Nalini had no need of either him or Marco. After he is out of her life, she continues to be successful and famous, handling her life perfectly by herself. Her passion and intelligence are more than enough for her to thrive on independence.

The Indian setting is nicely captured, although the social environment has far more importance than the political environment (the political environment actually does not play any role whatsoever). There is humour in the book, and Raju's transformation is moving. Raju is very likeable, despite  his dishonesty and manipulations (he is the 'lovable rascal'). As for the significance of the title - 'Guide' is a very fitting one, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Raju becomes something of a spiritual guide towards the end, doling out advice. As for the ambiguous ending, it is a little bit difficult to live with. I suppose, as a reader, one must just decide what one wants the ending to be, and settle with it.