R. K. Narayan: The Guide: A Study Guide (1958)

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R[asipuram] K[rishnaswamy] Narayan (1906-2001) is unusual among Indian authors writing in English in that he has stayed contentedly in his home country, venturing abroad only rarely. He rarely addresses political issues or tries to explore the cutting edge of fiction. He is a traditional teller of tales, a creator of realist fiction which is often gentle, humorous, and warm rather than hard-hitting or profound. Almost all of his writings are set in the fictional city of Malgudi, and are narrowly focused on the lives of relatively humble individuals, neither extremely poor nor very rich.

The Guideis one of his most interesting books, which begins as a comic look at the life of a rogue, but evolves into something quite different. It should be noted that Narayan is not a devout Hindu, and has accused Westerners of wrongly supposing that all Indians are deeply spiritual beings; but it is also true that he was deeply impressed by some experiences he had with a medium after the sudden death of his young wife (described movingly in The English Teacher (1945).

Narayan has stated that the incident of the reluctant holy man was based on a real event which he read about in the newspaper.


Chapter One

Why do you think Narayan chooses such an unusual way to introduce us to Raju? An anna is a very small coin. A maharaja is a traditional Indian prince. After the barber announces that Raju looks like a maharaja, the narrative takes an abrupt turn into the past. The incident of the villager who has come to consult with him in the next paragraph happened long ago.

Narayan further complicates the narrative flow by glancing forward to a time when he will tell this villager, named Velan, his life story, which brings him to Rosie, who will be introduced into the novel later. He then abruptly springs back into the distant past to briefly tell the story of his childhood and then return to Velan and his problem. Note the blank lines he has inserted in the narrative to mark the points at which the setting changes.

Explain the title of the novel. Traditional Indian temple dancers were dedicated to dancing for the gods, particularly Krishna. However, they also traditionally supported themselves through prostitution, and temple-dancing was eventually suppressed. Modern "classical dancers" are often highly respectable women who practice the art out of devotion to dance rather than religion. Look for passages in the novel which portray both negative and positive images of such dancers. "Betel leaf" is the mild stimulant chewed by many Indians and wrongly called "betel nut" because it is often served wrapped around an areca nut. "Parched gram" is roasted lentils, a staple in India. The pyol is a sort of front stoop where Indians often visit with neighbors and watch the world going by. Tamil is one of the many important languages of India, especially common in the south. Narayan has depicted himself as a poor student and a rebellious son, a self-portrait he has repeated over and over from Swami and Friends (1935) forward. What attracts the boy Raju more than his lessons?

The story told about the Buddha is one of the most common lessons attributed to him; but would not necessarily be widely known by Indians, few of whom are Buddhists. What is its meaning? How do you think Raju is able to predict what Velan will say when he begins discussing his troubles? Note that Velan wants to treat Raju as a saint: a theme that will recur later in the novel. Why does Raju hope the girl is uninteresting? Jewelry is a necessity for any woman in India: a form of bank account and a sign of respectability. Thefts of such jewelry are quite rare. Idli are small steamed cakes of ground rice and fermented lentils, usually eaten for breakfast. Raju is posing as a holy man. How good is he at it?

Another flashback returns us to his childhood for a few pages. Fermented lime-pickle, intensely sour, is a favorite Indian condiment, or chutney. What do we learn about his character from this story? Can you see any qualities that he may have inherited from his father? The fact that he never heard the end of the story about Devaka may foreshadow the end of his own story. Devaka was the grandfather of the god Krishna on his mother's side.

"Transmigration" means reincarnation, another life. How useful is Raju's message to Velan?


Chapter Two

We now return to Raju's childhood. Recitation aloud is the traditional method of education. What kind of school does he attend? Jaggery is a brown crystalline sweetener made from the sap of the kitul palm.

Raju interrupts the story of his education to return to Velan. A "partition suit" would be a lawsuit involving property lost in the division ("partition") of India at independence, when Pakistan was created out of the northern regions. Marriage with cousins is not uncommon. Almost all weddings are planned with the advice of astrologers. Why does he gain such a reputation as wise man ( yogi )? A "great soul" is a mahatma, the title given to Mohandas K. Gandhi. What do you think are Raju's real motives for seeking isolation and quiet? Note Raju's fear that Velan might suppose that he didn't need food. In fact in the last and holiest stage of a Hindu mystic's life he should voluntarily starve to death. Temples are everywhere in India; it is not at all implausible that someone should show up and announce himself as priest of an abandoned one. There is no formal priesthood, no systematic way to become a holy man: one merely earns the respect and veneration of other worshipers. A plantain is a large, firm, rather bland relative of the banana: a very cheap source of nourishment. What indication is there that the boy is not awed by Raju?


Chapter Three

We return again to the narrative of his childhood. Bagpipes were introduced into India by the British, and often played at festive official events. The coconuts are broken on the tracks as an act of sacrifice, but there is also an analogy to smashing a bottle of champagne on the prow of a new ship when it is launched. A jutka is a modest horse-drawn taxi. "Horse gram" is grain to feed the horse. Raju was exposed to fraud early in his life. What effect do you think it had on him?


Chapter Four

Back to "the present." Describe Raju's thoughts and behavior during the negotiations with the schoolmaster. The Ramayana is the traditional epic of the heroic deeds of the god Rama, the most popular collection of stories in India.

Again we go back into Raju's childhood. "Biscuits" are baked goods like cookies, rather than what Americans call biscuits. What skills did Raju learn while working in the station shop?

His own exceedingly informal education provides the background for the next scene, where he "teaches" the children. Why does Raju urge independent thought on his listeners. What effects do the villagers' belief in him have on Raju?


Chapter Five

Again we return to Raju's youth. Why do you think the novel alternates between the story of Raju's career as a guru and his earlier life? How did he become a guide? What are his opinions of travelers? Parvathi (more commonly "Parvati") is the consort of the god Shiva. According to this legend, she would have voluntarily leapt into a fire, creating the source of the Sarayu River, which flows into the Ganges. This is not a common story about Parvathi. Can you tell me whether Narayan is just making it up? What kind of guide is he? What sorts of techniques does he use? Note how casually Rosie is introduced into the story, long after we have been told about her influence on Raju's life. The dhoti is a common loose, baggy cloth used as trousers by men. A jibba is a sort of shirt. Cobras are actually deaf: what they react to is the swaying of the been , the snake-charmer's instrument here called a "flute." It is actually a rather nasal-sounding reed instrument with a gourd at one end to develop the sound. A tout is a sort of go-between who arranges and promotes business. How does Raju's passion for Rosie develop? Traditional Indian housewives cook and serve while the men eat, then eat their own food afterwards. "Lead, Kindly Light" is the title of a popular hymn. Why did Rosie marry her husband? A dhobi is a laundry. Note that at the time this novel was written Raju's persistence at the end of the chapter would not have been viewed as negatively as it might be today.


Chapter Six

Back to the village temple. Dasara (also called Dussehra or Durga Puja) is devoted to the powerful goddess Durga. Deepavali (now usually called Divali ) is the annual festival celebrating the return of the sun after the rainy season, very popular all over Hindu India and celebrates the victory of Rama over Ravana. Since Durga is a famous demon-slayer, both are festivals celebrating victories over demons. More information on Dasara. More information on Deepavali. How is Raju being affected by his life as a holy man? Swamiji: "-ji" is an honorific suffix. The villagers are not as unusually superstitious as one might suppose; many Westerners wondered in the fifties whether jet planes and nuclear bomb tests might have altered the weather. What are the main effects of the drought? Raju got the idea of threatening a fast in order to stop the fighting from Mahatma Gandhi, who put an end to violent conflicts during the struggle for independence by fasting nearly to death. How is his threat transformed? When Velan says "We derive merit from watching your face" he is alluding to the Hindu belief in darshan, according to which witnessing holy objects or persons is a spiritual blessing. Velan's description of the proper procedures for Raju to follow are those used by the real holy man on whose story this novel is based. Sadhu: holy man. Why doesn't Raju run away? At the end of the chapter we learn how Raju came to be telling Velan the story which makes up the rest of this novel.


Chapter Seven

Jawaharlal Nehru, close associate of Gandhi in the struggle for independence, was India's first prime minister (1947-1964) . Who do you think is most to blame for Rosie's unhappiness? Why? Why do you think Raju has not referred to her dancing again? Nataraja is an incarnation of the creator/destroyer God Shiva, who danced the world into existence. More information about Nataraja. Why does he encourage her dancing? A pundit is a scholar. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the two classical epics of Hinduism, filled with tales often enacted by dancers. The main theme of temple dancing is love for a god, expressed in the metaphors of human love between woman and man. This is why Rosie says "Lover means always God"--in this case Krishna, who was born as a human and passed through all the stages of mortal life. What is the effect of her dancing on Raju? What are "Marco's" attitudes toward his wife? What do you think has happened to change Rosie's behavior toward Raju? When Raju talks about suffering "the usual symptoms," what is he referring to? A "tank" is a reservoir such as all Hindus like to have nearby for bathing, washing clothes, etc. According to one legend, the River Ganges tried to destroy the god Shiva, but he absorbed it into his hair.

Discuss Raju's mother's reactions to Rosie and how they change. What was Marco's reaction to Rosie's desire to dance? Othello murdered his wife Desdemona out of (mistaken) jealousy. What does Rosie mean by saying "I thought that Othella was kindlier to Desdemona?" What does Raju's mother think is the solution to dealing with problematic husbands? Savitri succeeded in persuading Yama, the god of death, to restore her husband Satyavan to life. She is the archetype of the devoted wife in Hindu mythology. Just as most students in Narayan's fiction do poorly in school, most of his businessmen go bankrupt. Saithan: devil.


Chapter Eight

What conflicting feelings does Raju's mother have toward Rosie? A godown is a sort of warehouse. What is Raju's reaction to his legal problems? Note how the power of the extended Indian family sweeps over the individual when Raju's uncle arrives. Pan or Paan is betel leaf wrapped around areca nut, the habitual stimulant of many Indians. "Quit" means "leave." Meena Kumari was a Hindi film star famous for her dancing. It is as if an American actress of the fifties were trying to choose a stage name and her boyfriend suggested "Marilyn Monroe"--hardly original, or practical. Note how Rosie's artistry overcomes the doubts of the Union officials. Temple-dancing was still struggling to overcome its negative reputation.


Chapter Nine

What effect does it have to alternate the story of Raju's success with Rosie with his troubles as a holy man in the village? Why isn't his life story in strict chronological order? How does Raju react to Rosie's success? Saraswathi is a goddess of knowledge and scholarship. Her image is often placed in libraries. Sabha: village council . How does Raju's tendency to simply forget about troublesome issues complicate his life? What do you make of Rosie's change in attitude toward Marco? Karma is fate.


Chapter Ten

Brinjals are eggplants. Which of Raju's personality traits are manifested in prison? What affect does his imprisonment have on Rosie/Nalini?


Chapter Eleven

Finally the narrative times fuse together as Raju finishes telling the story of his life to Velan. What effect does it produce to have this chapter follow the story of his disaster with Nalini? How is Raju changed by his fast? Why does the anti-malaria film fail to deliver its intended message? What do you think of the end of the novel? Is it ambiguous? What tone do you think it has: sad, comic, tragic . . . ? What evidence is there that Raju is deluded at the end?


Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

Modern South Asian Literature in English
For more about Narayan and other South Asian writers, see Paul Brians' Modern South Asian Literature in English .

First mounted May, 1995

Last revised September 24, 2008.

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