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The Guide: Narayan's Representation of Society

Updated on November 14, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

The Guide: Microcosm of India

The Guide offers a comprehensive picture of society since it moves between Malgudi and the village and surroundings of Mangal. The locale of the novel, spanning the small town, the village and the other big cities where Rosie is invited to dance, is typical of the places in which most Indians live, and thus becomes a microcosm of India. It is this representative quality that makes the story more than merely regional. Through the social portrait of a single region, RK Narayan succeeds in presenting the larger picture of the society, both in its general features and as well as in its specifically post-independence aspects.

Malgudi-- Mempi-- Mangal

Malgudi, the imaginary town in Madras, is presented as a nondescript place located between the sacred river Sarayu and the Mempi Hills close to some ancient caves with historical paintings. The Malgudi community is predominantly Hindu, but as Raju’s friendship with his Muslim friend Gaffur indicates, Hindus and Muslims have lived amicably for generations. During Raju’s childhood, the town was old-fashioned with a collection of hut-shops, alleyways and “pyols” and horse-drawn carriages. A major change occurs with the coming of Railways, which symbolises the intrusion of colonial culture and westernization into a traditional ambience. Malgudi, emerging as a tourist spot, is suddenly filled with strangers. The lifestyle too undergoes a change. By the time Raju is a young man running his platform stall, Malgudi has well-stocked shopping areas along Market Road, cinema halls, hotels and taxis.

On the other hand, the Mempi Hills are steep, high and thickly forested. Human habitation has not yet encroached on this pristine natural surroundings. The caves that Marco explores are ill-maintained, which is a common feature of the archaeological and historical sites that dot the Indian countryside.

Mangal is equally typical of rural India with its thatched huts, muddy lanes, emaciated livestock and fatalistic poverty-ridden villages. There is little entertainment to divert the mind. Hard life makes people short-tempered. And, as is true of rustic India, livelihood depends on the monsoon rains.

Indian Tourist Guide: a mediator of cultures
Indian Tourist Guide: a mediator of cultures

Society in Malgudi: The Setting as a Metaphor

Narayan’s interest lies far more in the social than the topographical and physical aspects of his chosen places. He shows a shrewd observation that penetrates below the surface to expose the hollowness of many of Indian conventional pieties. Thus Malgudi is shown to be litigious, caste-ridden, and narrow-minded. Rosie, despite being an MA in Economics and a talented dancer, is rejected by this patriarchal society for being illegitimate and of low caste. Even Marco, who inexplicably marries her, affirms patriarchal norms by insisting on a homebound submissive wife who is forbidden to dance. It is also a materialistic society in which values are compromised for wealth and status. Narayan seems to satirize the customary Indian conception of a good or decent marriage – the failure of Rosoie’s marriage is linked directly to the emotionally unsatisfactory basis on which it is grounded.

However, the modern Malgudi society that Raju embraces during his days of prosperity is hardly any better, from the point of view of either modernity or humanity. Narayan draws a ruthless picture of official and social corruption in the “permit raj” decades following independence. Liquor, gambling and manipulation of rules prevail among the newly affluent urban middle class. To these people, culture is a commodity that is bought by and valued for material prosperity. Rosie is still stigmatized as a ‘Devdasi’, but her fame rests on her wealth. Raju’s moral lapse in bending the law to gain a personal advantage, when he forges Rosie’s signature, is symptomatic of this morally lax society.

The Devdasi: Cult of Temple Dancers devoted to Aesthetic Divinity
The Devdasi: Cult of Temple Dancers devoted to Aesthetic Divinity

Society at Mangal: A Colourful Milieu

The villagers, by contrast appear to be far more spiritually inclined. However, Narayan is subtly critical of their hunger for spiritual guidance. It is, after all, this characteristic that propels Raju into enforced sainthood, implying the flaw in their spirituality. The scenes leading to Raju’s ‘martyrdom’ are infused with a quiet irony that mocks the national tendency to inflate every situation to a quasi-religious ritual, complete with its attendant “mela” or fun fair. As Raju fasts, huge crowds gather at what has become a place of pilgrimage. Thatch-roofed shops selling food and trinkets spring up overnight, the Tea Propaganda Board and the Health Department busily organise their official programs, loudspeakers blare popular hits on the gramophone and the periphery is brought up by balloon-sellers, pedlars and even a gambling both. The government rushes in doctors to attend to Raju without even checking the antecedents of the “Swamiji”. The ultimate satirical touch is of the American television producer James J Malone, milking this exotic “oriental” event for his global audience.

Society in The Guide: A Study of Vibrance

It is true that “The Guide” is set in a specific part of India with a distinctive culture of its own. Yet Narayan’s canvas is too extensive for us to dismiss the novel as merely a regional or local one. Its critique of society relates, not just a particular part of the country, but to India as a whole. Narayan's imaginative genius is competent enough to explore and present the soul of India, with all its uniqueness and idiosyncrasies, in his evergreen novel The Guide.

What Do You Think?

Which setting explores the Indian society more in The Guide?

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© 2017 Monami

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