The Vendor of Sweets
by R.K. Narayan
Viking, 184 pp., $4.95
by Ved Mehta
Harper & Row, 115 pp., $3.95
The conflict of generations is always a tempting theme for the novelist, and particularly so in a time of cultural disintegration, when the traditional framework of beliefs and attitudes (represented by the father) can be shown at the moment of being destroyed by modernity (represented by the son). In England the rapid social changes involved in the passage from the nineteenth to the twentieth century produced such father-and-son masterpieces as Clayhanger and The Diary of a Nobody, which have a richness of texture impossible in our time when fathers have no more memory of religious and social tradition than sons have.
Impossible, that is, in the West. But India, like most Eastern countries, is in exactly the position of the England of the Grossmiths or Arnold Bennett. A seismic fissure divides the generations. Both Mr. Narayan and Mr. Mehta, in their different ways, are concerned with the dimensions of this fissure, but the resemblance between their books goes no further.
Mr. Narayan, a seasoned and quietly skillful novelist, is engaged in the construction of an Indian Yoknapatawpha County, in the imaginary town of Malgudi and its environs. Most things about Malgudi bear witness to the split and smashed condition of Indian culture, and this story tells how these things affect the life of Jagan, the vendor of sweets.
Jagan is an emblematic figure. He is the decent, idealistic middle-class Indian of the generation that grew up with this century. Prosperous, or sufficiently prosperous to appear so in a poor community, he adheres to rigid standards in business, never putting cheap ersatz materials into his sweets; in personal life, he is quiet and settled, a widower living alone in the house built by his father. He has theories about food reform and natural living, which he has embodied in a book that seems to be permanently hung up at the printer’s, and in general is not very orthodox in social matters. (His brother and sister have quarreled with him, and he is glad to be out of touch with them and thus spared many tedious family observances.) On the other hand, he takes his religion seriously and spends much time in meditation and prayer. In the Twenties, Jagan was a disciple of Gandhi, no stranger to imprisonment and police beatings, and his life is still drawing nourishment from this period of active self-sacrifice.
The son, Mali, is also an emblem. Sullenly contemptuous of his father, he leaves college to become “a writer,” insists on going to America at Jagan’s expense for professional training, and comes back with a previously unannounced bride, a Korean girl. Once he is home, his one ambition is to float a company for the marketing of a foolish and vulgar invention, and, abetted by the Korean girl, pesters Jagan to put up his savings as capital. Jagan temporizes, causing sulks and tension which ruin the atmosphere of the home.
UP TO THIS POINT, The Vendor of Sweets might be nothing more than another deft dramatization …