The Vendor of Sweets
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 of the deadlock of the generations. The issues are sharpened by two new factors: the discovery that Mali and his girl are not married, and the deceptively casual arrival in the story of a holy or semi-holy man, a maker of religious images, who invites Jagan to leave the world and retire with him to a life of craftsmanship and religious contemplation. This part of the plot strikes me as not quite satisfactory; it is too manifestly a device. One is not clear what the image-maker wants Jagan to do; and the withdrawal from the world, to a spot just outside the city, is presented in such unemphatic terms that it makes Jagan seem like a bank manager who is retiring to devote himself to tulips and first editions, though Jagan himself sees it as the beginning of a new janma at the pivotal age of sixty. Still, the point is established: Jagan is washing his hands of Mali and of the world that Mali has brought over his threshold.
The story is given a final twist when Jagan, as he departs, hears the news that Mali has been arrested for possessing a bottle of some alcoholic drink, and he is now in prison. “A dose of prison life is not a bad thing. It may be just what he needs now,” says Jagan. There speaks the prison graduate, but Mali’s generation will never go to prison for a dignified reason; not for them the struggle against the British Raj, the inspiration of Gandhi, all those things which gave motive and coherence to Jagan’s young days.
Mr. Narayan tells his story with a light, humorous touch yet with a seriousness made possible by the firmness of his own position, as a Hindu who has accepted and absorbed the baffling multiplicity of his religion and thus taken on its tensile strength. His sympathies are with Jagan against Mali, yet he does not fret because Jagan must go down before the onrush of Mali’s world. At the heart of Narayan’s work, one senses a placid optimism which is perhaps the core of Hinduism. When describing Indian social traditions—as in the long and fascinating flashback in which Jagan remembers his own courtship and marriage—his writing is never far away from irony. But the tone changes, becomes deeper and entirely unequivocal, when he writes of religious tradition. When the image-maker speaks of the Goddess he wishes to celebrate, all irony is screened out and we get a flash of pure devotion:
Since she is the light that illumines the Sun himself, she combines in her all colors and every kind of radiance, symbolized by five heads of different colors. She possesses ten hands, each holding a different object: a conch, which is the origin of sound, a discus, which gives the universe its motion, a goad to suppress evil forces, a rope that causes bonds, lotus flowers for beauty and symmetry, and a kapalam, a begging bowl made of a bleached human skull. She combines in her divinity everything we perceive and feel, from the bare, dry bone to all beauty in creation….
Here we have the “positives’ that stiffen Jagan’s rejection of Mail; Jagan’s new janma, the reincarnation which comes to a man still above ground, will bring him close to this beauty and mystery. A writer who is fortunate enough to have serious convictions can be light and unstrained without falling into frivolity.
BY CONTRAST, Mr. Mehta’s book suffers from a lack of ballast. His eponymous central character, Delinquent Chacha, is a feeble-minded posturer, devious without having the strength of character to be definitely criminal, rather like an Indian version of Isherwood’s Mr. Norris. “Chacha,” we learn on the first page, is Hindustani for “uncle,” and the book is narrated by the nephew who watches in horrified fascination as Delinquent Chacha acts out the farcically tragic pattern of his delusions. To him, the British Raj was India’s golden hour; since 1945 everything has declined; bereft of British example, the Indians are a mere rabble, etc., etc. The nephew goes to England to attend Oxford University; Delinquent Chacha manages to follow him there. This should be the opening of an amusing story, but opportunity after opportunity is missed, till the reader is driven to conclude that Mr. Mehta, a lively enough writer in other forms, has no flair for the novel. He has created an interesting comic character, but seems unable to set him in motion in a story. The book opens in India, but immediately leaves it, so that we get no impression of Indian life, and we certainly get no impression of England; in spite of the years he spent there, Mr. Mehta has no ear for the way English people talk. He even makes a barrister say “protest” when he means “protest against,” which is a purely American solecism; and his colloquial English seems to have come out of old-fashioned novels.
Delinquent Chacha, with his worship of everything English and his romantic obsession with “Ox-Ford,” is absurd, but he is absurd in a vacuum; there is no firm position, either Eastern or Western,against which his flutterings are silhouetted. The nephew, who might at least have had the attitudes of a Westernized Indian, is given no character at all and remains a mere hole in the story. Like A Passage to India, the book pivots on a long trial scene, but in Mr. Mehta’s hands the scene, for lack of wit and observation, has no reality and fails to rise to that authentic nightmare quality which all good trial scenes have. The story folds in on itself and collapses into boredom; a pity, because the opening fifty pages are not without fresh and amusing passages.