Re-inhabiting culture, transforming the self: R.K. Narayan’s The Guide

In R. K. Narayan’s novel The Guide (1958) a common con-man, “Railway” Raju, asks for a few choice morsels under the guise of a religious requirement. He’s begging from the villagers who found him, destitute and on the run, in a temple:

He wanted to try some new recipes, for a change. He had a subtle way of mentioning his special requirements: “You see, if a little rice flour and chilli powder could be got, along with some other things, I can do something new. On Wednesdays…” He mentioned it with an air of seriousness so that his listeners took it as a spiritual need, something of the man’s inner discipline to keep his soul in shape and his understanding with the Heavens in order.

They assume he is a wise swami, an ascetic in communion with the deities. Raju takes advantage of their assumption, enjoying the offerings of food and attention. But eventually, pretense and reality begin to merge as he begins to think of himself as a self-renouncing yogi. Myth and fact, each part and parcel of daily life, fuse together rather than debunk one another, persisting in obfuscation. This is typical of Narayan’s fiction. Characters like Raju rarely achieve a great moral awakening, nor are they wholly detestable. Events arc without resolution. Protagonists are carried from solitude to community in unexpected ways that, as in Raju’s case, can entail sincerity born out of insincerity, holiness out of unholiness. Does it matter that Raju began as a con-man if, in the end, he believes himself to be a mystic?

On one hand, Narayan’s trademark irreverence towards traditional spirituality is evident in the novel. He lampoons the type of ancient wisdom that would serve as the basis for so many imperialist caricatures. On the other, or rather in tandem, there is a quite serious interest in the spiritual pleasures of ordinary details.

Narayan produced some of his most popular works, such as The Financial Expert (1952) and Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), during India’s immediate post-independence period, but he is rarely mentioned as a writer engaged with anticolonial thought. The occasionally disharmonious coexistences within Narayan’s Malgudi—the fictional South Indian town that often serves as his setting—are thought by some to exist at the expense of, in Afzal-Khan’s words, “present reality made more palatable by the comforting presence of an enduring indigenous past,” or as Harsharan S. Ahluwalia writes, at “the exclusion of socio-political forces at work in the country.” As the author and critic Amit Chaudhuri has observed, Narayan’s alignment of humour with existential questions imbues an anti-academic flavor to his large oeuvre. His prose style has been recognised for its generosity of perspective. He never differentiates between the casual and the consequential within their moment of experience. Each can be important, sincerely so. However, despite his close representations of real life, Narayan has most often been read as an accessible but unsophisticated voice in Anglophone Indian fiction.

Reading Narayan’s work on the seventieth anniversary of the Partition, though—and the sixtieth anniversary of his novel The Guide—one is almost required to re-examine whether his work is indeed so devoid of political and social perspectives.


At the opening of The Guide we meet Raju taking refuge in an abandoned shrine. He’s recounting his life story to Velan, a local villager. Once a tourist guide in Malgudi, Raju recounts an affair he had with Rosie, the neglected wife of a visiting cultural historian, Marco (this is Raju’s name for the cuckold, out of irritation at this “man who preferred to dress like a permanent tourist”). Marco is compiling an exhaustive study of South Indian culture. Rosie finds her way to Raju when Marco leaves her for her infidelity, and Raju then sets about fashioning her career as Nalini, a Bharata Natyam dancer.

Raju’s obsessive micro-management of Rosie’s profits and performances culminates in him forging Rosie’s signature to release a jewelry box from her husband’s custody. This leads Raju, via a stint in jail, to his situation at the start of the novel. Velan, undismayed by this story, tells other villagers of Raju’s wisdom, and his status as swami grows when people come to him in increasing numbers. By the end of the novel Raju has come to believe that he is indeed a mystic, and he fasts to end a drought that is ravaging the land. Just after claiming he can feel the rain coming, he collapses. There, the story halts. It is never revealed whether the rain comes or not.

Throughout Narayan’s writing, the town of Malgudi never completely aligns itself with the mystic organicism of the kind metropolitan imagination assigned Oriental cultures for centuries—that exhaustive epistemological “othering” set out by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978). The ceaseless collusion and collision of the agrarian and the urban in Malgudi is presented as neither an exotic mix of distinctly “Indian” and distinctly “Western” strands of culture, nor entirely as a periphery caught in mid-development towards capitalist modernization: it contains both and more at various moments. As Raju explains, “Malgudi, I said, had many things to offer, historically, scenically, in modern developments […] some want a waterfall, some want a ruin, some a god to worship, some look for a hydroelectric plant.”

Serving up Malgudi to meet the demands of its sometimes prejudiced and sometimes possessive tourists, Raju’s stories about the cultural geography of the town are entirely dependent on his mood. One day a site will be dismissed, the next day its history will reveal something serious and essential about the community. But his list of offerings itself is no random showcase. It exhibits, in fact, the rapid cultural and technological changes taking place within India at the time the novel was written, as well as those attributes capitalized on for private or state interests.

A year before The Guide‘s publication, Jawaharlal Nehru had implemented a program of extensive public works and industrialization under a socialist economic model. Hydroelectric plants presented a major investment for the seven-rivered geography of India. Under the half-mocking stories he serves up for tourists in Malgudi’s, Raju points toward the novel’s moment in modern Indian history, poised on the uncertain future of first-wave centralization—the drought at the center of the narrative may be a plight compounded by new dams, and the town may stand at the brink of ecological suffering engendered by unsustainable technologization.

Even as a swami, Raju notes that “his spiritual status would be enhanced if he grew a beard and long hair: a clean-shaven, close-haired saint was an anomaly”—suggesting the communally fabricated aspects to all cultural heritage, even as he does the spiritual value of sustaining the very same. In The Guide, Narayan has no qualms about satirizing aspects of Hinduism, but he does so without belittling the social and personal importance of its daily practices. Indeed, in another novel, The Vendor of Sweets (1967), he gives us a protagonist obsessed with profit margins at his sweet shop, yet loyal to Gandhian ideas of self-renunciation in his daily routines. “Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self,” he advises, and when asked why, replies, “I don’t know, but all our sages advise us to do so.” This brand of spirituality sources both the Hindu epic Bhagavad-Gita and anti-colonial nationalist non-cooperation, but it must also fuse with the capitalist aspects of the protagonist’s life as well, often comically and self-contradictorily.

If anything, Narayan saves his more biting critique for the tyrannical credulity of Euro-American attitudes. Western tourists, Raju observes, come seeking religious solace (“a god to worship”) for the disillusionments of their own materialist cultures or with an academic appetite disquietingly reminiscent of colonial acquisition (“a ruin”). This reaches a tragicomic culmination when Hollywood finally, inevitably finds Raju. Brandishing a permit from the Indian government, director James J. Malone starts to document the swami‘s fast, proceeding with slick and sunny political correctness.

In contrast to this canny international scrutiny, readers stand at an ironic distance from Raju in the novel’s final section. Narayan refers to him only as “the swami.” The last insight into his thoughts are that “for the first time, he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested.” Patrick Swinden reads Raju’s self-renunciation as The Guide‘s unmistakable last-minute shift to an orthodox Hindu point-of-view—yet this seems too simplistic a reading, particularly in light of Narayan’s satirical approach to enforced codes of spirituality. The novel has sustained a kind of openness to so-called traditional conceptions of reality, but always in tandem with shabby or fraudulent depictions. It is a complicated, distanced view. Narayan’s broadminded vision of Indian culture(s) and the transformative qualities he finds therein allows room for ordinary moments of genuine commonality of experience, which is where these qualities may actually, humbly enough, lie.

For instance, though we have witnessed the material trappings of Nalini’s dancing career that help facilitate her rise to fame, even Raju’s hyper-controlled, profitable empire still allows momentary instances of cultural memory. “Nalini was doing her fifth item—a snake dance,” Narayan writes, “this was a song which lifted the cobra out of its class of an underground reptile into a creature of grace and divinity.” As a communal experience, her dance provides continuity with the past. Through Nalini, the onlookers access that particular myth about Parvati and Shiva. In contrast, for all of Marco’s efforts at an encyclopedia of South Indian culture, the result is a glossy academic tome about historic artifacts: a sterile record of something fundamentally alive and contemporary, misguided in its aim of “objective” expertise. Narayan seems to make Marco a representative of the misdirected, or at least incomplete, way of approaching national culture.

The Guide showcases the absurd expectation that India remain a spiritual and timeless organic unit to fulfill the contradictory interests of others, whilst also warning that a dose of corrective realism may not only bring with it Occidental value judgements of “progressive” and “regressive,” but also a blindness to instances of genuine cultural continuity. It answers questions of nation and subjectivity implicitly, through the unpredictable harmonies and contradictions in its inhabitants’ lives. The novel examines the absurdity of, and disservice to, Indian nationhood(s) should it market itself, for the sake of cultural “revival” or foreign interests, as an ahistorical monolith of spiritual ages gone by. Often comically, the novel overturns such illusions, exposing how identificatory demands to be singularly spiritual and timeless are continuations of the role required by colonial economic relations: that the colony remain overwhelmingly agrarian, a living museum of the West’s past, so that the binary of modern metropolis and unmodern periphery may be fostered.

Through this critique, Narayan comments on the role of the self in decolonization, because he assumes the transformability of subjects in the face of what he sees as the undeniable transformability of Indian culture. Just as an ancient submerged temple is revealed by the drought in The Guide, Narayan’s anticolonial perspective suggests that another level of experience lies beneath the surface of contemporary life: the moments of continuity that offer a collective recognition of a shared heritage within a shared modernity. The novel’s humanism is not the European liberal metropolitan and cosmopolitan kind, whose evolution is inextricably interlinked with imperial accumulation, but a porous ethno-humanism where the universal and the local are no longer at odds.


Seldom fully resolved, Narayan’s novels jar with notions of unity, purity, or anything claiming to be quintessentially Indian. Continuity is found instead in everyday moments where characters choose to place themselves within living culture. To encounter these moments requires a willingness to adopt the latter of the two “needs of vision” Dipesh Chakrabarty speaks of in Provincializing Europe (2000): “the critical eye that seeks out [the nation’s] defects for reform or improvement, and the adoring eye that sees it as already sublime.” Located in the transformability of subjects, such double vision utilizes a working, non-reductive cultural fusion.

Narayan’s novels, particularly The Guide, suggest that the contested terrain of subjectivity should become the means of, not the obstacle to, locating fluid moments of socio-cultural unity. He takes for granted that the transformability of both culture and the self are key to a heterogenous, paradoxical whole composed of differences and continuities—in nationhood and identity. Narayan’s dynamic and encompassing visions of culture and the individual remain as relevant and valuable today as they were in the novel’s original historical context.

About Sarah Jilani

Sarah Jilani has written on art, film and books for publications including The Economist, The Times Literary Supplement, ArtReview, and The Independent. She is currently doing a PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK.