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Raju’s Metamorphosis in R. K. Narayan’s The Guide: A Critical Evaluation

(Published in The Jagannath University Journal of Arts, Vol. 1)


[Abstract: This paper seeks to understand how a corrupt tourist guide Raju playing the central role in R. K. Narayan’s The Guide is metamorphosed into a saint. Conceptually-- ethically, morally, lawfully-- a tourist guide is not desired to misguide the tourists but in The Guide Raju instead of showing the right path to the tourists follows the wrong means to guide his visitors. However, things related to unethical means do not continue and consequently he gets exposed as a criminal in the context of forging Rosie’s signature. His imprisonment ending to his   career as a tourist guide makes a turning point in his life and the turning phase of Raju’s life is the point of study in this paper. The jailbird Raju, after his release from the prison cell, is mistaken for a spiritual guide and later made to sacrifice his life to save the lives of the whole nation. Raju’s life—his transformation into a sage from a rogue—seems to correspond to the lives of many Indian mythical sages. This study attempts to show whether Narayan portrays Raju’s transformation in terms of the myth of spiritual saints in relation to the prevalent myths of India.]

          R. K. Narayan’s The Guide (1958) is a novel written in such a socio-economic context when India was still a tradition based country with the majority of her population living in the villages. People of these villages were mostly uneducated, simple, gullible and superstitious. Children here grew up hearing legends and myths of many gods, goddesses and sages, which entered into their intelligentsia and developed their aesthetic senses and moral values. Narayan himself may have heard many such stories from her grandmother and thus may have had a first hand experience of these believes of the village people. Hence, he chooses such a village to unfold the story of the novel in point. The Guide is set in Malgudi (a fictional town created by Narayan), and it opens with its protagonist, recently released from prison, sitting on a granite slab beside an ancient shrine on a bank of the river Sarayu, on the other bank of which is situated the village Mangala, where people are so simple and gullible as to be made to accept for granted even the most unbelievable things. It is a man called Velan from this village, who first mistakes Raju for a saint and gradually makes other people of his village believe Raju to be a saint telling them of the miracle that he believes Raju has performed to solve a crucial problem of his family. Raju, perhaps already having a lesson of his misdeeds, feels reluctant to play the role assigned by Velan, but when Velan tells Raju his problem for a solution, Raju cannot help asserting his old habit of getting “involved in other people’s interests and activities” (Guide, 9). Irritated by the greatness thrust upon him, Raju tells Velan to bring his sister the next day and thus reluctantly accepts a position superior to Velan’s.

Velan discovers Raju having something of a saint in the posture in which he is sitting. Velan meets him “sitting cross-legged” on a granite slab “as if it were a throne, beside an ancient shrine” (5), a river flowing beneath it. Raju’s sitting cross-legged reminds one of the postures in which Lord Buddha kept sitting in meditation and in which Hindu religious gurus usually sit in meditation. The granite slab making a ‘throne’ for Raju seems to provide Velan with a symbol that implies a meaning related to the figure of a holy man. The Sanskrit term of ‘throne’ is Simhasns and it is derived from the two words simha meaning a lion and asana meaning a seat “because a high priest’s throne ought to be covered with a lion’s skin (Dubois 1968: 127). The ancient shrine beside which Raju is sitting and the river flowing beneath it—two sacred symbols of India—also seem to provide further archetypal symbols of holiness that possibly lead Velan to take Raju for a saint. As Krisna Rao (1987: 170) observes: “the influence of the temple on the democratic consciousness is so profound and efficacious that it results in the ultimate transformation of Raju”.

The recently released jailbird Raju is a saint overnight because of two chances working together. It is a mere chance that he is sitting cross-legged beside the ancient temple; Velan mistakes him for a swami for it. It is also chance that Velan’s sister has agreed to marry. She has agreed, not by being persuaded by Raju, rather some good sense has occurred in her. But Velan interprets her good sense to have been awakened by Raju and forces upon him the greatness of a saint.

Raju’s life appears in three phases in the novel: his position as a tourist guide, his adventure with the dancer Rosie and her husband Marco, and finally his position as a swami at the village, Mangala. In all these phases Raju is a cheat. He cheats the tourists by giving exaggerated descriptions of things. As he says:

. . . if an innocent man happened to be at hand, I let myself go freely. I pointed out to him something as the greatest, the highest, the only one in the world. I gave statistics out of my head. I mentioned a relic as belonging to the thirteenth century before Christ or the thirteenth century after Christ, according to the mood of the hour. If I felt fatigued or bored with the person I was conducting, I sometimes knocked the whole glamour out by saying, ‘Must be something built within the last twenty years and allowed to rack and ruin. There are scores of such spots all over the place’. (58)

He tells lies to Rosie with explicit interest of getting her close to him. As the guide employed by Marco, it is his professional responsibility to guide them properly but, contrary to what is expected of a guide, he misguides Marco and seduces his wife. He cheats Rosie both emotionally and monetarily. When he is a sage at Mangala, he is more of a hypocrite exploiting the honesty and simplicity of the innocent villagers. When Velan comes with his sister and a basket filled with different items of fruits and food, the hypocritical Raju, pretending to be a “perfect” saint, picks up the basket and ceremoniously places it at the feet of the image of a long abandoned god, saying, “It is His first. Let the offering go to Him, first; and we will eat the remnant” (18). He even “grew a beard and long hair to fall on his nape” (53) to enhance his ‘spiritual status’—for which Balaram Gupta (1981: 31) calls Raju “a classical example of a counterfeit guru, a hypocrite masquerading as a saint, a sinner in saffron” in his article, “A Sinner is a Sinner is a Sinner—A study of Raju”. Thus in all phases of his life Raju remains a bad man.

Yet signs of goodness rest in Raju’s heart. He tells lies as a tourist guide not to fulfill his selfish end, but solely to make his tourists’ excursions meaningful. The tourists come with preconceived knowledge that these or those are worth-seeing things at Malgudi and themselves give exaggerated descriptions of those things before Raju opens his mouth (57-58) and Raju simply cannot but node only not to mar their interest. Tourists guided by him considered themselves lucky: “If you are lucky enough to be guided by Raju, you will know everything. He will not only show you all the worth-while places, but also help you in every way” (9). Though his telling lies to Rosie seems intentional with explicit interest of getting her close to him, by telling lies he gives her what Marco as her husband has denied. While Marco has his interests in collecting and annotating ancient art and has little appreciation for Rosie’s talents as a classical dancer and always ignores and insults her interests: “Anything that interested her seemed to irritate him” (67), Raju is eloquent in praising her dance and wants to make her the best dancer in India. When Rosie is ignored and tortured and drags her existence miserably under the lordship of Marco, Raju accommodates her and gives some meaning to her life. At the village Mangal, Raju is a feigned sage, but he always speaks to them on godliness, cleanliness and speaks on Ramayana. Despite his pretence he has sincerest concerns for the welfare of those who have made him a sage. So, Raju is a pretender more for serving and accommodating others’ interests than for his own. Mary Beatina (n.d: 95) writes in this regard that “from the beginning of his career, Raju is an accommodator” and that his “attempts to accommodate, mundane as they are, nonetheless prepare him for the transcendent life he eventually achieves,” and Narasimhaiah (1979: 186) almost canonizes Raju as a saint: “With all his limitations Raju’s is a very complex life—achieving integration at last”.

The polarity in the character of Raju is complex and misleading. While, on one hand, he is reluctant to play the role unwittingly given by Velan, on the other hand he feels delighted at the success of his playing the role perfectly and “no one was more impressed with the grandeur of the whole thing than Raju himself” (47). When he is still angry with Velan for forcing on him the role of a saint, he acquires beard and prayer beads to heighten his spiritual status. The uncritical faith of the simple villagers and their fine compliments bewilder Raju, yet his uneasiness is only within him. He never makes any bold effort to clear his position. Thus Raju oscillates between reluctance and eagerness. His reluctance is partly due to his innocence—as he wants to tell Velan: “I am not so great as you imagine. I am just ordinary (8)—and partly due to a covert fear that the high reverence of the humble folks and their unquestioning belief in his enormous “capacity” may bring him some unavoidable trouble. Raju senses some danger implied in this reverence and feels reluctant to be what Velan wants him to be. But soon he agrees to play the role due to an inevitable necessity of his—the necessity of food. Once he discovers that his working, as desired by Velan, will provide him with a sure means for food, the cheat in him rises. Thus that his decision of pretending to be a saint is determined by his selfish motives is clear in the following lines:

Where could he go? He had not trained himself to make a living out of hard work. Food was coming to him unasked now. If he went away somewhere else certainly nobody was going to take trouble to bring him food in return for just waiting for it. The only other place where it could happen was the prison. Where could he go now? . . . He realised that he had no alternative: he must play the role that Velan had given him. (Guide, 33)

Thus, completely motivated by a selfish end, Raju decides not to leave the place where food comes to him unasked only in return for just waiting for it although at the same time fearing that someday the villagers [Velan] might “come to the stage of thinking that he was too good for food and that he subsided on atoms from the air”—a foreseen comment that comes true in a different way in his life (33). For this selfish attitude of Raju, Balarum Gupta (1981: 135) labels him as “a selfish swindler, an adroit actor, and a perfidious megalomaniac”.

Nevertheless, Raju—a tout as he seems to be in all the phases of his life—has some uniquely good sides of his character. He is a self made man, a type of his own, having enormous capacity of adopting himself to all circumstances. Very much like Camus’ Meursault, Raju has the unique capacity to love life wherever he is and to enjoy things around him in all situations. Despite his unedifying past Raju lives the present in its every moment and accepts everything it offers. He even finds the prison “not a bad place” and feels sorry when released. When he is to play the part of a saint, he so successfully adopts himself to the circumstance that not only Velan and the simple villagers but also the village school master come under his guidance.  However, while Meursault is introvert and selfish, always working for his own pleasure and never getting involved in other people’s interests and emotions and is guided by an exalted philosophy of life, Raju is extrovert and  always works for others’ interests at the cost of his own freedom of choice. When he was a tourist guide, he had to act in accordance with the expectations of the tourists. His own likings and disliking were not important there. And when he is a spiritual guide, he has to come up to what the role thrust upon him demands. Therefore, if Raju as tourist guide tells lies, he lies not for his personal benefit; rather the tourists want him to do so. And as sage, though a fake sage he is, he works for the wellbeing of the villagers and guides them to the right path as a true sage would have done. Thus Raju is not basically corrupt at heart but appears so only because of his failure to say ‘no’ to what he does not like. As he says: “If I had had the inclination to say, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about, my life would have taken a different turn” (55).  This latent goodness of Raju’s heart for sacrificing his own interests for others’ gradually leads him to what can be called his martyrdom. Mary Beatina (1993:105) comments that “in the character of Raju, Narayan portrays the enormous proportion of the mundane in every man, which is constantly in conflict with transcendent urges, and which ever attempts to postpone or delay the integration to the very end”.

Even in the extreme danger of the villagers, Rajus’s thoughts are guided by selfish motives. He feels alarmed over the growing unrest in the village and advises the villagers: “No one should fight” (99). He wants to establish order and unity among the villagers because the unrest “might affect the isolation of the place and bring the police on the scene. He did not want anyone to come to the village” (99). Raju is so scared of being exposed as a fake swami if the police or anybody comes to the village that he stupidly says to Velan’s younger brother, one of the lesser intelligences of the village, who come with news about a further probable attack between the villagers:

“Tell your brother, immediately, wherever he may be, that unless they are good I’ll never eat”

Eat what? rsked the boy, rather puzzled.

Say that I’ll not eat. Don’t ask what. I’ll not eat unless they are good. (100)


“This was frankly beyond the comprehension of the boy” and “he could not connect the fight with this man’s food (87). Consequently, the message is distorted. Velan and his company hear the message as “The Swami, Swami does not want food any more because . . . it does not rain” (101 – 102). Thus Raju’s fate is sealed by a village idiot. His threat of ‘not eating’ is mistaken for a ritual fast. Soon the unrest is gone and the villagers start prostrating before him, saying: “You are not a human being. You are a Mahatma. We should consider ourselves blessed indeed to be able to touch the dust of your feat” (106). Thus the foolish villagers again impose a huge responsibility on Raju by conferring on him a new title ‘Mahatma’. Narayan uses the title ‘Mahatma’ for Raju to prepare him for his transcendental journey. Mahatma was used to address Gandhiji who initiated the doctrine of ahimsha (non-violence) to fight against the British and undertook fast and sacrifices shortly before his death in 1948 to end communal disturbance in independent India. The greatness of Mahatma Gandhi and his fast to bring peace and unity are well known to the people of Mangala as well, as we find in Waiting for the Mahatma Gandhi visits Narayan’s fictional town of Malgudi during India’s liberation war. Raju is far away from the essential Gandhian ideology and a man of his type would not have believed in it perhaps, but he is entrapped by the villagers’ high estimation of his person:

This Mangala is a blessed country to have a man like the Swami in our midst. No bad thing will come to us as long as he is with us. He is like Mahatma. When Mahatma Gandhi went without food, how many things happened in India! This is a man like that. If he fasts there will be rain. Out of his love for us he is undertaking it. This will surely bring rain and help us . . . (102)

Your penance is similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s. He has left us a disciple in you to save us. (107)

Raju’s real transformation sets in when he realizes that, while cheating the innocent villagers, he has made himself “a giant with his puny self” ” and has “worked himself into a position from which he cannot get out now” (109).  The onward journey of the hypocritical Raju ends here and the covert goodness of his soul finds a way. Thus while under the threat of life he should have cursed the fools, he feels moved by the recollection of the big crowd of women and children touching his feet and by the thought of their gratitude. To bring about Raju’s real transformation and to make it plausible, Narayan uses the Indian Hindu context and culture. He arranges Raju to perform a ritual fast, standing in knee-deep water for fifteen days. Water and ritual fast are two holy sources of purification in Hinduism.  The fast of each day seems to dry up Raju’s sins and the water purifying his soul by washing away its dirtiness.  Within five days of his ritual fast, Raju is a changed man. He feels “enraged at the persistence of food-thoughts” (237), perhaps realising that it was the dire necessity of food for which he had to be a fake Swami: “With a sort of vindictive resolution he told himself, ‘I’ll chase away all thought of food. For the next ten days I shall eradicate all thoughts of tongue and stomach from my mind’ (237) “if by avoiding food I should help the trees bloom, and the grass grow . . .” (237 -38).  Thus a new Raju is set to be born:

For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort; for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application, outside money and love; for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested. (238)

As long as Raju’s thoughts are guided by mundane affairs: love, money, food and shelter, he has to remain a hypocrite, but the moment he sheds all his hypocrisy and forgets all mundane interests, his penance is that of a real saint.  From the sixth day Raju’s prayer to bring down rain from the heavens and save humanity is no longer a pretender’s but the true supplication of a saint who, absolutely free from the mundane, is absorbed in meditation, being in league with the Divine.

Balarama Gupta accuses Narayan of being less “scathing and more covert” in his attacks on Raju, “because he [Narayan] can laugh at human follies and absurdities without any great involvement or a well defined commitment to human values” (1981: 135).  Balarama Gupta perhaps reads The Guide as a delightful exposure of the ignorance ridden Indian rural society as well as of typically Indian pseudo saints, but the reverence of the simple folks for Raju the sanyasi and their unquestioning faith in the sanyasi can be attributed to their cultural heritage. As Radhakrishnan (1959: 35) writes:

From the beginning of her history India has adorned and idealized not soldiers and statesmen, not men of science and leaders of industry, not even poets and philosophers . . . but men who have stamped infinity on the thought and life of the country, men who have added to the invisible forces of goodness in the world.

In making Raju a saint, it is not Raju who himself plays any significant role; rather it is Velan and his villagers whose reverence forces him to be a saint. The absolute reverence of the innocent villagers come to him as a sharp weapon at the end although Raju should not certainly be allowed to go scot-free without owning partial responsibility for his fate. It is partially true that Raju could have avoided his end had he not simply agreed but Raju’s failure to establish control over the situation initiated by Velan is fateful. However, if Raju is at last a saint, his transformation should not appear a miracle because such miracles are not impossible in India which has been a land of gods and goddesses and where traditional beliefs are more than knowledge despite the invasion of the west. Although western colonial machinery already brought about considerable changes in India’s many social and political levels, the knowledge of Indian classical myths remains almost unchanged in the psychological state of the people. In this regard  Narayan himself comments: “With the impact of modern literature we began to look at our gods, demons, and sages, not as some remote concoctions but as types and symbols possessing psychological validity, even when seen against the contemporary background” (“English in India”, Commonwealth Literature, 122). It is this hoary tradition of India that along with the unshakeable misplaced belief of the people of Mangala goes hand in hand in making Raju a saint.

It also seems that the traditional Hindu belief about a saint plays some role in the transformation of Raju into a saint. In Hinduism such blind acceptance and consequent reverence for a saint are common knowledge. According to Hinduism, disciples should possess two qualities: susrusa and sraddha. Zimmer wtites “susrusa is the fervent desire to hear, to obey, and to retain what is being heard; it implies dutifulness, reverence, and service. Sraddha is trust and composure of mind; it demands the total absence of every kind of independent thought and criticism on the part of the pupil; and here again there is reverence, as well as strong and vehement desire” (Zimmer 1952: 48). The presence of these qualities in Velan and others of his village is functional. Raju is a saint not because he is a saint, but because Velan and others of his village are perfect disciples embodying all these qualities: they are never tired of hearing and taking for granted everything Raju narrates; not only Velan, even the teacher of the village school obeys what Raju says, and they hear and retain everything minutely in their minds; and they are so reverent towards Raju that they do never question what he tells them because they believe, as Nirad C. Choudhuri (1997: 303) says, that “it is Hindu conviction that no right path in religion can be found without instruction . . . by a qualified guide”. Mercanti Stefano (2002: 82) says that “these cultural factors display the wisdom of an uninterrupted ancient tradition that moulds the minds of the characters and influences, often unconsciously, their thoughts and behaviour”. Hence, taking a rogue for a saint was not impossible for such people.

Narayan also seems to make a corrupt man a spiritual guide with the help of the mythic elements taken from Indian mythology. Raju’s transformation corresponds to the lives of many Indian mythical sages like Nezam Aoulia Peer, or Valmiki. Nezam Aoulia, a thief by profession, one day comes across a pious man whom he wants to rob but the man asks Nezam Aoulia if his family members will share his sins. Nezam Aoulia leaving the man tied with a tree in the jungle goes home and asks everybody if they will share his sins of robbing people but none agrees.  Nezam Aoulia feels repentant and atones by watering a dead tree until the tree blooms flowers and he is accepted as a saint by people. Similarly Valmiki, a forest plunderer, also becomes a saint by choosing a life of asceticism under a tree where he passes years until ants build a shelter above him.

Finally it can be said that it is not that Raju worked to be a saint; rather he had to be a saint under a compelling pressure over which he could not establish any control. He just reluctantly accepts the greatness thrust upon him by the innocence, ignorance, superstition and deep beliefs in religion of the simple, rustic people of the village of Mangala. Chance and incidence also play a dominant role in making him a saint. And theoretically Narayan makes a use of the religious, philosophical and cultural beliefs based on the great Indian epics, legends and folk tales to transform Raju into a saint




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