R.K. Narayan’s novel, The Guide, written in 1958, is recognised as one of the author’s best. (It’s selected within a collection of “1000 books to read during your lifetime” collection which some French publishers were selling over Christmas). It tells the story of Raju, whose father was lucky to own a shop near a spot where a railway station was going to be built. Raju was then a boy who enjoyed his life outside, and when the tracks and station were built, the shop in the station was entrusted to his father. The boy soon started helping him, pleased at not having to be sent to school any more. But the father died accidentally, and Raju who must have been 12 or so, took over, and over the years cleverly understood the interest of the railway, because not only did he see the importance of the shop for travellers, but also that of the travellers’ needs. He became a tourist guide, and is so keen and scruple-free that his business flourishes.
Then comes the day when a special tourist arrives in Malgudi (Narayan’s fictitious pet town situated in the South): he’s a historian, a lover of old inscriptions and engravings. He wants Raju to take him to some caves in the mountains where archaeological treasures have to be surveyed. Along with him is Raju’s destiny, in the form of his wife, Rosie. She’s as different from him as Raju’s quick practicality is from old stone inscriptions. The husband, called Marco by Raju (because of some connection with Marco Polo the discoverer) is a bespectaled intellectual who seems to drag his wife around like so much baggage. She’s an educated young woman, but belonging to a caste of dancers which condemns her to accepting whatever her husband decides for her. Among which, no dance. When she meets Raju, who is staggered by her beauty and dancing skills, he quickly enters her life, and looks at her in a way that wins her over to him, in spite of her wife’s principles. In fact, the trio settles in the mountain, near the caves, even if it means for Raju to leave his shop and guide business unattended.
A story of self-deception begins. Narayan suggests that Raju has been bitten by the “snake-lady”, has been bewitched, and that in his mind, instead of the astute self-made money-maker, a “saithan” now rules supreme. He cannot leave Rosie, who makes him lose appetite for everything except her. Classic situation indeed. Of course, in time the husband gets to know about the liaison, and sends Raju away, with Rosie concurring. A month elapses, and one morning she arrives at his little hut where he lives with his mother. This time, it’s as if she’s been thrown out. I pass some events, but their life together, fragile as it is in middle-century India, prospers because Raju’s flair for business surfaces again; he manages to turn Rosie into a traditional dance diva, and acting as her impresario, soon reaches a style of living which he had never before attained. But there’s something wrong in their enterprise. Raju has big debts, a distant enemy in the shape of Marco who hasn’t divorced Rosie, and a habit of spending, lying and procrastinating which the reader understands will lead to his downfall.
This would all be rather banal, if the structure of the novel wasn’t in fact quite different from the way I have told the story. We start with a forlorn Raju who has just left prison, and is resting on the steps of some abandoned temple, when a peasant stops by, and starts conversing with him. Narayan hints that, perhaps of his “disciple-like nature”, he mistakes Raju for the temple-priest, and little by little the aimless and hungry Raju is looked after. The chapter closes and we are plunged into his old life near the future railway. One more chapter, and we come back to the temple, and Raju’s increasing success as adviser, sage and eventually swami, when a drought threatens, the villagers believe he might help them though prayer and fasting to bring the rain.
Naturally, because the book is called The guide, the reader is quickly led to make the link between the various meanings of the word: tourist guide, spiritual guide. And when Raju watches Rosie and encourages her (even if with mixed intentions), one might say he’s a guide there too, because he does indeed guide her towards her self-fulfilment. The problem of the book is what to make of the reflection about this guide figure. Raju is evidently not a guide in the sense of a political or moral guide who leads a community towards his destiny. Everything he does is self-centred. He guides people, but with his own interest in mind all the time. R.K. Narayan is making a satirical point here: the guide that people look up to is himself the one most in need of a guide. This is clear when Raju reflects upon what his friend Gaffur the taxi-driver advises him: to leave Rosie and all the stress connected with the false situation he has let himself enslaved by, and go back to his old joyful, carefree life. Raju says that, at the time, this was excellent advice, but he also that he was incapable of following it.
In fact he is constantly running away from his responsibilities. For example when he knows he has all those debts, and prefers taking a cheap lawyer rather than face the problems, and go through the uncomfortable but real world of responsibility. As a lover also, he lives from day to day, never wondering who the person he shares his life is, really is. He has drunk her blood, so to speak, gorged on her, but he’s lived with a stranger. Even when he decides at the end to go ahead with the abhorred fast to bring back the rains, as the crowds of villagers have asked him, he adopts an attitude which he hopes will make the decision forgetful:
“With a sort of vindictive resolution he told himself “I’ll chase away all thought of food. For the next ten days, I’ll eradicate all thoughts of tongue and stomach from my mind”. The resolution gave him a particular strength…”
But then something he had perhaps not foreseen happens:
“He developed on those lines: “if by avoiding food I should help the trees bloom, and the grass grow, why not do it thoroughly?” 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.” (p. 188-89)
So the question is: is this salvation? Has Raju learnt the lesson? Has he finally passed on the other side, where selfishness yields to selflessness? Have circumstances been his master, and has he found the Guide he had been needing all his life? If the answer is yes, then the book is a moral or religious parable, telling us that there is a meaning, a balance of right or wrong on earth, no matter how ill-advised men live, their dharma will one day be forced on them. But if it’s no, then everything must be considered maya, illusion, and life on earth is one big farce. I would personally opt for the second solution, because nothing really in the book prepares us for salvation. On the contrary, RK Narayan stresses continuously his character’s thoughtlessness. No salvation for Raju then, as far as I’m concerned, in spite of the quotation above which one can read as the statement of his punishment.
But on the other hand, what the book might be saying is “something” (or somebody) guides the guide. Thanks to Raju, Rosie has found her way. Thanks to his love and determination (even though self-interested), she has been given a freedom she probably would never have been given otherwise. It is just that Raju is punished the way he is, and just that Rosie is freed. Destiny (or the order of things) has utilised Raju as an instrument of liberation for her, and has punished him for his self-centredness. In that respect, the title “The guide” might well refer, not to Raju, but to this other Guide above, which uses our human choices in order to make his own justice come to fruition.
I have ordered the movie which was made in 1965 with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman. I’ll let you know what I have thought of it. From some opinions expressed on Imdb, it seems it’s very good. Philip and Carla have interesting summaries and evaluations.