The Vendor of Sweets represents a conflict between two cultures. Discuss with reference to the novel.
The novel written by R.K. Narayan, was published in 1967 and is set in the fictional town of Malgudi, which appears in many of his other stories as well. The novel captures a transitioning time in India, where the traditional Indian culture is changing with the influx of new ideas and western concepts. Jagan, the protagonist of the story, represents the traditional culture (even though with certain mutations in his own way of upholding it), while his son Mali represents western culture which he absorbs during his time in America. In this essay I will map out and analyse how cultural differences creates conflicts in the world of Vendor of Sweets.
Jagan’s parenting style and Mali’s respect towards his father is something that stands in contrast to the father-son relationship that Jagan had with his father. In Indian traditional culture, patriarchy has a strong presence and dictates the interactions in the family. In western culture, these tenets have become less rigid, especially in the 20th century.
‘I don’t want to study, that’s all.’
He was a cowardly father and was afraid to mention class or college.
Mali declares that he is going to stop his college studies and that he plans to go to America to become a writer. Mali does not respect his father’s efforts to provide a good education for him. He does not discuss his ideas with his father or heed his advice. Whereas Jagan had to submit to the authority of his father, who was highly involved in even his marriage, Mali rebels against his father without hesitation.
Jagan on the other hand does not display the same features as his father when it comes to parenting. The narrator continuously mentions how Jagan fails to assume authority over his child and exposes how he is afraid, and cowardly when dealing with Mali. This clearly shows that Jagan fails to adopt the parenting style that is advocated by traditional Indian culture based on patriarchy. Jagan shows a more passive approach which arguably reflects the parenting style adopted by western culture. This may be the result of Jagan’s western education as well. Coupled together with Mali’s attitude toward his father, the traditional mould of an Indian father-son relationship is not maintained.
Religion and how it shapes lifestyles is another point of conflict that the novel illuminates. Right at the beginning of the story we encounter Jagan surrounded in a holy place where he offers his prayers fervently with the smell of Jasmine – offered to goddess Lakshmi – saturating the air. The novel repeatedly portrays him as someone who holds the Bagavat Gita in high esteem, even though the reader realizes that his piety is not firm. But throughout the story, Mali does not show any interest in his father’s beliefs.
‘I’ve taken to eating beef; and I don’t think I’m any the worse for it. Steak is something quite tasty and juicy. Now I want to suggest why not you people start eating beef?’
Not only is he disinterested in Jagan’s beliefs, he blatantly disregards them as well. Out of the five deadly sins mentioned in the shastras, the killing of a cow is the first, Jagan feels outraged about Mali’s actions. For Jagan, this was a major offense and Mali’s cavalier and indifferent attitude shows how he lacks any respect toward Jagan’s religious beliefs. Beef is a popular type of meat in America and Mali has become accustomed to their culture. Through the above suggestions quoted, he displays how he refuses to conform to the Indian culture and how he is ready to reject and criticize the culture which Jagan embraces.
Another conflict that the novel points out is the place of marriage in society. Jagan’s marriage is an event of great magnitude and his parents and siblings were involved in it. They had the power to make certain decisions for Jagan. His marriage united two families and according to the text, Jagan’s father sent 3000 invitations.
‘They sent out 3000 invitations. The result was that an enormous crowd turned up by every bus, train, and vehicle.’
This massive number suggests how marriage is not merely two individuals deciding to live together, but a contract made between a large number of people from both sides. Even before the day of the wedding, there were many visits and negotiations between the patriarchs. There were many gifts and goods offered and received. Performing sacred rites, reciting sacred mantras and observing auspicious times for everything were parts of the wedding. All these aspects of Jagan’s marriage followed the traditions of Indian culture and religions that are popular in India.
But in the case of Mali, he merely brings Grace from America and introduces her to Jagan as his wife. He does not take the trouble to write to his father before marrying her. He does not ask for his blessing. Later we get to know that he was not actually married to her. All these choices Mali makes are in line with western culture, and because of his actions, Jagan becomes bitter about his son. While these conflicts arise because of the different cultures, they are compounded because none of them try to communicate and compromise.