Main Themes – The Vendor of Sweets


Generational Gap

‘ “Why do you blame the country for everything? It has been good enough for four hundred millions,” Jagan said, remembering the heritage of the Ramayanaya and the Bhagavad Gita and all the trials and sufferings he had undergone to win independence. He muttered, “You were not born in those days.” ‘

The generation gap appears through Jagan’s generation, his father’s generation and his son’s generation. He is in the middle. The main gap that appears between the different generations is the change in traditions and their way of life.
>> Jagan is completely different from his father. Jagan’s Father is an authoritative patriarchal figure who thrives as the head of the household and assumes that position with resolve.
>> Jagan is more passive in his role as a father – he does not assume the authority that the Patriarchal Indian society offers him. Rather, he hides under Mali’s shadow, and is afraid to confront him.
>>Jagan performs the role of a patriotic Indian and this influences his lifestyle. He absorbed these notions during Colonial times when India was fighting for freedom from Britain. However, even after receiving independence, he refuses to be more practical. Therefore, his eccentric ways are completely disastrous and infuriating to Mali. Mali is not aware of why his father vehemently refuses to embrace the good things from western culture, because he was never a part of the struggle for freedom – he has no direct experience of the oppression the Indians went through under British rule. On the other hand, Jagan fails to loosen the grip on his eccentric ways. This formula combines to create an unhealthy friction between the father and son.
>> Many from Mali’s generation will fail to understand the importance of the rejection of western ways which Jagan displays – this is similar to your generation. How many of you were aware of Black July 1983 before you read the poem for literature? (Click here for a model answer for The Big Match, 1983)This gap in experience and/or knowledge may make you misunderstand the traumatic traces that are left behind in the adults around you. Maybe your parent is paranoid about sending you in the train or bus (maybe because they still remember how one of their good friends were caught in one of the bombings). But your generation will be unable to understand how the past and their memories of the past heavily affect their behaviour. So, when they do some of the things they do, your generation may find it strange.

Cultural Gap

‘Oh, these are not the days of your ancestors. Today we have to compete with advanced countries not only in economics and industry, but also in culture.’

The cultural gap is evident between Jagan and Mali. The first exposure to western culture is the education that Jagan and Mali both receive. While Jagan received western education in an era where the nation was in the middle of the struggle for independence, Mali receives western education a decade or so later. Therefore, even though Jagan retains a rather impractical and over-zealous patriotic longing (or loyalty), Mali has had no direct experience of that struggle. He does s not even receive this education from his father (even though he claims to be a Ghandian who shuns western practices, he fails to teach Mali about Indian values or traditions). Therefore, Mali easily rejects Indian traditions and the Indian lifestyle without any regrets or second thoughts.

There are several examples of the cultural gap that can be written in your answers.
1. Religion
>> Jagan is portrayed as a devout/pious/deeply religious character who begins the day with prayers, incense and flowers offered to goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth).
>> He reads the Baghavat Gita daily (which is replaced by ‘Mali’s’ letters from America at one point). >> He casually recites or uses quotes from the holy texts in conversation and tries to live according to his Religion – he loosely follows the four Ashramas (stages) of Hinduism.

However, unlike Jagan, Mali displays a completely different attitude toward religion.
>> Mali does not seem to pray, offer flowers or incense to any god.
>> Mali shows no respect to his father’s religious inclinations either. He is utterly disrespectful.
>> In the letters he writes that ‘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?’ – Jagan is shocked by the news as the killing of a cow is the deadliest sin according to the shastras.

>>>>Eating beef and the lack of reverence toward religion are things that Mali learnt from America. He brings the culture of America into Jagan’s life which worsens the lack of understanding between the two of them.

2. Traditions/ Rituals
>> Jagan is adamant (stubborn) about rejecting western inventions and behaviours. This is a result of being a part of the freedom struggle. However, he is obviously unable to adapt to the changing society and hurts people close to him – his wife and son. He boasts about the powers of margosa and refuses to give aspirin to Ambika when she is in pain.
>> Jagan stringently practices a frugal lifestyle advocated by Ghandi. He wears a doti, spins his own clothes, uses dead animals and makes his own leather and does not use a toothbrush – he was not interested in the consumerist lifestyle of excessively purchasing goods.
>> Even though he calls himself a Ghandian, he fails to let go of the Caste system – even though he tells Grace that ‘It is going’ when asked by her if the Caste system is gone, he discusses with the cousin about what to do regarding Grace’s castelessness.

>> Unlike Jagan, who rejected western ways, Mali embraces them. Instead, he rejects the traditional Indian ways. Mali throws away his study books while in India because he wants to move to America to learn writing.
>> Instead of a dhoti, he wears suits and the narrator describes Mali as ‘the gentleman’ from Jagan’s perspective when he arrives in India after living in America for three years.
>> While Jagan advocated a frugal life, Mali is the opposite – he promotes the western culture of consumerism (especially in the 1960’s, before consumerism became a universal element of civilizations). His story-writing machine shows how he transforms the creative and almost revered art of writing into a cheap, affordable and mass-produced product which can be purchased by anyone for a few bucks. The creativity, the skill and the vision needed to become a writer are all devalued and trivialized with the creation of such a product.
>>Mali travels around in scooter and in his car (according to Jagan, Mali did not enjoy walking from his early years) – he seems to have used alcoholic beverages irresponsibly (alcohol found in his car).

>> Rather than worrying about the caste of the girl he is marrying, he lives together with a foreign woman who is not his wife. For Jagan this is a huge concern and he plans to convert Grace through a contact of the cousin. Since many of you have watched Hollywood movies the concept of living together is not novel (new) to you. But imagine actually doing that in Sri Lanka! Your parents would disown you – can you imagine your mother wailing (like the sari-make-up-and-tear-wearing women in mahagedara) and your father not even accepting you as his own child! Then imagine this happening more than 50 years ago, in INDIA! Mali embraces western concepts, lifestyles and defies everything his father stood for – and he rejects and mocks the Indian culture.

>>>>The above details show how Mali continuously rejected traditional Indian culture and embraced conflicting western lifestyles and concepts. This desire to behave in a defiant manner may be his rebellion against his father

3. Marriage
Jagan’s marriage was done according to Indian culture, following Hindu rituals. I will list some of these.
>> The proposal – Jagan’s father was very much involved in this. When they visited Ambika’s family, the brother plays a major role in advising Jagan. This shows how the entire family was heavily invested in the Proposal and preliminary meetings (even before talking about the wedding).
>> Prenuptial visits – Before their wedding, the fathers met many times to discuss matters. There were exchanges of gifts as well.
>> 3000 people invited by Jagan’s father, who painstakingly ensured that all the relatives were remembered.
>> Auspicious times were observed and this is a crucial part of the wedding.
>> Sacred rites, chants and rituals observed.
All of the above illustrates how the marriage was not merely two individuals uniting – it was the unification of a whole lineage – two entire families uniting through the wedding. According to Indian tradition, the wedding is a crucial social function because the sense of community in India is much stronger than it is in America.
Mali, on the other hand flouts all the above details that Jagan observed and lives with Grace.
>> He is unmarried but lives with Grace – and he lies to his father.
>> There is no involvement of the father, or his blessing. Jagan’s authority as a parent is non-existent.
>>>> Mali does not see the importance and respect that Jagan places upon marriage. Rather than trying to understand the differences in the cultures they want to embrace, Mali decides to use this conflict against his father, and displays his defiance and blatant disregard for everything Jagan believes and follows.

4. Family
The father-son relationship in India and America are very different.
>> Jagan’s father was a typical patriarchal figure who exercised the authority he had as the head of the household. He was involved in his children’s lives and took the responsibility upon his shoulders.
>> Jagan did not dare rebel against his father because he was a firm and authoritative man.
>> However, when parenting Mali, Jagan fails to create the necessary boundaries and interactions that he needed to create as the parent. Jagan says that he has never upset his son and that he was afraid to confront him. Therefore, Jagan enables Mali to becomes self-absorbed, stubborn and disrespectful.
>> And living in America, where the parental authority over the adult child is not strict, Mali becomes even more arrogant with his father – he looks at him with condescension.

>>>> Therefore, the father-son relationship is also another point where cultures collide, and Mali confronts and disregards Jagan.

Ambika and Grace difference (women in two cultures) – as women and as Wife and Fiance

5. Role of Women
>> Ambika is the more traditional woman and as Jagan’s wife she is expected to fulfill the typical tasks expected by an Indian woman in a rigid patriarchal society – child-bearing, child-rearing, cooking, washing clothes and taking care of the household.
>> Jagan tells Mali that a wife should never leave a woman to which Mali responds saying ‘Who are you to stop her from going where she pleases? She is a free person, not like the daughters-in-law in our miserable country.’
>> Grace is completely different – She tells Jagan ‘I used to work. I had two thousand dollars when I came here. All that’s gone… Mo has no more use for me.’ She is independent and does not rely on a man for her survival. However, even though she seemed well off, after coming to india she loses everything she has and has to start from the bottom once again – this may reflect how Indian society at that time was still in the embryonic stages of women’s emancipation.
>>>> The conclusion is that Jagan fails to understand the disparity of the Indian and American cultures and how Ambika and Grace behave and act differently due to this reason.
His frame of interpreting what’s good and evil does not work for the American culture – therefore, Jagan fails to offer any grace to Grace and ends up judging her for external things.

Communication Gap

‘Fate seemed to decree that there should be no communication between them.’ (Chapter 9)
‘He was in one of his rare moods of communication.’ (Chapter 5)
‘From that day, the barrier had come into being. The boy had ceased to speak to him normally.’ (Chapter 3).

Jagan fails to communicate effectively with himself and with others.

Communication is a crucial element in any relationship – if there is no communication, there will be no relationship. Take Jagan’s life. What are the healthy relationships that he has in his life? You said the cousin? Isn’t he there to just benefit from whatever Jagan can give him? The free sweets… and at the end he gets full access to Jagan’s sweet shop. So even his relationship with the cousin is not a genuine one built on real concern for the other person (to a certain degree, many of the relationships in our lives contain some semblance of a transaction anyway – because we expect certain things from the ones we love. When we learn to love them without expectations – if possible at all – that would be the truest form of love, I guess). So, Jagan, at the end of the story, does not have any true friendship or relationship left. This is due to his failure to communicate.

Jagan and Mali
According to the story, Mali becomes increasingly taciturn after the emotional breakdown of Jagan nearing the death of Ambika. As the parent, Jagan should have spoken to Mali and articulated his grief and helped Mali express his grief as well. Putting ones emotions into words and expressing it is an important part of dealing with loss. However, rather than communicating with his son and trying to console him, Jagan feels sorry for Mali and weeps while holding his hand – Mali shrugs himself away from him.

As the story progresses we realize that Jagan is afraid to upset his son – because of this he refrains from communicating with him. He avoids confronting him about the important stuff (leaving college, deciding to go to America, stealing Jagan’s money, Grace, eating beef). This lack of communication is a reflection of his cowardliness – he does not want to lose Mali, and he does not want to correct him either. He purportedly has strong beliefs and practices, but when it comes to Mali he tolerates the behaviour because of the fear of upsetting him.

Father-Son Relationship


Materialism and Spirituality

Appearance and Reality


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