The Vendor of Sweets OL English Literature Analysis/Criticism
CHAPTER 1 and 2
‘Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self’
Jagan is in the habit of quoting phrases from sacred texts now and then. However, immediately after the quotation we get to know that he does not understand the meaning behind the quote. This sums up his preoccupation with religion.
In the quotation, taste relates to things that we are greedy for. Things that we crave. It can come in many forms, not only gluttony (craving for food). It can also be avarice (greed for money), narcissism (greed for self-importance). The irony of the statement Jagan uses is that even though he preaches it, he does not genuinely follow it.
The attachment to external things in life holds us back from truly being free. When we are able to conquer our attachments in life, then we will be able to truly be free. If we depend on things such as money, food, self-worth and our relationships with others, they will have a sort of control over us. Our mindset will be controlled by these factors to some extent. But if you are able to detach yourself from these entanglements in life, you may be able to conquer yourself.
But as we know, throughout the story, Jagan holds on to many things. Money, relationships, self-importance.
Jagan sat under the framed picture of the goddess Laxshmi hanging on the wall, and offered prayers first thing in the day by reverently placing a string of jasmine on top of the frame; he also lit an incense stick…
Jagan is portrayed as someone religious or pious. He prays every morning, and offers jasmine and the fragrance of incense. All these tasks can be seen as rituals. But notice that it is goddess Laxshmi out of all the gods. Laxshmi is the goddess of wealth. Jagan, under the guise of worshipping, is actually bowing down to wealth, or money. Right throughout the novel we begin to realize that even though he displays a deeply religious or spiritual nature externally, in truth, he is not very spiritual and is unable to gain much insight. Religion for him is only a set of tasks. He is unable to let go of his desire for money. Even when he goes on the retreat at the end of the story, his bank book is with him and he does not part with it. Even at this point, he is unable to part with his money. Therefore, Jagan shows religiosity and deep spirituality externally and engages in a number of rituals which have an appearance of spirituality, but in truth, he is rather shallow and materialistic, worshipping money and his own ego. At one point, the letters from America replaces the reading of the Bagavad Gita.
He shaved only at certain intervals, feeling that to view oneself daily in a mirror was an intolerable European habit.
Every day he spun for an hour.
(He never possessed more than two sets of clothes at a time).
Excursions to remote villages where a cow or calf was reported to be dying.
…but as he grew older he (Mali) began to complain of the stench whenever his father brought home leather. Jagan’s wife proved even less tolerant, shutting herself in a room and refusing to come out until the tanning ended. (carried on for several days)
He was opposed to the use of a toothbrush.
He forbade her to swallow aspirin and suggested that she should fry a little margosa flower in ghee and swallow it for relief from headache.
The above quotations indicate how Jagan downright rejected western concepts and behaviours. They also show you how these rather eccentric behaviour were a serious inconvenience to his family: both Ambika and Mali. He was more concerned about his theories and principles rather than his family. He does not even try to compromise and be a bit understanding. He goes on with his strange behaviour despite the trouble it causes the family.
These quotations also show the clash of western and traditional elements. Aspirin and Margosa is a prime example. Jagan insists that Ambika uses Margosa rather than Aspirin and this shows that he is callous and insensitive, not realizing that Ambika is in immense pain. This also leads to another important point – he does not take her suffering and her condition seriously. If he took her to a doctor rather than complaining that Aspirin is poison and that Margosa is divine, Ambika might have been treated and lived much longer. Mali seems to notice this, and grows up to resent his father and his lack of action to save his mother.
Shaving once in a while shows that he is more concerned about rejecting European behaviours than about how he looks. This reflects how he still holds on to the resistance they used to show during the freedom struggle when India was a British Colony. But even years after gaining independence, he is unable to let go of that mentality, and keeps rejecting many things that are Western; even things that are not detrimental.
He was a cowardly father and felt afraid to mention class or college.
Jagan is portrayed as cowardly. He is intimidated by his son. He never confronts Mali until toward the last chapters, after he meets Chinna Dorai, the Bearded Man. He says that he has never upset him. When he comes from America, Jagan almost calls him ‘sir’. He seems like a stranger and he backs away from him. He feels inferior and insecure, therefore is unable to assert any authority over Mali. The result is that he never disciplines him. Even when Mali does things that need to be condemned and deserving punishment, Jagan does not do anything about those behaviours. He simply ignores them and always tries to justify Mali. Consequentially, Mali becomes narcissistic, arrogant, disobedient, and disrespectful.
This quotation also reveals how Jagan does not communicate the important things with Mali. He fails as a parent. He does not admonish him and rebuke Mali’s misguided decisions.
‘I spent the best of my student years in prison’ said Jagan, feeling heroic, his reminiscent mood slurring over the fact that he had failed several times in the B.A., had ceased to attend the college, and had begun to take his examinations as a private candidate, long before the call of Gandhi.
Jagan conveniently forgets details when talking about himself. He does not mention the parts in his life that are failures. He does not admit to his mistakes either. He justifies them or glosses over them. In this instance, he prevaricates and makes himself look better than he actually is. Throughout the story, Jagan struggles to keep his EGO strong. He continuously seeks flattery from the cousin and others (Chinna Dorai) and often changes the truth and lies about his convictions just to make himself look good at any given moment. When Grace asks about race, he says its going. But later conspires to convert her. In above quotation, he is reminiscing about his endeavours; he seems to have distorted his memories so that his pride and ego will not be harmed by the memory of his failure. This shows us how weak and fragile his identity is! He cannot own up to his failures.
He is writing, that’s all. Wants to be a writer.
The significant thing about this is that it is the cousin who informs Jagan about his son. This is a really important piece of information about Mali, and Jagan does not speak to him directly. Rather, he asks the cousin to speak to him and tell him about his son. This sounds quite ridiculous; it shows you the dysfunctional relationship between father and son. Communication is a key theme in the story, and this quote conveys how the cousin becomes the mediator between Jagan and Mali – this further distances the two of them. As the parent who is supposed to initiate dialogue and clear any misunderstanding, Jagan avoids his son and lets things get worse each day.
He (Mali) suddenly tore up the pages of his books savagely, beckoned an attendant, and said, ‘Put these in the fire in the kitchen.’
He learnt that the boy had cut out the coupon from the magazine on his college library table… ‘I have always wanted to teach that librarian a lesson.’
‘It’s not like frying sweets in your shop.’