Question: ‘The novel ‘Vendor of Sweets’ deals with the theme the tradition versus modernity.’ How does the novelist R.K. Narayan bring this idea by contrasting the characters of Jagan and Mali.
Vendor of Sweets is a novel which revolves around the protagonist Jagan and his relationship with his son, as well as his character development throughout the story. The incongruities that the two main characters encounter in terms of beliefs, value systems and ideas form an important aspect of the novel. These discrepancies are aggravated as the novel progresses and widens the gap between father and son. In this essay, I will explore how the novel illuminates the clash of cultures: it is arguable that American culture is synonymous with modernity – which is introduced to the novel by Mali – whereas the Indian culture is more or less synonymous with the traditional, which is upheld by Jagan.
Attitudes and devotion to religious principles and traditions are a cause for contention between Mali and Jagan. Their ideas on religion is conflicting. At the beginning of the novel, Jagan is presented as someone who devoutly follows rituals. He offers jasmine and lights incense sticks every morning to goddess Laxmi, and is in the habit of praying. Furthermore, he appears to be an ardent follower of Hinduism and buries himself in the Baghavat Gita on a daily basis. When he meets with Chinna Dorai, he feels a sense of superiority and tries to barricade himself from Mali and Grace, whom he regards as sinners not to be associated with. This self-righteousness emerges out of his religiosity. However, in stark contrast to Jagan’s adherence to religion, Mali is seen to have adopted an indifferent attitude towards religious doctrines and rituals. During his time in America he has absorbed modern ideas on living and begins to see traditional religious principles as an inconvenience which causes a backward attitude. He does not emulate any religious activity performed by his father. In fact, he speaks about how juicy steak is, knowing that cows are considered a sacred animal in Hinduism. Even when he knows that Jagan is very serious and concerned about not killing cows, because it heads the list of the 5 deadly sins written down in the Shastras, he cruelly informs his father about his new habit in such a way that shows not only his difference in thought, but his sheer disrespect towards Indian traditions. Therefore, it is clear that religion is a major aspect which shows the conflict between tradition and modernism.
Jagan and Mali’s treatment of the concept of marriage is another point which brings out the differences between the traditional and modern. Jagan’s was an arranged marriage and the parent’s involvement in the event is clear. It is the parent’s decision. Traditionally, the woman is supposed to submit to the husband and respect him as the head of the house/bread-winner. Jagan says that the woman should follow the husband no matter where he goes. But Mali’s ideas are different. His idea of male-female companionship is modern and marriage is not the only institution which permits a man and a woman to live together in the same house. Jagan has no clue as to who Grace is and is only introduced to him by his son in a rather brusque manner. Jagan is perplexed to know that Grace goes out and returns late and that Mali is not even sure about where she is. For Mali, the freedom she has to do whatever she wants is practical and reasonable.
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Marriage – Woman’s place in marriage – husbands role in marriage – cultural things like caste and parental involvement.
Parent and offspring relationship – concept of respect – and the idea of being a sweetmaker being degrading to Mali
The idea of writing – arts – as a business in the modern world, whereas it used to be something that brought enlightenment to people – baghavat gita for example or the Upanishads or whatever were there to help them to become spiritually, culturally and intellectually wiser. Mali brings a machine – no Spirit, no inspiration…