Just two days after his release from prison, a man named Raju is sitting cross-legged by an ancient shrine when a man named Velan approaches him seeking advice. His sister is supposed to be married, but she has run away. Raju doesn’t know Velan or his sister, nor does he care much about them, but he’s in the habit of giving advice after years as a tour guide. And he’s used to his advice being appreciated, even when it’s completely off-the-mark. So he gives advice and gains a devotee.
This 1958 novel by R. K. Narayan tells the story of Raju’s various rises to power—and what that power does to him. One storyline, told in the third person, shows Raju, the ex-con, winning disciples almost in spite of himself. This narrative alternates with Raju’s first-person account of his life as a tour guide and the relationship that eventually landed him in prison.
The juxtaposition of the two narratives makes the book difficult to follow at first, but it helps to show just how Raju operates—and he is an operator. He may not look for opportunities to be deceitful, but when opportunities arise, he takes them. He plays the part that people expect of him, passively at first, but once he sees an angle the benefits him, he fully immerses himself in the new persona.
But being a spiritual guide is not the same as being a tour guide, and soon the role is out of his hands, and the people are in charge. It’s at this point that the narrative reverts almost entirely to the first-person flashback, as Raju tries to make a clean breast of it and reveal to his most devoted disciple who he really is.
It’s at this point that we sees Raju’s third guide persona, when he takes on the task of guiding a beautiful dancer named Rosie to her future. The relationship began as one of lust but turned into yet another opportunity to play an angle. Raju uses Rosie’s talent to build his own fame and fortune, but he didn’t know when to stop. And so he lost what he had gained.
Raju presents himself as charming and pleasant and oh, so helpful, but in truth, he’s only out for himself. All his efforts to help others are ways to serve himself. He gives little thought to what people actually want, only how he can make them appreciate his efforts. Sometimes his efforts do some good. He gave many tourists the holiday they wanted, and he gave Rosie massive success although whether Rosie was happy is an open question—and it’s evident that to Raju she’s a possession, not a person. His advice to spiritual seekers isn’t necessarily bad, but that’s mostly because it’s vague enough for people to apply however they see fit.
The book ends with Raju’s final role coming to an end, and readers are left to wonder why he chooses to end his work the way he does (or seems to). Is he repentant and trying to be the guru people want? Is he in despair over the way things turned out? Or is he hoping for greater glory? I can’t quite make up my mind on this point. He seems utterly humbled by the end, but I’m not convinced his final act is one of humility.
I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, but I made a point of reading and reviewing it this week as part of Aarti’s #Diversiverse event. R. K. Narayan is a noted Indian author whose career spanned much of the 20th century. This is the first of his books that I’ve read.