The Guide: A #Diversiverse Review

The GuideJust 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.

DiversiverseI’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.

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8 Responses to The Guide: A #Diversiverse Review

  1. I went through a phase in high school when I read/acquired a whole lot of R. K. Narayan books. In fact, my boyfriend (at the time) and I would take turns reading them, and then we would discuss them together! And The Guide was what started the whole Narayan obsession for me. (I can’t speak for my boyfriend, haha. My guess is that he was won over by my enthusiasm. :-D ) But anyways yes, I remember being totally bowled over by the perfect trajectory of the storytelling–the kind of story where you have a sense of where it’s going, but all the same you love being a part of the journey. I loved the human complexity of Raju’s character, and how he was susceptible to both change and very human-like shortcomings. And that ending, bah! So good. Yes, I’m unabashedly a fan. :-D Thank you for this review and for reminding me about a book that’s worthy of a re-read!

  2. Ambiguous endings are one of the things I love — where the author leaves it to you to think things went in one direction or another. Did you feel that was Narayan’s intent? Or did you feel uncertain in the way that you weren’t sure what the AUTHOR thought of the character?

    • Teresa says:

      I think what happens is clear, but Raju’s intent isn’t. I’m inclined to distrust Raju, but some of that is due to my own hang-ups. I can’t decide whether Narayan means for us to distrust him at the end or whether we’re supposed to think he’s been redeemed. I’d have to read more Narayan to know whether he tends to celebrate this type of character, but a case could be made either way from the text.

  3. Juxtabook says:

    I read and enjoyed R. K. Narayan’s The Painter of Signs quite some years ago and always meant to look out some more. Thank you for putting him back on my radar.

    • Teresa says:

      That happens to me all the time. I’ll read one book by an author and want to read more and then forget. Sometimes it takes someone else’s blog post to remind me :)

  4. aartichapati says:

    I was surprised to see no comment from me on this review and then remembered that we chatted about it on Twitter, not the blog. Narayan is such a popular author – i think I have his Under the Bamboo Tree somewhere. I should give it a try.

    • Teresa says:

      I think the fact that he’s so well-known among people interested in Indian literature but not generally is evidence of the need for events like #diversiverse. I love Graham Greene and other writers from the same period but never even heard of Narayan until I started looking for classic writers of color.

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