A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Raju doesn’t really know where to go after his release from prison. Like most, his first stop is the nearby barber shop where he gets a clean shave. Next, he finds himself taking shelter in an abandoned Hindu temple that’s overrun by jungle. As he sits in this picaresque setting, reflecting on his life and hesitating to return in disgrace to his hometown, he’s mistaken for a holy man by a local named Velan. Instinctively, Raju begins to listen to the man’s complaints and give him equivocal advice. You see, this kind of deception is Raju’s specialty. Before his two year prison sentence, he was South India’s most corrupt and least knowledgeable tour guide. Once you’ve lead tourists through an invented string of sights and history, leading rural farmers through an invented spirituality is cake.
Raju finds himself adopted as the religious leader of the little community. Other than the food the villagers bring to repay him for his help and advice, Raju takes nothing from the locals. In fact, Raju does the village a wealth of good—setting up schools for the children, smoothing over family discord. He’s beloved and respected for his wisdom. But when more serious issues begin to arise—drought, famine, disease—can Raju provide genuine guidance? Or will he be exposed as the same fraud he was in his past life?
If you think the plot of R.K. Narayan’s The Guide sounds like a simple parable, you’re not too far off. The difference is in Narayan’s abilities as a writer and the complexity of his vision. The Guide is cleverly structured, taking us through Raju’s criminal life in fragmented suspenseful flashbacks that keep us turning the pages. At first we keep reading because we want to know how this young man found himself in prison, but as the book carries on we find ourselves just as caught up in Raju’s newest problems.
Narayan also avoids the strict blacks and whites of moral tales. Raju never seems motivated merely by greed, nor purely by charity. He’s really just as aimless and noncommittal as any of his own advice. His deceptions just seem like as good a way to get through life as any other. They all build up to a beautiful and emotional open ending. It will definitely leave you with some unanswered questions.
With it’s subtle humor and compelling story, The Guide is both a great read and great literature. I’d definitely recommend it for book clubs, or anyone with even a moderate interest in Indian fiction.
Review by Matthew