The Guide: A non-spiritual perspective

Last weekend, I read “The Guide” by R.K. Narayan on the recommendation of a friend and enjoyed it thoroughly. I wasn’t sure what Narayan wanted to convey however. Even as I thought about it, I looked up the wikipedia entry which links to two pieces which talk of symbolism, illusion, self-deception, maya, man being a tool of divine purpose and so on. I was quite bewildered because all those interpretations seemed entirely forced to me.

There is no explicit philosophy in the story. No moralizing. Just a simple dramatized narration. And that leaves the message open to interpretation. The following is my interpretation based on a simple reading of the story itself. (I am not familiar with any of Narayan’s other works so I cannot claim that this is what Narayan intended to convey). Spoilers ahead. Please read the original work before reading ahead.

Raju is a drifter. He does whatever amuses him, interests him, or arouses his passions. And he does not care what the world thinks of him. He inherits his father’s business – a shop on a railway station – and happens to become a travel guide. Quite by accident. He makes a career out of guiding tourists to places he has never seen himself and telling them history which he makes up on the spur of the moment. He is unscrupulous enough to not mind what he is doing and sharp enough to make a good business out of it.

When he meets Rosie – the neglected wife of an archaeologist, he immediately falls in love with her and gets involved in an affair. Against the advice of his friends. He doesn’t really think about the consequences, about the damage to his business, or anything else. He simply follows his heart. Rosie is from a caste of dancers – treated as public women by society. Raju tells her that he doesn’t believe in caste, and he is telling her the truth, but it is not as if he has consciously rejected the concept. It is just that he has never accepted it, never thought about it consciously, and he is too free-spirited to be bound by rules he does not understand.

When Rosie’s husband discovers the affair and dumps Rosie, she comes to him and he takes her into his home. And keeps her there braving the ire of his mother, uncle and society. Out of his passion for her. Not out of any deep conviction that he is right. But that is being unfair to him. More accurately, Raju is just incapable of deep convictions. He lives his life by the whim of the moment, not by a philosophy.

Being a smart man, Raju is soon able to help Rosie achieve her dreams of becoming a dancer. And he gets caught up in the trappings of wealth, power and influence. He begins to believe that he is the architect of Rosie’s success, not realizing that she is a strong woman who would eventually have found her dream with or without him. He is still insecure about Rosie’s husband and foolishly ends up committing a forgery. By this time, Rosie has grown tired of Raju, and although she does everything in her power to help him financially, she decides to go her own way.

Raju is sentenced to two years of prison. And he doesn’t really mind it! On the contrary, he begins enjoying it. Despite having been carried away by the trappings of wealth, he is still too free-spirited to be troubled by the censure of society.

When he comes out of prison, he has nowhere to go and settles in a village. The villagers mistake him for a holy man and he plays along, getting a sustenance for free out of the offerings the villagers make him. He is sharp enough to make the sort of grand-sounding but empty statements that fool the villagers. The railway guide becomes a spiritual guide. But the spiritual guide is just as fake as the railway guide. The railway guide played on the ignorance of the tourists, on their desires to feel that their holiday was worthwhile without knowing what would make it worthwhile, on their mindless acceptance of the fiction that he told them as fact. The spiritual guide plays on the insecurities of the villagers, on their desire to control what is outside the control of any man, on their mindless acceptance of his empty statements.

Finally, Raju gets trapped into a twelve day fast to bring rain. On the eleventh day, he collapses saying “Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs –“. And that is how the story ends. Ambiguously. Does he die? Does it rain? It does not matter.

Raju is a free spirited and intelligent man but he is not a thinker. He never plans ahead. He doesn’t reflect on what he is doing. He does not ponder moral questions. He does not live by the rules of society, and he does not make his own rules either. There is an oft-cited maxim for a good life “Follow your heart”. Raju symbolizes that maxim. And the story is a brilliantly dramatised account of how that maxim actually plays out. The free spirited man without a guiding principle becomes a tool for others – all through his life. First, as a railway guide, visiting places he is not interested in visiting, because others are interested in visiting them. Then, as a partner with Rosie, promoting art that he doesn’t really understand or appreciate, because the object of his love appreciates it. And finally as a holy man, proclaiming beliefs he does not hold, because others hold them. His entire life is shaped by other people’s decisions. There are two other important characters in the story – Rosie and Marco. Both know what they want, are passionate about it, and work tirelessly toward it without compromising. And both achieve their dreams. Marco publishes a book, Rosie becomes a dancer.

There is no short-cut to happiness. Those who mindlessly abide by second-hand beliefs do not achieve it. Narayan doesn’t even bother with them. But those who mindlessly reject the second-hand beliefs do not achieve it either. And that, to me is the meaning of this story.

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