The misguided guide
Technically, The Guide is an advance on the earlier novels: the present and the past are cunningly jumbled to produce an impression of suspense and anticipation. We begin with Raju’s release from prison and Velan’s recognition of a ‘Swami’ in him. The earlier history of Raju is supposed to be related by him to Velan much later, when the fast is in progress.
The zig-zag narration gives a piquancy to the novel without quite confusing the reader. We are enabled to see the action as Raju sees it, and as the later Raju Sober, sees the earlier Raju Drunk. Raju lacks the sheer exuberance and vitality of Narayan’s other characters. Marco is also only a two dimensional figure, rather than a character. Rosie is a reader’s predicament. The elements being so strangely mixed in her that she remains dusky rather than bright, being seen through the film of a lover’s muddled infatuation. After all the alarums and excursions, all the excitement and suspense, all the regrets and examination, Raju realizes that “neither Marco nor I had any place in her life, which had its own sustaining vitality and which she herself had underestimated all along.” Rosie’s own summing up is masterly. “I felt all along you were not doing right things. This is Karma. What can we do?” There is thus no failure of nemesis in The Guide.
Raju is doubtless half knave, half fool and he remains such when he allows himself to be mistaken for a Swami, a spiritual Guide, by the simple people of Mangala. Somed ays later, he is trapped into commencing his fast; a change comes over him: He fasts, and he prays, and he enjoys this experience. He is now – at last – dead to his old self, he is like one reborn. Some are born saints,some achieve sanctity and some have sanctity thrust upon them. Perhaps Raju is one of these last. Narayan’s irony, skill in characterization or his ease in telling a story can be absorbed even by a lay person. However, the most interesting and intriguing part of the novel is the ending.
It is an open ended novel where nothing is ever revealed. If you think it is right, it will be so. So what does happen? Does Raju die? Does it rain after all? Has the mask become so overpowering, that it takes over Raju’s real character and establishes it as the truth? What indeed does happen? I am no optimist and can enjoy Narayan’s dark irony as he traces the making of a Mahatma in this novel. However, I like to believe that Raju’s was a case where the physical guide indeed became a spiritual guide, a Swami. Just as in the case of Girish Karnad’s The Fire and The Rain, here too, the mask has taken over the character. But it is not just a passive taking over. In Raju’s case, the chaacter has acquired the mask and become one with it. Raju’s salvation lies in his courage to accept all his follies and repent for them.
I personally never found Raju as immoral because in the intial part, Rosie’s status as a wife is so pitiful that I almost wanted Raju and Rosie to fall in love. Hence I don’t see Raju’s downfall as a punishment for his immorality. Raju’s tragedy was that he could never say no. he just accepted all that was thrust upon him and thus played different roles. Hence he became a shop owner, a tourist guide and later on an agent to Nalini alias Rosie’s dance performance. However, not taking a decision is a decision in itself and indeed, if Raju couldn’t say no, also means that he wanted to say no.
The ending is perhaps the most tricky. If I say that I believe in Raju’s transformation from a swindler to a saint, I will be accused of being too naïve. If I don’t agree with it, I will be labeled as an atheist. And I am neither, so I will leave the interpretation of Raju’s character to the reader. But I would like to believe that Raju never died. In fact, with a flair for drama, I believe that it rained just when Raju fell down, thus assuring the world of Raju’s sacrifice and salvation. Yes, it did rain. I hope it rained. You know as well as I do, that the world needs rains like this. Rains that reinstate your faith in human potentials and the mercy of the supernatural. It had to rain. There is no doubt about it. It did rain, after all.