I've been thinking about restarting the evening book club a lot lately, which has made me remember the last one I led. R.K. Narayan's The Guide was the first book we read together, and it remained one of the best discussions we had--mostly because the group members couldn't come to a consensus on what happened. If you read my review, you might see why we had trouble agreeing. (I, by the way, take the saint position.)
The Guide opens with Raju leaving prison. He goes to the
barber, gets a haircut and shave, and has no idea what to do afterward.
He was once India’s most famous tour guide. He was then the famous
companion of the dancer Nalini. But having burned both of these bridges
and defamed himself, his prospects are limited and his options few.
Because he has nowhere else to go, Raju takes up residence at the local
temple, because no one can really force him to leave.
It is here that Raju meets Velan, someone "of the stuff disciples
are made of." Velan recognizes Raju as a guru. Raju tries to correct
Velan’s perception, but when Velan and his fellow villagers start caring
for Raju’s needs, he decides to play the part. He offers mystical
advice and spouts impossible prophecies in an attempt to make himself
sound legitimate. The villagers regard him as a saint and continue to
provide him with food.
But when a drought comes, spoiling the crops and killing the
livestock, the villagers are at a loss for what to do—until they
remember Raju’s own prophecy that a holy man would fast and stand
knee-deep in water each day, praying for rain. Due to a miscommunication
and a firm belief in Raju’s guru status, the villagers stop bringing
Raju food, assuming he is the fulfillment of his own prophecy.
Regretting his prophecy and faced with starvation and doubt, Raju
realizes there is no way out but to tell the truth. He reveals his
story to Velan, cataloguing all his misdeeds that disqualify him from
Liar. Adulterer. Thief. Forger. Raju has played all these parts,
the last of which resulted in his prison sentence. After Raju’s
confession, Velan’s faith is unshaken, and Raju is forced to decide: save himself, or give his life in the fulfillment of a potentially bogus
Narayan's storytelling is simple. The Guide is not a hard
book to read, and it is a very enjoyable story. But the simple phrasing
cloaks a deeper meaning, which causes the reader to reflect upon the
story and his own life.
The bulk of The Guide is Raju’s narrating his life to
Velan. Because Raju is telling his own story and he has an obvious
purpose for doing so, the reader is forced to question the veracity of
his account. But Narayan’s alternating between Raju’s first-person
account and third-person narration adds balance to the story and allows
the reader more evidence on which to base conclusions. The reader gets
Raju’s personal view, focusing on his own sin, but also the view of the
villagers who sincerely believe in his sainthood. Especially at the
plot’s climax, Narayan shows rather than tells, which gives a more vivid
picture of Raju’s transformation.
Narayan does a fantastic job of making the reader both love and
hate his main character. It is clear from the story that Raju has many
talents, but his talents (without being coupled with responsibility)
lead him down all the wrong paths. It is only when his "disciple" has
faith in him despite his faults that he is able to take
responsibility for his actions. But then the question arises: Was the
transformation genuine, or was it only self-deception?
Raju plays the part of several guides: tourist guide, manager to a
famous dancer, and spiritual guide. But his motives in playing each
part and his knowledge of each field are speculative. Can the reader
trust Raju's own account? He calls himself a compulsive liar. Could it
be that Raju has spent so much of his life lying to others that he can
no longer discern truth from lies in his own life?
The book ends abruptly, without resolution of the main plot,
leaving the reader to speculate the results of Raju’s prophecy and
transformation. Narayan’s choice is in some ways annoying, but it
highlights that the point of the book is not the resolution of a plot
but the metamorphosis (or self-deception) of a man.