Sitting on a granite slab by a river, Raju is approached by a stranger, who looks up at him reverentially. Slightly disconcerted by the stranger’s gaze, Raju nonetheless invites him to sit. Raju asks where the stranger comes from, and the stranger tells him that he is from a nearby village, Mangal, located across the river bank. Raju enjoys the stranger’s talk, considering that he has been all alone in this place for a day. Again noting the stranger’s respectful gaze, he strokes his chin, wondering whether “an apostolic beard” has sprouted there.
That the novel opens on a riverbank is significant, given that the river (and water more generally) is used symbolically to allude to Raju’s spiritual state. Indeed, there are already indications that Raju is undergoing some kind of transformation. The stranger who looks up reverently at Raju clearly mistakes him for some kind of a holy man, and this foreshadows Raju’s forthcoming spiritual transformation into a genuine holy man.
Raju’s musings on his facial hair lead him back to his last visit to a barber for a shave, which took place two days earlier. To Raju’s chagrin, the barber, whose shop is located close to the prison gates, had correctly guessed that Raju had just been released from prison. He also guessed that Raju had not committed a serious offence like murder or rape, but rather a petty one of cheating, and that he had not been in prison for a long time. When the barber asked Raju what he intended to do next, Raju said he didn’t know—though he must go somewhere.
This flashback to the haircut at the barber reveals that Raju, in fact, has a dark secret—he has committed a crime, although the reader is not told exactly what it is. Furthermore, the conversation at the barber’s reveals that Raju is at a point in his life where he is unmoored and unsettled; after his release from prison, he must find a new path forward.
On the river bank, Raju finds the stranger still seated on the steps below him, looking at him with devotion. Raju asks him irritably why he looks at Raju in this way. Raju is tempted to confess to the villager that he is here on the river bank because he has nowhere else to go, but he is worried that he will offend the villager if he mentions the word “jail.” Before he has a chance to speak, however, the villager tells Raju that he has a problem. Raju encourages him to share it.
The villager’s attitude of devotion and respect towards Raju is ironic—given that Raju is in fact not a holy man or a saint, but a newly released convict. This disconnect between what Raju appears to be, and who he actually is, calls attention to the gap between illusion and reality—a recurrent theme in the novel.
Before the stranger, whose name is Velan, shares his problem, the narrative jumps forward to Raju telling Velan his life story. His troubles began, he says, when he met Rosie, a woman who, in spite of the exotic name she went by, was an Indian dancer. At the first opportunity he found, Raju told Rosie that she was a great dancer who fostered India’s cultural traditions.
The abrupt jump to Raju’s own life story emphasizes that Raju—like Velan, who is seeking his help—has had troubles of his own. In Raju’s narration, Rosie clearly plays a very important part, given that Raju associates his troubles with her. Rosie’s “exotic” and non-traditional name—which is not Indian—alludes to the way that she straddles the divide between tradition and modernity.
Raju flatters and praises Rosie’s talents whenever he finds the opportunity and whenever they are out of range of her husband’s hearing. Her husband, in contrast to Rosie, is grotesque, always dressed like a man about to undertake an expedition—which prompts Raju, upon meeting him for the first time in the railway station, to refer to him as Marco Polo.
Raju’s flattery of Rosie in spite of her status as a married woman points to his dubious morals; clearly, he has no qualms about overstepping the bounds of propriety with Rosie behind Marco’s back. This also points to Raju’s propensity for deceit.
Raju says that he was fated to become a guide. As a child, he had grown up in a small house opposite the railway station of Malgudi, in a house built by his father long before trains arrived in the town.
Raju’s statement that he was fated to become a guide points to the role that destiny, or dharma, plays in the novel, particularly in the unfolding of Raju’s own life. Raju seems to follow a preordained path. Raju’s remark that he grew up in a house before the arrival of the railway in Malgudi indicates that Raju’s early childhood took place before the arrival of industrialization and modernization in the town.
Raju’s father made a living from a small shop he built on the premises of the house, around which peasants and drivers of bullock wagons were always gathered. When his father went inside the house to eat lunch every day, Raju would take his place in the shop. Each morning, after drinking the buffalo milk warmed for him by his mother, Raju would find his father waiting for him on the pyol, or stoop, of the house, ready to commence giving Raju lessons on the Tamil alphabet and arithmetic. To Raju’s relief, the lessons inevitably ended with the arrival of the first customer at the shop, and he would immediately go off to play under the shade of a tamarind tree across the road.
The occupation of Raju’s father as a small shopkeeper suggests that the family lives modestly—although all their needs are met through the father’s business. Raju’s own childhood seems to reflect the way in which the family exists between tradition and modernity. On the one hand, even as a child, Raju must already work helping his father at the shop. On the other hand, the father’s insistence on giving Raju morning lessons suggests that education—a marker of modernity—is also important to the family. Raju’s father wants his son to be educated, but the education he provides him with is clearly rudimentary, as indicated in the fact that Raju is released to play with the arrival of the father’s first customer.
Back on the riverbank, Velan is seated on the steps that lead down to the river, telling Raju that he has a problem. Raju has felt important ever since this man gazed up at him. He tells Velan, in a sudden fit of sagacity, to show him a person without a problem, and he will in turn show him a perfect world. He then tells a story of a woman who went crying to the Buddha, clutching a dead baby in her arms. The Buddha tells her to go into every home in the city and find one where death is unknown. Raju adds that if Velan can show him a single home without a problem, he can show him the way to find a solution to all problems.
In making profound statements to Velan about the universality of people’s problems, and in referencing the Buddha, Raju seems to be taking on the part of a wise holy man that Velan is projecting onto him. But the motivation behind Raju’s wise statements seems to be self-interest: he clearly enjoys the way that Raju venerates him, and makes him feel important. Raju’s own posture of superior wisdom is also ironic, given that he himself is confronting a major problem for which he as yet has no solution—he has been released from prison, but doesn’t know where he will go or what he will do.
Velan, impressed by the weightiness of Raju’s statements, tells him that the youngest daughter of his late father’s third wife, for whom he acts as a guardian, refuses to accept his plans for her marriage—Velan wants her to marry his cousin’s son. He is at a loss over what to do with the girl, and asks Raju for counsel. Raju instructs him to bring her to see him. In gratitude, Velan reaches down to touch Raju’s feet, but Raju recoils, telling him that it is only God who is worthy of such prostration.
Velan’s difficulty with a recalcitrant younger half-sister, who refuses to accept the match he has made for her, points to the theme of gender and conflicts over gender relations as a central theme of the novel. The rebellious young sister foreshadows Rosie, the novel’s heroine, who also often acts outside of the bounds of her prescribed gender role. Raju’s rejection of Velan’s gesture of respect and gratitude suggests that Raju—who is only play-acting the part of a wise man, after all—is aware that he does not deserve the respect that Velan shows him.
After Velan leaves, Raju sits watching the river for a long time and counting the stars. He has a fantasy that, by charting the stars, he will become a famous night guide for the skies. However, he soon finds himself muddled and exhausted by the task and lays down to sleep.
Raju’s act of looking at the river is significant, given that water in the novel is a symbol of Raju’s purification and redemption. As such, his preoccupation with the river here suggests the beginnings of this process of purification. Furthermore, his fantasy about becoming a famous night guide for the skies foreshadows his role, at the end of the novel, as a spiritual guide who sacrifices himself for the sake of bringing rains from the skies to relieve the drought-stricken villagers. As such, by the end of the novel, Raju does become a “a famous […] guide for the skies” in a sense.
The next morning, Raju awakens to find Velan standing with his sister, a fourteen year old girl. Raju, still groggy from sleep, finds that he is not quite ready to take charge of the world’s affairs, and he directs Velan and the girl to wait for him in the hall of the temple by the river. When he goes to meet them again, he finds that Velan has brought him a basket of food. Raju, who can use the food, welcomes this.
Raju clearly has set events in motion without being quite ready to deal with their consequences. Velan’s presence with his sister even before Raju wakes alludes to the way in which Raju’s life slowly begins to be invaded by others. The food that Velan brings Raju as a gift of gratitude, however, indicates that Raju can also benefit from Velan’s presence in his life and space.
Nonetheless, Raju takes the basket and places it at the foot of a stone image of a god in the temple, saying that they will eat the remnant only after the god has taken his fill. He begins telling a story of a man named Devaka who, in ancient times, begged for alms at the temple gate, but would always put offerings given to him at the feet of a god first. Halfway through the story, Raju realizes he can’t remember the point or the ending of the story, and he lapses into silence, while Velan waits patiently. Raju turns and strides to the river step, and Velan and his sister follow.
Raju play-acts when he tells Velan that they must wait for the god to eat his fill. Knowing that Velan believes him to be a holy man, Raju dissimulates in such a way so as to confirm, rather than correct, Velan’s mistaken impression. And yet, Raju’s performance is not foolproof, as suggested by the fact that he loses the most important thread of the story that he begins to tell Velan and his sister about Devaka.
Raju remembers being back in Malgudi, his mother telling him stories as they waited for his father to close his shop. Raju’s mother would send her son out to see if his father—who enjoyed the company of his late-night customers—could be convinced to turn in. Inevitably, the father would tell Raju to tell his mother not to wait for him, but to leave some food out. Raju and his mother would then eat dinner, and Raju would lie down, cozy with his mother beside him, and listen to her stories about a man called Devaka, falling asleep before his mother was even through the beginning of the story.
Raju’s memories of listening to his mother tell stories about Devaka evoke the warm, close relationship that Raju shared with her as a child. This vision of closeness both foreshadows, and stands in contrast with the conflicted relationship that Raju will in fact develop with her in adulthood. Furthermore, Raju’s memory of his mother here suggests the way in which Raju continues to be haunted by his past. Although he is pretending to be, and acting as though, he were a new person (a holy man), he cannot reinvent himself completely, as fragments from his previous life continue to bubble up in his mind. This moment also explains why Raju can’t remember the point of the Devaka story—he always fell asleep immediately.
On the riverbank, Raju is still sitting on the steps with Velan and his sister patiently waiting for him on a lower step. Raju is irritated by them; he has his own problems to think about and wishes he were alone. He tells Velan he will not think of his problems now, but only when the time is right for it. When Velan rises to go, Raju tells him he needs to give the matter some thought. He suddenly finds himself asking, “Have I been in prison or in some sort of transmigration?” Velan seems relieved and happy that Raju has spoken so much, and states that the course of things is pre-determined just as the course of a river is pre-determined. They gaze on the river. Raju watches Velan and his sister cross it and disappear.
Raju’s memory of his mother seems to unsettle him, as indicated by his sudden irritation with Velan and his sister. The question that Raju asks—to himself or to Velan, it is not entirely clear—is both profound and ambiguous. Raju has indeed been in prison, of course, but his thought that perhaps he has been in some sort of “transmigration” alludes to the fact that he feels some profound change coming over him. Velan’s statement that the course of things is pre-determined in the same way that the course of a river is, brings attention to the role of water in the novel. As a symbol for Raju’s purification and redemption, the emphasis on the river, as well as the characters’ act of gazing on the river in this scene, suggests that Raju’s process of purification has begun.