Raju tells Velan of the construction of the railway in Malgudi, across the street from his father’s house. Construction workers have begun work on the line, parking their trucks beneath the tamarind tree under which Raju plays. Raju is busy among the workmen, and he has taken to playing on the red mountain of earth beneath the tree.
The beginning of the construction of the railway line in Malgudi alludes to the coming of modernization and industrialization to the town. As a child, Raju seems to have no grasp of the significance of these changes—approaching the railway construction simply as an opportunity to play—and yet, the railway will have profound consequences for his own life and destiny.
One day, Raju gets into a fight with a boy who encroaches on the red mountain of earth by the railway construction site that has become Raju’s territory. Raju pounces and curses the boy, who runs to Raju’s father, repeating the curses that Raju hurled at him. Raju’s father is infuriated and, upon learning from his son that he has picked up the words from the railway construction workers, announces that he will send Raju to school to remove him from the workmen’s influence.
Raju’s sense of propriety over the red mountain of earth points to the fact that, even as a child, Raju had exhibited tendencies towards greed and accumulation, traits that will motivate much of his actions in adulthood. Furthermore, even before its completion, the railway is already changing the environment in which Raju and his family live—exposing Raju in particular to foreign (and negative) influences, and thus motivating his father to remove him to school.
Each morning, Raju’s mother makes a fuss over Raju as she dresses and prepares him for school. He has an endless walk to school, and is often distracted, dawdling on the way. Raju’s father, proud of his son’s education, takes to boasting about the old master who oversees the school.
Raju’s school attendance marks a new phase of his childhood. Although Raju himself has little interest in school, his attendance there seems to mark a change in the family’s social status. By sending their son to school, the parents seem to attain (or at least aspire to) a higher social status—as indicated by the fact that Raju’s father likes boasting about his son’s education, as well as the fuss that Raju’s mother makes over her son every morning.
The school, in fact, is not terribly sophisticated—it’s a pyol school, one in which lessons are held on the front stoop of an old man’s house, who also acts as master. All levels of classes are held there at the same time. The master is abusive, often irritated by his young, clumsy pupils, who like to sneak into his house and make fun of him while cooking.
The school that Raju attends is very rudimentary, and as such reflects the tension between the traditional and the modern in the novel. On the one hand, it is an institution of education, but at the same time it is no more than an informal, chaotic gathering held on the front stoop of an old man’s house.
Despite the chaos of the pyol school, Raju makes enough progress to qualify for first standard at the Board High School. On the day Raju attends the new school, he is accompanied by the master, who is proud, strutting about like a king.
That Raju qualifies for first standard indicates that his rudimentary education at the master’s school was successful, in spite of the chaos that characterized the lessons there. The pride that the master takes in his students’ success suggests that, in spite of his irritable and chaotic teaching style, he did in fact fulfill his duties as a teacher.
By the riverbank near the small village of Mangal, Velan appears, bursting to tell Raju that his sister has admitted her follies before the family and has accepted Velan’s decision to betroth her to their cousin. Velan is clearly incredibly impressed with Raju’s prescience. Raju, on the other hand, is once again tempted to debunk himself, but once again holds back.
Velan is increasingly convinced of Raju’s spiritual powers—and the success that Raju achieves with Velan’s sister (without trying very hard), further confirms to Velan that Raju is spiritually gifted. And yet, there is a wide gap between Velan’s perception of Raju and Raju’s own perception of himself, as indicated in the fact that Raju feels tempted to reveal himself for the charlatan that in fact he is.
Grateful to Raju for helping him conclude the affair with his sister, Velan comes to invite Raju to the wedding, which has been arranged. He offers Raju a large tray of fruit in thanks. Although Raju manages to avoid the wedding, the wedding comes to him—Velan and the family, including the girl and her suitor, come to pay thanks to Raju by the river.
In spite of himself, Raju seems to be achieving good deeds—as indicated not only in Velan’s gratitude for his help in dealing with his difficult sister, but also the whole family’s thankfulness. The tray of fruit that Velan offers Raju points to the generosity of Velan, who does not take Raju’s help for granted, but attempts to repay him in some way by providing him with nourishment.
After the wedding incident, Raju’s circle begins to widen as news of his success with Velan’s sister spreads. Other villagers begin to come sit by the river steps, stopping there after work to visit him.
Things seem to move in a way that is outside of Raju’s control. He has not asked for this attention from the villagers, and yet he receives it. This alludes to the role that destiny, or dharma, plays in shaping Raju’s life and path—here, his reputation grows in spite of the fact that he has not actively sought for it to do so.
One day, Raju hides himself in the temple. Villagers arrive as usual, wondering where he has gone to. They speak in praise of him, saying that his presence has changed things for the better. Eventually they leave, leaving behind offerings of food, and Raju emerges from his hiding place, grateful for the food, and hopeful that Velan will always offer some to him.
Raju’s act of hiding himself indicates that he feels harassed and overrun by the villagers’ unsolicited attention. And yet, he also seems to recognize the value of this attention, given that the offerings that the villagers leave him provide him with nourishment. As such, Raju actions and thoughts here express ambivalence towards the villagers.
The next day, Raju wakes up, and contemplates his future. He must decide whether he will go back to his hometown of Malgudi, where he will have to bear the giggles and looks of the townspeople, or whether he will go elsewhere—but he is not sure where. Raju thinks that he’s not trained to work hard, and that it is unlikely that he will find another place where he will have such easy access to the nourishment that Velan and the villagers provide him. He decides, therefore, to play the role that Velan has given him. He will give guidance to the villagers, and he will play his role brilliantly, as the villagers want him to do.
Raju’s decision to play the part of the holy man that Velan and the villagers have given him indicates his selfishness and self-interest. Raju chooses to remain by the river merely because he does not know where to go, and does not want to work hard to earn his keep and his food. As such, he essentially decides to exploit the villagers’ gullibility and their goodwill, as well as their generosity towards him, in order to provide for himself. Here, Raju’s decision to play a role for his own benefit represents one of many examples in the book of him acting in such a way.
Having decided on his course, Raju sets up a place in the temple beside the river for himself with a better backdrop. However, Velan and the other villagers don’t appear. Raju begins to worry that they may never come. Raju sees a boy bathing in the river, and the boy tells him that his uncle has sent him to see if the man—that is, Raju—is present. Raju sends the boy back, telling him to inform his uncle that he is indeed back.
Raju’s mastery of disguise and dissimulation is suggested here in his adoption of a “backdrop” within the temple that would better serve his new identity as a holy man. In sending the boy to inform the villagers that he has reappeared, he serves his own self-interest, as he is interested primarily in what the villagers can give him (offerings of food), rather than what he can provide for them.