Narayan’s The Guide depicts modernization overtaking protagonist-narrator Raju’s hometown of Malgudi in southern India during the early twentieth century. Not only are new technologies associated with industrialization—such as the railroad—introduced during this period, but social relations are also upended as hierarchies of caste and gender are re-negotiated. The novel’s attitude towards the relationship between tradition and modernity is complex and ambiguous. These forces are sometimes depicted as in conflict, and sometimes in harmony. As all of the characters grapple with tradition and modernity, The Guide suggests that both have their merits, though ultimately the novel implies that there is a particularly special power embedded in tradition.
The coming of modernization is indicated in the novel by the sweeping changes that overtake the town of Malgudi during Raju’s childhood. Primary among these changes is the construction of the railroad. As an emblem of modernization, the railroad brings about numerous changes to Malgudi. For one, the railroad opens Malgudi up to a wider world, as people from all parts of India and even further afield begin visiting the town. The railroad also leads to greater economic prosperity. Raju’s father, who previously made a living from a modest shop, grows richer when he opens another shop in the newly built railway station. The family, therefore, benefits from the developments that overtake the town. Raju’s own move from a shopkeeper (like his father) to a tourist guide after the opening of the railroad reflects the way in which the railroad leads to greater and more varied opportunities for the townspeople. Raju’s work as a tourist guide would not have been possible without the railroad, which brings the visitors who become his clients.
In opening up the town to a wider world, the railroad also reveals the ways in which modernity leads to the re-negotiation of traditional gender and caste hierarchies. One of the people who appears in the town thanks to the railroad is Rosie, wife of Marco—the scholar who arrives in Malgudi to undertake research. In many senses, Rosie represents the ways in which gender and caste hierarchies are being upended in modern times. She is an educated woman, having gone so far in her studies as to gain a master’s degree. Furthermore, she is a woman who has married outside of her caste—allying herself to Marco, and later to Raju. Although she does not marry Raju, her relationship to him is unusual not only because they are an unmarried couple—which, by the standards of the time and the society, is scandalous—but because Raju, like Marco, is also of a higher caste.
The tension between Rosie’s modern identity and the traditional constraints of the society in which she lives is embodied in the conflict between Rosie and Raju’s mother. While Raju’s mother has not left the immediate vicinity of her home in decades, she is surprised to see Rosie appear alone one day on her doorstep. “Girls these days!” she tells her. “In our day we wouldn’t go to the street corner without an escort.” Indeed, when Raju’s mother realizes the nature of the relationship between Raju and Rosie, she condemns her son and his lover, not only because of their unmarried state, but also because Rosie belongs to a lower caste than her son.
Rosie’s embrace of a modern identity and life is ultimately reflected in the fact that she ends up as an independent woman making a career for herself as a dancer. Unlike a traditional woman, she escapes dependence on men, leaving behind both Marco and Raju. And yet, the art that Rosie practices is the classical art of temple dancing—an ancient art form practiced by generations of women in her family. It is through this art that she achieves her liberation. Indeed, her power as an independent woman and an artist is associated with the traditional “snake dance” that she performs only on rare occasions. As such, Rosie represents a melding of the traditional with the modern: she uses an ancestral art—classical dance—in order to achieve her liberation as a woman. Through the figure of Rosie, the novel suggests that tradition and modernity are not always in conflict, but can also complement one another and work in tandem.
While Rosie represents the melding of the modern and the traditional, Raju’s own journey reflects his return to, and embrace of, the traditional. Raju initially rejects the traditions of his family and upbringing. Not only does he neglect his father’s occupation by giving up shop-keeping to become a tourist guide, but he also turns his back on his mother’s wishes for him to marry his cousin, instead allying himself with Rosie. The great wealth that Raju accumulates as a result of Rosie’s dance career is then used to collect luxuries associated with modernity. Raju and Rosie move into a larger and more modern house than the modest one built by his father, and they travel everywhere by car or by train. As they grow wealthier, therefore, their lifestyle changes to reflect the luxuries of modern life.
And yet, Raju’s final transformation into a holy man on the riverbank near a small village suggests that he is ultimately drawn back into the traditional. While at first Raju is reluctant to take on this role, he ends up adopting it authentically, as reflected in the fast that he undertakes on behalf of the villagers in order to bring an end to the drought that has been plaguing them. The spiritual transformation that he undergoes as a result—one very closely connected with his adoption of the traditional role of holy man—suggests that the power of tradition is, ultimately, greater than that of modernity.
Narayan’s attitude towards the relationship between tradition and modernity in The Guide is complex and ambiguous. On the one hand, the novel depicts the forces of tradition and modernity as deeply in conflict. On the other hand, both forces seem to achieve balance in a figure like Rosie, who deploys the traditional art of classical dance—practiced by generations of her family—to achieve her liberation as a modern woman. Raju, however, is drawn back into the traditional in spite of himself—ending his life as a holy man providing spiritual guidance to destitute villagers. The spiritual transformation that Raju undergoes in this traditional role suggests that the novel does ultimately privilege tradition (even if only slightly) over modernity.
Tradition vs. Modernity ThemeTracker
Tradition vs. Modernity Quotes in The Guide
One fine day, beyond the tamarind tree the station building was ready. The steel tracks gleamed in the sun; the signal posts stood with their red and green stripes and their colorful lamps; and our world was neatly divided into this side of the railway line and that side.
Raju himself was not certain why he had advised that, and so he added, “If you do it you will know why.” The essence of sainthood seemed to lie in one’s ability to utter mystifying statements.
Raju soon realized that his spiritual status would be enhanced if he grew a beard and long hair to fall on his nape. A clean-shaven, close-haired saint was an anomaly.
The man pulled out his gourd flute and played on it shrilly, and the cobra raised itself and darted hither and thither and swayed…[Rosie] stretched out her arm slightly and swayed it in imitation of the movement; she swayed her whole body to the rhythm—for just a second, but that was sufficient to tell me
what she was, the greatest dancer of the century.
I was accepted by Marco as a member of the family. From guiding tourists I seemed to have come to a sort of concentrated guiding of a single family.
“[…] I followed him, day after day, like a dog—waiting on his grace. He ignored me totally. I could never have imagined that one human being could ignore the presence of another human being so completely.”
“You are not of our family? Are you of our clan?” He again waited for her to answer and answered himself. “No. Are you of our caste? No. Our class? No. Do we know you? No. Do you belong to this house? No. In that case, why are you here? After all, you are a dancing girl. We do not admit them in our families. Understand?”
But on Friday and Saturday I turned the last page of the Hindu with trembling fingers—and the last column in its top portion always displayed the same block, Nalini’s photograph, the name of the institution where she was performing, and the price of tickets. Now at this corner of South India, now there, next week in Ceylon, and another week in Bombay or Delhi. Her empire was expanding rather than shrinking.
Raju asked, “Now you have heard me fully?” […]
Raju was taken aback at still being addressed as “Swami.” “What do you think of it?”
Velan looked quite pained at having to answer such a question. “I don’t know why you tell me all this, Swami. It’s very kind of you to address at such length your humble servant.”
“Will you tell us something about your early life?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Er—for instance, have you always been a yogi?”
“Yes; more or less.”
The morning sun was out by now; a great shaft of light illuminated the surroundings. It was difficult to hold Raju on his feet, as he had a tendency to flop down. They held him as if he were a baby. Raju opened his eyes, looked about, and said, “Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs—” He sagged down.