Places: The Guide

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1958

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*India

*India. Guide, TheSouth Asian nation in which the novel is set during the 1950’s, after it became independent. Because of India’s vastness and its population’s relative stability, the various parts of the country differ dramatically in climate and terrain, customs, languages, architecture, food, and manners. During the country’s long colonial period, southern India was less influenced by the presence of the British Empire than other parts of India. Southern Indian cities and countryside thus tend to be “more Indian” and colorful than such metropolitan centers as Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta.

During the 1950’s, India’s northern cities and the areas around them still retained vestiges of colonialism. However, there is nothing British about the novel’s Malgudi; it is pure Indian. Its authenticity and its central role in Narayan’s work has been aptly compared to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. Both serve as microcosms for the writers’ explorations of the human condition, which prevents them from evolving into places marked by maudlin regionalism.


Malgudi (mahl-GEW-dee). Fictional city in southern India. During nearly seventy years of writing fiction, Narayan built this memorable city street by street, building by building, and neighborhood by neighborhood. Lying next to a river, Malgudi is a bustling place, full of schools, restaurants, temples, the humble stands of street vendors, a hodgepodge of businesses, cinemas with garish posters, hotels from the grand to the shabby, and open places where people gather to talk and gossip. Like all Indian cities, Malgudi brims with humanity, noises and turmoil, animals wandering the streets, beggars and loiterers, an abundance of vehicles ranging from carts to motorcars, and odors–some pleasant, some not so pleasant. Because of Malgudi’s warm climate, many of its shops are open to the street, and much of the daily living takes place outdoors.

The concept of community assumes its fullest meaning in an Indian city like Malgudi, in which much of life is carried on publicly and collectively. This spirited place, so familiar to Narayan’s readers, serves as the backdrop for the novel. Much of the action takes place at the railway station where the main character, Raju, in his better days offers guide services to Malgudi visitors. In remote Indian cities railway stations serve as nerve centers. They are chaotic places, often dilapidated and unkempt, yet teeming with vitality. When trains pull in, the arriving passengers face armies of guides, porters, hawkers, and others offering varied services. Raju moves through the city, which unfolds naturally in the course of the action. Descriptions of Malgudi are never excessive. The environs simply emerge and blend with the characters and their behavior.


Temple. After his imprisonment Raju undergoes a transformation from a travel guide to a spiritual guide. This duality, which takes Raju from the mundane to the spiritual, serves as the book’s theme. Thus, in his new life the temple, not the railway station, becomes his office. India is dotted with temples, so many, in fact, that it should not be difficult to find a deserted one, as Raju does. In the novel’s first paragraph Raju is described assitting beside an ancient shrine, whose original significance has probably been long forgotten. From this point onward, though, the ancient shrine takes on new meaning, which is typical of Narayan’s focus on spiritual progression in his fiction. As the opening dialogue proceeds, the appearance of the temple and its setting slowly and subtly emerge, with one detail building on another.

BibliographyHolmstrom, Lakshmi. The Novels of R. K. Narayan. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1973. Notes the mythic theme of progress toward realizing one’s true nature, in which Raju finds his true role in providing for people’s needs, thus releasing himself from the wheel of existence.Kirpal, Viney. “Moksha for Raju: The Archetypal Four-Stage Journey.” World Literature Written in English 28 (1988): 356-363. Argues that the novel must be read in the Hindu metaphysical tradition, whereby Raju overcomes the “gross violation of dharma” in his relationship with Rosie to be reborn as a swami. Novel follows the pattern of excessive involvement with the worldly, renunciation of it, and self-realization.Mukherjee, Meenakshi. The Twice Born Fiction. London: Heinemann, 1971. Argues that Raju’s drift into the role of a guru follows the pattern of his life, because he is not so much a man who does things as one to whom things happen (except the forgery). At the end, he loses the feeling of being an actor, and “the mask becomes the man.”Walsh, William. R. K. Narayan: A Critical Perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. The most readily available and accessible study, Walsh sees the novel as a serious comedy in which Raju’s personality is defined by others, so his search for an independent identity is futile. Transformation of the personality by forces outside the relatively passive self is common in Eastern tales.
Categories: Places