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The Guide

by R.K. Narayan, 1958
No matter who you are, where you live, to live is to do violence to something or someone.

Everyone who isn't a sociopath struggles with
this—this tiny niggle of wrongness, no matter how filled to the brim with pleasure a life might be. This feeling is what drives political change, for good or for ill—the need to correct a wrong or a perceived wrong. By involving ourselves with political candidates, holy men, philosopher kings, and other sites of salvation, we try and situate ourselves on the path to redemption. We believe that through these people, we’ll find an antidote. Should our vision of a world without x or filled with y come true, everything would be fine. Yet when that moment comes, we see the futility of it. There is another battle to fight, another rampart to man. Redemption ever flees, until we collapse into a pile of bones.
 
Just the same, we’re always protesting—me! I! I did something! It mattered! I loved things and lost things! And there is no answer, just hollowness in the center of your chest. That feeling of futility is what R.K. Narayan's The Guide is about, and why it should be remembered.
 
R.K. Narayan was born Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Narayan in Madras (Now Channai) in 1906. The son of a busy schoolmaster, he spent much of his childhood in the company of his grandmother, and, according to his autobiography, a monkey and a peacock. I like that detail. Adulthood arrived, and Narayan trained as a schoolteacher, but wasn't at it for very long before he decided that he was built to be a writer. I always connected with this—I’ve never felt that I have any other option but to write, not out of obligation—I just have so many things to say, and I am desperate to be understood.
 
Narayan’s first work, Swami and Friends, was 
published 1930, and in it, he created a place called Malgudi, which is where The Guide takes place as well. It has been compared by a few critics to Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County, but I don’t know about that. Faulkner always went from zero to fucked up in under five seconds, and Narayan clearly intended Malgudi as a backdrop for his fairy-tales starring ordinary people. They’re magical and timeless—Narayan said that the town swam into his mind ready-made. John Updike wrote of it:
...few writers since Dickens can match the colorful teeming that Narayan’s fictional city of Malgudi conveys; it’s population is as sharply chiseled as a temple frieze, and as endless, with always, one feels, more characters around the corner.
 If that isn’t praise, I don’t know what is. I wish someone would compare my writing to a temple wall.
 
The Guide follows Raju, a man who at the opening of the book is telling his life story to an audience of one—some dude named Velan. The narrative switches between
first and third person as we jump through time and both Raju and an omniscient narrator tell his life story.
 
Here's the short version: Raju takes over a business from his father at the Malgudi railway station, becomes a tour guide, starts an adulterous relationship with an anthropologist's wife, she comes to live with him, she becomes a famous dancer, he becomes a dick, commits fraud and goes to jail. After jail, he ends up in a temple, where locals (starting with Velan) begin coming to him for wisdom and eventually make him the village guru. Then, a drought happens, and through 
comic error of sorts, he gets dragged into fasting and praying to end it. The book ends with him collapsing on one of the final days of his fast, and we leave the book not knowing if his prayer was successful in ending the drought.
 
This book is about the quest for redemption, not redemption itself. It’s a tease, because it is literally called The Guide, and it's about a character who does some guiding! The key relationships in the book revolve around looking toward something or someone as a method of salvation or rescue, and how that attention turns people into symbols. People continually come to Raju for guidance whether he’s a tour guide or guru. He turns to Rosie (the dancer) to give him direction and meaning, and surprise surprise, it's never enough. She is one of the few characters in the book who doesn’t need anything from anyone else. All she wants to do is dance, and she’s phenomenal at 
it, and doesn’t need no man. Everyone else seems to be scrabbling to find that sweet sweet redemptive sauce.
Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you must be a Rosie, and I envy you.
 
And while that might seem like it leads to a horrifyingly depressing book. The quest for redemption is what makes this book so hopeful and enduring. Symbols, things that guide us, are the only thing that guards us
from the horror of the world. Eventually, however, no symbol is enough. Raju, who’s spent the entire book looking for someone to give meaning to his life, whether it was through the status provided to him by his talented dancer wife, patrons when he was a tour guide, or his life in prison, ultimately finds his salvation through the absence of things, through nothing but himself. When he moves away from the desperate need for redemption, he is at peace.
 
The book telegraphs this at the beginning, with Raju first enjoying the status that his community gives him as a guru and then becoming indifferent to it. One of my favorite moments is when he’s frustrated by the demands of the 
crowd, and tells them to think for themselves. A side character, Velan, asks:
How can we do that, sir? We dig the land and mind the cattle--so far so good, but how can we think philosophies? Not our line master. It is not possible. It is wise persons like your good self who should think for us.
Funnily enough, when Raju gives useless advice or doesn’t give advice at all, the recipient goes off and makes their lives better. It's funny, but it illustrates the power of turning away from the symbolic as a tonic.
 
This is one of the most hopeful views of the human condition that you can find. See, for Raju and Narayan both, they have an unshakable belief in the goodness of being down to earth. When we are nudged to think altruistically, the world becomes a bit better.
 
We turn to books for many reasons: fun, education, betterment, because somebody told us to read 
it, because we’re bored. The funny thing is that we very rarely receive what we were expecting from our symbols. The Guide gives that little nudge towards empathy, a refusal to answer the question "what do I get from this?" Literature makes us vulnerable in this way, a way that many mediums do not, because we have to do the imagining, and our internal tools for doing so are as varied and adventurous as the problems that our guides face, and our conclusions are just as diverse. I cannot think of a quality more vital when facing the world.
 
The world is toxic. The Guide shows us that we don’t have to believe that.

Where can I read it?

I recommend getting a copy of the Penguin Classics version, which is pictured to the right. Head to your friendly neighborhood bookstore or library--the book isn't out of print. Or you can get a copy on Amazon.

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