On on the banks of a river: a

On release from jail, Raju takes shelter in a deserted temple on the banks of the river Sarayu, a few miles away from Malgudi, and close to the village called Mangla. The simple villagers take him to be a Mahatma, begin to worship him, and bring him a lot of eatables as presents. Raju is quite comfortable and performs the role of a saint to perfection.

However, soon there is a severe famine drought, and the villagers expect Raju to perform some miracle to bring them rain. So he has to undertake a fast. The fast attracts much attention and people come to have darshan of the Mahatma from far and wide. On the twelfth day of the fast, Raju falls down exhausted just as there are signs of rain on the distant horizon. It is not certain if he is actually dead or merely fainted. Thus the novel comers to an1 abrupt close on a note of ambiguity.

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The last pages of Narayan’s best novel, The Guide, find Raju, the chief protagonist, at the end of a lifetime of insincerity and pain. As a professional guide to Malgudi’s environs, he invented whole new historical pasts for bored tourists; he seduced a married woman, drifted away from his old mother and friends, became a flashy cultural promoter, and then tried, absentmindedly, to steal and was caught and spent years in jail, abandoned by everyone.

His last few months have been spent in relative comfort as a holy man on the banks of a river: a role imposed on him by reverential village folk. But the river dries up after a drought and his devotees start looking to him to intercede with the gods. Raju resentfully starts a fast, but furtively eats whatever little food he has saved. Then abruptly, out of a moment of self disgust, comes his resolution: for the first time in his life, he will do something with complete sincerity, and he will do it for others: if fasting can bring rain, he’ll fast.

He stops eating, and quickly diminishes. News of his efforts goes around; devotees and sightseers, gathering at the riverside, create a religious occasion out of the fast. On the early morning of the eleventh day of fasting, a small crowd watches him quietly as he attempts to pray standing on the river bed and then staggers and dies, mumbling the enigmatic last words of the novel, “It’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs….”

Characteristically, Narayan doesn’t make it clear whether Raju’s penance does actually lead to rain. He also doesn’t make much of Raju’s decision, the moment of his redemption, which a lesser writer would have attempted to turn into a resonant ending, but which is quickly passed over here in a few lines. What we know, in a moment of great disturbing beauty, is something larger and more affecting than the working-out of an individual destiny in an inhospitable world.

It is and the words are of the forgotten English writer William Gerhardie, on Chekhov, but so appropriate for Narayan that sense of the temporary nature of our existence on this earth at all events…through which human beings, scenery, and even the very shallowness of things, are transfigured with a sense of disquieting importance.

It is a sense of temporary possession in a temporary existence that, in the face of the unknown, we dare not overvalue. It is as if his people hastened to express their worthless individualities, since that is all they have, and were aghast that they should have so little in them to express: since the expression of it is all there.