Heroism in R.K. Narayan's The Guide

In a seeming paradox, Raju is forever the hero of his people, yet almost fails to be the hero of The Guide, the book that creates him. By dictionary defintion, heroism has two elements; a hero first must be "show great courage," and second, he must be "admired for his achievements and qualities." The second term depends implicitly on moral relativism -- a hero is whoever his contemporaries think it is. Thus, a man like Hitler was considered a hero by his country, and the people who admired him, though he is villainous to our understand. Likewise, though to the villagers that worshipped him, Raju was a holy man and a hero, to the reader he manifests the qualities of neither until the conclusion of the story.

Raju is mistaken for a holy man. Regardless of the lack of practical worth of his advice, or his utter lack of authority to be giving it, his ability to present advice in a convincing format makes him invaluable to the villagers, who accordingly worship him. They are simple people, who are willing to ascribe mystical power to anything unusual. By simply acting "ceremoniously", a manner he assumes is appropriate for holy men, Raju is able to convince Velan's daughter that he has special powers. After meeting him, she feels that she has been in the presence of a higher being, and that her own desires must be petty. She accordingly "admit[s] her follies" to her family, and agrees to "do whatever [her] elders order [her] to do." Raju is doomed to seem a holy man to the villagers; if he says anything logical (such as a perfectly obvious guess as to Velan's motivation), they assume divine knowledge; if he keeps his mouth shut, then he is given credit for anything beneficial that happens. "He was afraid to open his lips . . . but there was greater danger in silence." The respect of the villagers spirals upwards; as one hears of Raju's wisdom, he arrives in the abandoned temple to partake of Raju's aura, and becomes so impressed with Raju's majesty that he soon reports to his friends of the new holy man. Before long, the crowds are consistently large, and no matter what worthless drivel Raju may produce, the crowd can twist it until an appropriately wise bit of advice is extracted. In a sufficiently large arena, in which enough reverberation is possible, "an empty vessel makes much noise." Along with a reputation for infinite wisdom and insight, Raju soon acquires a reputation for infinite power. The villagers believe that "no bad thing will come" as long as he is among them, and never doubt his ability to stop the drought by fasting. The combination of the villagers' respect for Raju's wisdom, faith in his protection, and love of his attention is unavoidable proof that, to them, he is a hero of immense magnitude.

To the reader, such an appellation does not come as easily. The 'wise' sayings, logical predictions, and blessed demeanor that so awe the villagers fail to impress us. They actually lessen our respect for Raju, as we fully understand the show he is putting on for the villagers. He never intends to be a wise man, and feels uncomfortable in the role, until he realizes that his advice yields free food. Only when the material advantages of seeming a holy man become clear does Raju decide to "look as brilliant as he could manage." Note that he doesn't decide to give the best advice possible, only to "look" to be doing so. Naturally, knowing Raju's tainted motivation, we can scarcely respect him for the advice he gives. Even if it is inadvertently correct, Raju is such a disgusting character that we can't give him credit for the success. When he attempts to tell the story of Devaka to Velan and his sister, and can not remember "either its course or its purport," they see it as a crucially uncompleted tale, and find nothing wrong with Raju's memory lapse. We, however, are shocked by Raju's willingness to recite random tales as though they were great lesson, and to be so careless as to select a tale he couldn't even remember. How can we respect a man for 'wisdom' that we know is random?

Raju is so despicable that he appears almost to be the antagonist of the novel until its concluding pages. Raju is arbitrarily cruel, hypocritical, and manipulative from his earliest recounted youth. He manipulates his father into taking him into town; he abuses a local cattle–boy for entering his private play-area; he lies to and takes advantage of tourists; he steals Rosie from Marco; he makes Rosie miserable, chasing away her friends, and becoming pretentious (even forging her signature on a legal document, rather than let her have any contact with Marco); finally, he takes advantage of the villagers in order to get food. These are hardly traits one would ascribe to a 'hero'. He displays greed and materialism matched only by narcissism and hypocrisy, so that he loses even his closest friends; only sudden money saves him, and he soon loses that as well. Even Raju's offer to sacrifice himself to bring rain, cited by the people as clear proof of his greatness, is not intentional; he never wants to do anything about the rain. It is only the villagers' misinterpretation of a garbled message that gives rise to the rumor that he would end the drought. The insight into Raju's motivation we receive in his flashbacks prevents us from admiring him, and confirms that he is not in any way heroic, in spite of all his attempts to seem so.

Why, then, does Raju almost fail to the hero of The Guide? It seems impossible for any character such as Raju to redeem himself and earn our respect. In order to do so, he must display a fundamental change of heart regarding the villagers, and must take dramatic steps to prove his devotion to this new philosophy. We finally see these changes only eight pages before the end of the book. Raju, in desperation because he hasn't been able to eat, has three options: he can run away, pretend to be enjoying himself, or actually try to fulfill the role he has established for himself. Against all precedent, Raju feels truly sorry for the villagers, and decides to "give [them] a chance." If there is a chance his fasting can help, then Raju is willing to try. He earnestly completes the supplication he had outlined to the people, every day standing knee–deep in water and praying. Herein Raju earns our respect; as the holy-man image becomes difficult (and unhealthy), he does not leave and adopt another guise. Rather, he dedicates himself to the one role in which he might be able to help the villagers. However, this alone does not make Raju a hero. There are many people in everyday life whom we respect; we would not call them all heroes. It is not, in fact, until the last page of the book that Raju displays the characteristic that confirms his heroism: courage. The villagers takes Raju's promise to eliminate the rain by fasting as a sign of courage, but we know that this promise was really never made. The sign we need of Raju's courage does not come until after he has already emotionally dedicated himself to the fast. Despite the begging of doctors and government officials to save himself, Raju demands "Help me to my feet," and continues his vigil. In the depths of illness, and near to collapse, Raju insists on advancing to the river and praying for rain. On the tenth day of his fast, Raju can not even remain standing, and collapses in Velan's arms, perhaps dead. Raju's dedication to his people is in the end profound. A weaker man would have succumbed to the desire to run away. Raju has the courage to complete the task they desperately want him to. Only when, on the last page of The Guide, are courage and respect combined does Raju become the hero of the book.

Is heroism totally subjective? Is it fair to say that because the villagers believe in him, Raju is a hero, and because we don't, he isn't? Raju is a hero to the villagers, if only because they need one so badly. To a hungry man, even the most revolting gruel is food, while to us it is utterly inedible. Raju inadvertently describes the state of the villagers on p. 16 saying "anything would have tasted good now." They need a leader so badly that one who can pretend as well as Raju can is as valuable as a true prophet. One who appears courageous and wise, even were he not, would be infinitely heroic compared to the void the villagers had before. Heroism is for Narayan not an absolute quality, and Raju could remain as a hero for some, yet not all. It is up to the Wheel of Destiny to raise Raju to a level of respect and courage high enough for all to consider him a hero.

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Homework for English A Higher Level
regarding R.K. Narayan's 1958 book The Guide
September 14, 1987

Note:
The explicit references to moral relativism might seem precocious for a high school kid, and reveal to me that this essay was written after I had gotten my hands on Allan Bloom's 1987 magnum opus The Closing of the American Mind. My English teacher, if I recall correctly, was not impressed by this line of thinking and, in a move that would have delighted Bloom, I wrote her off as an idiot.

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