This novel’s lead, Raju, is sitting by a riverside shrine when he’s mistaken for a holy man. In actuality, Raju was just released from prison for forging the signature of a woman with whom he has a complicated relationship. The woman is married to another man but she has a love of dance, and her husband wants her to give up such frivolities. She falls for Raju, who is working for her husband as a travel guide /expediter, because he supports her in the pursuit of dance. [One can see the dual meaning of the title as Raju is a travel guide by trade and becomes a spiritual guide to the villagers of the fictional town of Malgudi.] After experiencing some hard times with the shops left him by his father, Raju finds success by being not only the lover of the dancer but also her Col. Tom Parker (i.e. her promoter /manager.)
The story isn’t told in chronological order, but is easily enough followed and is the more interesting for its nonlinear telling. For example, we learn the details of Raju’s troubles as a confession he makes to the individual who first mistook him for a guru.
The book explores several themes. One is the power of charisma and bumper-sticker wisdom in building a sage. When Raju’s first student hears his confession, the young man is unswayed, following Raju unwaveringly. On a brighter note, one also sees how people’s strong beliefs, ill-founded as they might seem to be, can produce a guru. Ultimately, Raju becomes the teacher that the entire village thought him to be all along.
There’s also the issue of passion versus familial bonds and tradition. While Raju’s mother personally likes the dancer woman, the fact that the girl is of a lower class and caste (not to mention married to another man), creates a tension. Raju must decide between his love of the dancer and that of his mother. We also get to see the hard edge of tradition in the Raju’s uncle who puts all the bias of class and caste in its most explicit form.
I enjoyed this novel. It’s a nice compact story and is very thought-provoking. The character of Raju is well-developed and interesting. The reader finds Raju likable even though at times he’s a bit loathsome in his behavior. There’s more than one comedy of error in the story’s formulation to offer some lightness to contrast the family drama.
I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. It was also interesting for me as an ex-pat in India as it offers some insight into the culture. It should be noted that it’s set in a bygone era. But even though it’s dated, one can see the long shadow of cultural proclivities in the story elements.