Reality exists only through experience, and it must
be personal experience. (Gao Xingjian. Soul Mountain)
R K Narayan propagates Oriental
philosophy in all his novels and The Guide 
is no exception. In Hindu philosophy realisation of the
truth comes after going through the acid test of illusion
or 'maya'.* I would add that the ability to perceive 'reality'
is the end product of experience. Followers of Lord
Krishna regard humans as souls composed of Krishna's
highest energy, with bodies of 'maya,' his lowest,
material, and illusory energy. This belief also entails
taboos against gambling, using intoxicants, eating meat,
and engaging in illicit sex. Performing God's
work with no thought of reward will result in the
purification of the illusory 'maya'.
The illusion in Raju's life is Rosie, who entices him
away from the daily grind of normal life. When Raju sees
her for the first time, he describes her,
complexion not white, but dusky,
which made her only half visible, as if you saw her
through a film of tender coconut juice.
Much later, in Chapter 9, again she is
Her face was partially illuminated by
a shaft of gaslight from a lamp hanging from a tree.
Thus Raju never views Rosie in the real
world but almost in a dream, and Rosie becomes the 'mohini'*
of the novel. Her meeting Raju on the railway platform is
significant since until then the railway has been his
life, but with Rosie's entrance his familiar world will
be disrupted. He will be tempted to discard his
attachment to the railway for a far greater and
Rosie's role as the 'mohini' in Raju's life is confirmed
by her obsession with snakes. The animal imagery has been
well used by Narayan. The role of snake-women as
enchantresses is common in the Indian mind-frame.
Moreover, we have the conversation between Rosie and Raju's
mother, (a traditional Indian woman steeped in religious
and folk beliefs), to reinforce this notion:
Everything was so good and quiet -
until you came in like a viper. . . . On the very day
I heard him mention the 'serpent girl' my heart sank.
There is something strongly sensuous
about Rosie. She exudes sensuality since she has been
involved in a marriage that does not satisfy her physical
needs. There is enough evidence in the text to suggest
that there is no sexual communion between the married
couple. In chapter 5, we have Raju's own words to back
Next morning I found the atmosphere
once again black and tense - all the vivacity of the
previous evening was gone. When their room opened,
only he came out, fully dressed and ready . . . I
poured him a cup of coffee.
'Joseph has brought tiffin. Will you not taste it?'
'No; let us be going. I'm keen on reaching the caves.'
'What about the lady?' I asked.
'Leave her alone,' he said petulantly. 'I can't
afford to be fooling around, wasting my time.' In the
same condition as yesterday! This seemed to be the
spirit of their morning every day. How cordially he
had come over and sat beside her last night on the
veranda! How cordially they had gone into the hotel
on that night! What exactly happened at night that
made them want to tear at each other in the morning?
. . . I wanted to cry out, 'Oh, monster, what do you
do to her that makes her sulk like this on rising?'
In Chapter 9 the point is finally driven
'He wouldn't even touch you.'
'Should you taunt me with that?' she asked with
The artist in Rosie needs stimulus, both
intellectual and physical. Marco provides the first type
to a small extent while providing absolutely nothing of
the second. The almost animal-like passion lurking within
Rosie and Raju is symbolically projected when they are
waiting in Peak House on the veranda to watch the animals
come out. Narayan is very subtle in his use of language,
allowing us the freedom to read beyond the text:
On the way she said to me (Raju), 'Have
you documents to see too?'
'No, no,' I said, hesitating midway between my room
'Come along then. Surely you aren't going to leave me
to the mercy of prowling beasts?'
. . .
'I'm prepared to spend the whole night here, she said.
'He will, of course, be glad to be left alone. Here
at least we have silence and darkness, welcome things,
and something to wait for out of that darkness.'
I couldn't find anything to say in reply. I was
overwhelmed by her perfume. The stars beyond the
glass shone in the sky.
. . .
Bright eyes shone amidst the foliage. She pulled my
sleeve and whispered excitedly, 'Something - what can
'Probably a panther,' I said to keep up the
conversation. Oh, the whispers, the stars, and the
darkness - I began to breathe heavily with excitement.
This part of the conversation almost
sounds like lovemaking. It is interesting to note that
Marco too, joins them immediately after but leaves within
a very short time. I personally believe that his leaving
is primarily because he cannot respond to that animal
lust since he is sexually impotent.
Now we must consider a very important question which many
readers of The Guide have probably asked, 'Who is
seducing whom?' My earlier suggestion that Rosie is a 'mohini'
should not be taken to mean that she is playing the role
of the mythological seductress consciously. 'Mohini' is
another aspect of the 'maya' that Raju is steeped in; she
can be also called a living embodiment of the illusion in
Raju's life. Here I would like to quote again from Soul
'Do you believe that sensuality is
devoid of evil?' I ask.
'All women are sensual but they always give a sense
of goodness, and this is essential to art,' he says.
'Then don't you believe in the existence of beauty
which is not devoid of evil?'
'That's just man deceiving himself,' he says curtly.
It has been pointed out that Rosie does
encourage Raju in certain areas. When Raju goes to plead
with her to come out and join him and Marco on their trip
to Peak House, the conversation does seem to show a
certain degree of attraction on Rosie's part towards Raju:
'Why do you want me to go out with
him? Leave me in peace,' she said, opening her eyes
wide, which gave another opportunity to whisper close
to her face, 'Because life is so blank without your
She could have pushed my face back, crying 'How dare
you talk like this!' and shut the door on me. But she
didn't. She merely said, 'I never knew you would be
such a troublesome man.'
Later in the same chapter we find this
motif being reinforced:
'So you have no mother-in-law!' I
'I'd have preferred any kind of mother-in-law, if it
had meant one real, live husband,' she said. I looked
up at her to divine her meaning, but she lowered her
eyes. I could only guess.
It would be erroneous to call this 'seduction',
or subtle encouragement. This is the frank and free
speech of a woman who desperately needs the warmth of
company. The desire is within her but she never uses
seduction to satisfy it. Raju acts like a professional
lover, knowing exactly how to draw her in into the
tangled web of lust. The question still remains as to why
Rosie allowed Raju to have sex with her. The main
motivation was not lust, but something described by Raju
before he enters her room:
I knew I had placed her in my debt.
The debt is for his giving her the
attention and care she needs, and she has to redeem it.
Moreover the entire affair would have been over had not
Raju very intelligently kept on reminding her of a future
career in dancing with his active support. Raju
desperately needs to hang on this 'maya', and when he
enters her bedroom he also,
locked the door on the world.
His absorption into the world of illusion
is now complete. That Raju is seduced by the charm of the
illusion is suggested by Narayan's use of language. For
Everything disappeared into a sweet,
dark haze, as under chloroform. (ch.5)
I was obsessed (ch.7)
I viewed her as pure abstraction. (ch.7)
It was a natural obsession. (ch.7)
I got used to a glamorous, romantic existence. (ch.7)
Are you in this world or in paradise? (ch.8)
I was slipping into a fool's paradise. (ch.8)
If Raju can provide Rosie with the
physical stimulation she needs then why does their union
become incompatible? The reason is clear. Raju, with his
lack of proper education can never provide Rosie with the
creative stimulation she needs. He bluffs left right and
centre about his appreciation of her talent because it is
that loose string by which their relationship survives.
Raju may have given her a 'new lease of life' but as she
reminds us through the rendition of the Tamil song, for
her 'Lover means always God.' As Rosie gets absorbed in
her own world, Raju is slowly pushed out since he is
fundamentally incapable of being a part of that sphere of
pure creativity. The growing tension in their
relationship is seen, for example, in these passages:
Whenever I watched her sway her figure, if there was no
one about I constantly interrupted her performance
although I was supposed to watch her from an art critic's
point of view. She pushed me away with, 'What has come
She was a devoted artist; her passion
for physical love was falling into place and had
ceased to be a primary obsession with her.
. . .
I made love to her constantly and was steeped in an
all-absorbing romanticism, until I woke up to the
fact that she was really getting tired of it all.
Finally Raju admits his shortcomings in
Chapter 9 where he fails to fall into place with the
musicians and actors who come to visit Rosie/Nalini. He
feeling that I was an interloper in
that artistic group.
This is where we suddenly realise why
Rosie has a tremendous amount of respect for Marco, even
after she has left him permanently. The two are similar
in nature since both prefer being captivated by their
individual work. Both are artists wrapped up in their art.
Raju may say of Marco that,
dead and decaying things seemed to
unloosen his tongue and fire his imagination
But there is not much difference between
the absorption of Rosie/Nalini in her world of aesthetics
and Raju in his world of lust and power. The conflict is
in the fact that each world cannot accommodate the other,
and hence we are left with three individuals at the end
of the novel.
Does Raju finally manage to transform himself into a true
'swami'? Perhaps this passage suggests an answer:
The sky was clear. Having nothing
else to do, he started counting the stars. He said to
himself, 'I shall be rewarded for this profound
service to humanity. People will say,' there is the
man who knows the exact number of stars in the sky.
If you have any trouble on that account consult him.
He will be your night guide for the skies.' He told
himself, 'the thing to do is to start from a corner
and go on patch by patch. Never work from the top to
the horizon, but always the other way.' He was
evolving a theory. He started the count from above a
fringe of the Palmyra trees on his left-hand side up
the course of the river, over to the other side. 'One....
two.... fifty-five....' He suddenly realised that if
he looked deeper a new cluster of stars came into
view; by the time he assimilated it into his
reckoning, he realised he had lost sight of his
starting point and found himself entangled in
hopeless figures. He felt exhausted.
This passage assumes a great deal of
significance in showing the gradual stages of Raju's
development from a normal everyday guide to a guide for
the progress of the soul. The title of the novel assumes
greater importance since its scope now becomes deeper.
The novel is now seen to no longer simply narrate the
story of a guide called 'Railway Raju', but also shows
how the same guide assumes a role far greater in meaning.
In this passage lies the seed for the 'swami' Raju who
will set an example of selflessness by guiding his fellow
humans across the never-ending river of life. Moreover
this passage denotes Raju's transition from the life
active to the life contemplative - a transition from
illusion to reality. This counting of the stars or
measuring the immeasurable is a symbolic portrayal of
Raju trying to fathom the immensity of life. He gets
exhausted easily since for the first time he is
contemplating an aspect of the world which is not only
bereft of personal gain but also has no material
implication in his personal life. As Narayan tells us in
the novel itself,
His life had lost its personal
This propels Raju to contemplate the
limitless expanse of life, and to attempt the absorption
of that limitlessness in him. It is almost a Herculean
task and the effort drains him emotionally more than
So, what is The Guide all about? In my view it is the
story of one man's journey through life. It is his
journey through a maze of illusions and the achievement
of universal truth. Here we may use the concept of moksha,*
or freedom, as stated by the Hindu philosopher and
theologian Shankara, who said that existence is a
struggle for 'Atman'* (the individual self) to become 'Brahman'*
(the pure being) where the atman is prevented from
reaching the ideal state of Brahman because of 'avidya'
or ignorance, which drives us into the arms of maya (illusion)
where we blindly seek our true self. Through the proper
knowledge of Vedanta, however, the individual soul
recognises the limitless reality forever existing behind
the cosmic veil of maya, realises that its own true
nature is identical with Brahman, and through this self-realisation
achieves moksha. Through Raju Narayan invites us to share
the limitlessness of this freedom which unifies us with
Maya: The word has been given numerous meanings. Maya
actually signifies the psychological state of anybody
under illusion. Therefore it doesn't prescribe the theory
that the world is an illusion but rather that the
illusion actually lies in our point of view.
Mohini: In Indian mythology, during the churning of the
oceans by the demons and the Gods in an attempt to
produce 'amrita' or the elixir of life which would grant
them immortality, Vishnu transformed himself into a
beautiful woman called Mohini and stole the demons' share
of the elixir by seducing them. Therefore Mohini in the
Indian context signifies an extension of the divine
illusion. Vishnu is sometimes referred to as 'Mayavi' or
the creator of 'maya'.
Moksha: The Hindu equivalent of the Buddhist doctrine of
Nirvana. Moksha, in Hinduism signifies liberation from
the cycle of reincarnation and from maya (the illusory
appearance in this world). Moksha is a Sanskrit word
Bramhan: The basis of Hinduism is the idea that the
multitude of things and events around us are but
manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This reality
is called the Bramhan. It is the inner essence of all
Atman: The manifestation of the ultimate reality in the
human soul is the Atman. It is the individual reality.
1. Xingjian, Gao. Soul Mountain. Translated by Mabel Lee.
2. Narayan, R. K. The Guide. 1975 (First published 1958)
© Amitangshu Acharya, June 2003