Grace: Character Analysis - The Vendor of Sweets

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      Grace is the major woman character in the novel, The Vendor of Sweets. She is of alien origin. She is half-American and half-Korean. Her father is an American soldier serving in the Far East. While in service there, he marries a Korean girl. Grace's mother gives birth to her during her husband's leave period which they spend at his native place, New Jersey, in America. But Grace's father is called back urgently by American military authorities to resume his duties while her mother is still in her confinement period. Her father leaves both his wife and the newly born baby at his native place and goes back to his place of posting. He does not come back home thereafter. The circumstances, under which he is not able to come back home, are not spelt out in the novel. Consequently, Grace's mother decides to stay at New Jersey. Hence Grace is brought up and educated there. She receives her school education at Margaret's school. She procures her post-graduate degree in Domestic Economy from Michigan.

The development of Grace-Mali association is the result of a mere coincidence. While at Michigan, she runs into a chance encounter with Mali, the son of the protagonist Jagan, at a foot-ball match. Mali has gone to Michigan to learn the art of writing fiction after giving up his studies for B.A. degree unfinished in a college at Malgudi. He has done this to the utter dismay and discomfiture of his father who is running a shop manufacturing and selling sweet-meat. The shop is situated on the Market Road in Malgudi. From the day on after this coincidental meeting between Grace and Mali, a relationship develops between the two which grows thickening more and more in due course of time.

      The development of Grace-Mali association is the result of a mere coincidence. While at Michigan, she runs into a chance encounter with Mali, the son of the protagonist Jagan, at a foot-ball match. Mali has gone to Michigan to learn the art of writing fiction after giving up his studies for B.A. degree unfinished in a college at Malgudi. He has done this to the utter dismay and discomfiture of his father who is running a shop manufacturing and selling sweet-meat. The shop is situated on the Market Road in Malgudi. From the day on after this coincidental meeting between Grace and Mali, a relationship develops between the two which grows thickening more and more in due course of time.

      The landing of Grace in Narayan's South Indian fictional town of Malgudi is a consequence of this providential association of the two. Mali decides to come back to his original home alongwith Grace after his stay of three years in America. He writes to his father, Jagan, informing him in advance about the day time of his arrival at the Malgudi railway station, alongwith one more person (Grace) whose identity is not disclosed in his missive. Jagan and his cousin, a man-about-town, reach the railway station in time to receive Mali and his associate. On their arrival, Mali introduces Grace as his wife to his father and to the cousin whom he very fondly calls uncle. Jagan feels stunned and embarrassed at this unexpected news about Mali's marriage with an American westernised girl without his prior knowledge or permission. He avoids talking to Mali due to his discomfiture and squeamishness caused by this sudden, thunder-clap like revelation. The very presence of a foreign girl as his daughter-in-law upsets Jagan's prejudiced mind built upon the traditional, orthodox Oriental thought and philosophy which run counter to the Occidental thought, ways and habits of beef-eating and of indulgence in all sorts of undesirable actions. He, therefore, engages himself in picking up the luggage to be loaded in Gaffur's taxi, leaving his cousin to talk to Mali and the new arrival.

      There is a dearth of details about Grace's character which is delineated within the middle part of the novel. The impressions gathered about her are elicited from the episodic incidents involving her. She possesses remarkable quality of adaptability and making adjustment with changing situations. The strong strain of resilience in her personality shines out in abundantly clear measure. She does not feel non-plussed or aghast at the totally different social, ethical and topographical scenario of Malgudi. Although born and bred in a foreign country like America, she marvels with joy at whatever she watches and finds interesting in the new place. A wide divergence of outlook, cultural values and social or ethical assumptions exists between the conservative, orthodoxical and obscurant tendencies of the inhabitants of Malgudi and those of her country of birth and education. But her flexibility and pragmatic keenness in knowing about the middle-class Indian ways, customs and rituals enables her to overcome with ease the difficult task of getting closer to the heart of a thorough traditionalist like Jagan. Jagan lives in a self-enclosed and self-imposed abstemious way of life. His mind is congested with half-assimilated facts and unalterable prejudices against certain styles of life. His undying love for Gandhian principles, nature cure and half-digested philosophical concepts like "Conquer taste, and you will have conquered self, are all hard nuts to crack for Grace. But she breaks through all these barriers in one go when she comes one morning to Jagan's room and calls him 'father' - a word which his own son, Mali, has never condescended to utter to him with as much reverence and affection as she does. Her endearing way of address wins the heart of the protagonist and electrifies in him the basic chords of human warmth and sympathy. She sweeps the floor, sets in order the things lying in Jagan's room, scrubs his kitchenwares and offers to cook food for him which he refuses by telling her that he has taken a vow to cook his own food himself. He reveals to her his resolve to live a life of extreme austerity with his wants reduced to the minimum and with dependence on his ownself by wearing clothes of Khadi, spun with his own hands and non-violent foot wear made of the hide of an animal who has died its own natural death:

      Grace listens to all these notions, taken from Gandhian way of life, with rapt attention and with receptivity sensitised by a feeling of wonder and respect. She performs very well the daily domestic chores carried out by an Indian middle-class homely lady. The alacrity with which she acclimatises herself with the life-style of an Indian housewife daughter-in-law in absolutely unknown and strange environment is simply par excellence. In similar way, she learns from Dr. Kuruville's daughter, who has been her friend in America, the art of adorning the threshold of the house with designs made of flour on a Friday which is thought to be an auspicious day. Jagan is struck with wonder and admiration for her easy adaptability, capabilities and gentleness.

      Grace is efficient and skilful in the business of house-management. Her skill in well-ordered house-keeping is particularly noticed by the protagonist with wonder-struck appreciation when he is invited by her to come inside the hall of the house where she and Mali are residing. He enters it. Surveying the hall all around and noticing the decorative, good-looking changes that Grace has brought about with her expertise in this field, Jagan feels over-whelmed with admiration for her. This spectacle is depicted like this:

He noticed that Grace has transformed the place with curtains, mats, table cloth. A couple of modern paintings hung on the wall: Jagan found them bewildering, but said 'Yes' when Grace asked, 'Aren't they marvellous? The bamboo chairs were piled with coloured cushions. A little vase on a table held a sprig of Margosa leaves.

      Grace is skilfully instrumental in managing a break-through in the frozen father-son relationship between Jagan and Mali. She acts in a shrewd way by extending her gentle invitation to the protagonist to come inside the hall because she is aware of the frozen relations between Mali and his father. By doing so, she has successfully contrived a situation in which the ice between the father and the son can be broken so that Mali is able to discuss with Jagan his fantastic proposal of establishing a factory in Malgudi for manufacturing fiction-writing machines with the collaboration of an American entrepreneur. He requires a sum of fifty-one thousand dollars from his father as the initial working capital for the project. Jagan fails to understand the full implications of his proposal and puts off the whole affair without giving any categorically positive or negative answer. But, this incident expresses Grace's practical knack of tackling even a sensitive, potentially explosive human situation.

      Grace is unassuming, humane and susceptible to good things of life. She is unfettered by prejudices and pre-conceived opinions. The sight of a sprig of margose leaves in the vase on the table motivates Jagan to tell her the medicinal qualities of margosa tree which is called 'ambrosia' in the Vedas. He adds that its leaves are attributed with the qualities of being anti-septic, purifier of blood and iron-rich. She receives all this information with an expression of wonder and appreciation. Mali, on the other hand, remarks mockingly that she should not start eating the leaves. This small event explicitly states the contrast of attitudes existing between Grace and Mali. She makes no ostentatious and shallow display of her superiority as a foreign national. Mali, on the other hand, despite his basic moorings in the Indian soil, affects overbearingly the supercilious superiority of being a westernised, educated youth who feels gloriously satisfied in scoffing at everything that is indigenous, however good or useful it may be. It is ironically interesting to note that Grace builds bridges of easy communication and human sympathy with Jagan on the strength of her winsome qualities of being endearingly unpretentious, candid, simple and humanly responsive whereas Mali, the protagonist's own brood, gets more and more estranged from his father as days pass by.

      Grace wins the confidence of Jagan.The profundity of her rapport with him can be known by Jagan's upsetness when she stops coming to his room in the morning on her routine work of cleaning and tidying up things for the last ten days. He remains uneasy and restless. His mind is pestered by a number of possibilities for this change. He imagines that his indifference and unwillingness to part with the sum of money demanded by Mali may be one of the reasons as both Grace and Mali may be thinking of defrauding him of his money. That is why, he discloses his anxiety to his cousin and asks him to engage Mali away from the house for a period of day-time so that during that time he may meet Grace alone and have a heart-to-heart conversation with her. Such an opportunity is readily manoeuvred by the cousin for the sweet vendor to talk to Grace in the privacy of the house. The candour, boldness, sincerity and honesty of her character are revealed to Jagan by her disclosure that she is not formally married to Mali. She adds that Mali had promised to marry her in the Indian way on their return to Malgudi. But he has not done this so far.

      Grace falls a victim to the false blandishments and deceitful tricks of Mali. He finds her useless after his father's refusal to finance his fantastically fabulous project of manufacturing fiction-writing machines with an initial capital of fifty one thousand dollars. Since he has brought Grace to Malgudi with a selfish interest to manipulate her connection for procuring the collaboration of an American investor for his proposed factory, he now tells her to go back. Like a cheat, he forgets everything about the long spell of period he has shared with her and she has served him like a lord. The disclosure of Mali's deceitful and inhuman treatment with Grace enrages Jagan to the point that he confronts his son in a newly-born aggressive mood when the latter comes home. He assertively asks his son where Grace has gone. He wants to know a conclusive decision whether she is actually going and if so, why? In his feverish state of mind, the sweet-vendor poses these questions to his delinquent son unstopped, "Where is she going?" Why is she going? Is she unhappy here?" The unprecedented ferocity and fury are caused in the protagonist's mind by the depth of pure human bond that Grace has gracefully cemented with the former by her enchanting, respectful and warmly responsive behaviour with him. This important aspect of Grace-Jagan human relationship is underscored by the author in these comments:

He had got used to the presence of Grace in the house and he felt desolate at the thought of losing her.

      To Jagan's assertion that a wife must be with her husband, Mali gives a non-chalant answer saying, "That was in your days." and thereafter goes away without divulging to his father the fact of their not having married each other. The fact that the protagonist has a disturbed sleep at that night stunned by Mali's callousness and insensitivity with which he has dismissed the whole affair as a, non-event reiterates the situation of deep understanding which exists between Grace and the protagonist. The bewildered state of Jagan's boggled mind is depicted thus:

The obscurity of the whole business worried him. Grace was out of sight. He liked her presence in the house: it filled a serious lacuna.

      A complexity is added to Grace-Jagan association as she arouses mutually contradictory reactions in the latter's mind. On the ane hand, she impresses him overpoweringly with her gentle, frank, warm and reverential attitude towards him. But, on the other hand, she makes him feel suspicious about her real intentions in bringing Jagan inside the hall cajolingly for the sake of facilitating a dialogue between the father and the son about the latter's fantastic proposal. Jagan's occasional misgivings about Grace are expressed in these words:

An occasional misgiving tainted Jagans's thoughts-might not Grace's interest, friendliness and attentiveness be a calculated effort to win his dollars?

      The same sort of puzzlement about Grace's real motive plagues Jagan's mind when he notices, for the first time, her eyes unlit with a smile and impassive after he shows his cold indifference and designed apathy towards his son's scheme. Consequently, be raises a query within himself, "Is she a good girl or a bad girl?" The doubts and questions of this sort are natural to assail a person like Jagan who is so wary, calculating and rigorously self-disciplined. No definite and unambiguous answer is provided in the novel for such, conundrums rankling his mind. However, it is proper to comment in this context that Grace has a serious concern in getting Mali's project practically materialised. In case the scheme becomes a non-starter because of non-violent non-cooperation attitude on the part of the father, she apprehensively foresees the calamitous doom ultimately meted out to her at Mali's hand. Although, of course, she mentions nowhere explicitly such fears in the novel. Irrespective of this, the sequence of events occuring in the narrative strengthens this contention to a large degree.

      In the context of Grace-Mali association, Grace is 'more sinned against than sinning'. The over-bearing, Americanised ways of Mali do not go beyond picking up the externals of the Western world such as eating beef and tinned food, drinking, debauching, and wearing a suit. His unscrupulous guiles and mean materialistic tendencies are, undoubtedly, exposed in the inhumanly way he washes his hands off Grace, when he finds her of no use to him because of the collapse of his project in the very initial stage owing to his father's cold-shouldering his idea. Grace is not to blame for it. She is undeservedly put to the receiving end. She has rather been defrauded of whatever sum of money she has brought with her from America. She tells Jagan that before coming here with Mali, "I used to work. I had two thousand dollars when I came here. All that's gone." She is dismissed summarily by Mali alleging that she has started having uncanny notions of late and what she needs are the services of a psychiatrist.

      Grace receives a jolting shock at the hands of the man (Mali) whom she has trusted to the extent of believing his word that he will marry her on their return to his own country. But, this promise remains unfulfilled to the end. To add to her woe, she is virtually thrown out unsheltered by the same person who is immune to everything good but open to fabulous materialistic machinations and manipulations. She faces courageously this new challenge. To her credit, she does not feel depressed. She does not take it as the whole game having been lost. On the other hand, she reveals astounding fortitude and an invincible spirit to fight and struggle against the heavy odds of life. Instead of taking it a lying down, she launches her career afresh from the scratch. With this resolve in her mind, she takes up an employment in a women's hostel with the help of some friend. Nothing deters her from establishing her self-dependent identity even in a place which is alien to her.

      It is peculiar about Grace that Narayan has portrayed an alien woman against the background of tradition-ridden and orthodox milieu of Malgudi. The depiction of a foreign female character is his first attempt in the novels published so far. Secondly, her peculiarity which makes her distinguishable from other prominent women delineated in other novels of the author lies in her resolve to stay back in Malgudi and to etch an existence of her own there. Since, the reader does not come across any clear-cut indication in the novel hinting at her intention of leaving Malgudi and going back to her own country of origin i.e. America. While, on the other hand, other prominently mentionable women of Indian origin such as Shanti, Rosie and Daisy delineated in other novels come to Malgudi for a certain period of time, create some turbulent stir in the life of the inhabitants of this town and thereafter leave it forever to let it come back gradually to its characteristic milieu of normalcy, peace and complacency induced by the well-entrenched, time-honoured customs and traditions of the Hindu society.

      Grace-Mali unmarried co-existence under the same roof is of far-reaching consequences in connection with the resolution of renunciation that takes place finally in the protagonist's mind. With the burden of age-old inherited traditions, customs and beliefs on his back, Jagan is not able to pardon the guilt of Grace-Mali pre-marital association. A feeling of renunciation of his home and hearth for retirement to a calm, natural and peaceful retreat across river Sarayu, is already stirred in him by his visit to this place with a hoary bearded-man, Chinna Dorai, a sculptor-turned-hair-dyer. Jagan thinks that at the age of sixty, one enters a new janma. The revelation of Grace-Mali unholy relationship hastens his departure or 'Vanprastha'. He decides not to go back to his house which is irretrievably tainted. He spends the whole night at Sir Frederick Lawley's statue. A rude shock is rendered to his faith in Grace whom he has so far trusted and depended upon so much. His mental situation of confusion is depicted in these lines:

He stood looking at the girl. She looks so good and virtuous, he had relied on her so much and yet here she was living in sin and talking casually about it.

      He expresses his final discomfiture by saying what sort of creatures they are. It is all beyond his comprehension. Grace miraculously succeeds in winning the confidence of the protagonist by virtue of her human qualities whereas Mali, the protagonist's own son, fails miserably in the minimum need of establishing even a communication relationship with him. The episode occuring towards the close of novel manifestly reflects the contrast of Jagan's attitude towards Grace and his own son, Mali. He receives with indifference the news of his son's arrest for violation of Prohibition law saying, "A dose of prison life is not a bad thing. It may be just what he needs now." But in the same breath, he gives Grace her due. During her short-lasting association, she has showered a lot of attention, care, affection and respect upon him and has left an indelible. impression on him because of her amiable and charitable disposition. He makes an unreserved acknowledgement of the well-deserved traits of her personality. At the time of his departure for his 'Vanprastha' in the retreat with the intention "to watch a goddess (Gayatri) come out of a stone", he says the final words to his cousin in a mood of gratitude or of repayment of a loan of humanity due from him to Grace, "If you meet her, tell her that if she wants to go back to her own country, I will buy her a ticket. It's a duty we owe to her. She was a good girl."

      The personality of Grace shines out gracefully in the end. The protagonist's final acknowledgement of her as an essentially good human being succinctly but aptly sums up her sterling character. The moral flaw or stain, if interpreted so in terms of the strict, rigid and unamendable moral code of the Indian orthodox society, seems a bit subdued on the par of Grace in the final, more detached and perhaps more matured and balanced assessment about her achieved by the protagonist at the time of his renunciation of the human world of Malgudi. Moreover, probably Narayan points out suggestively through the concluding words of the protagonist about Grace that a bit more flexible, pragmatic and humane orientation is creeping in the hitherto immutable and highly orthodoxically-regimented society of Malgudi. That is the reason that a woman like Grace of a foreign nationality is getting accommodated and assimilated in the Malgudian elan.

      The peculiarity of Grace's intrusion into the essentially tradition-ridden, placid and calm ambience of Malgudi lies in the fact that her arrival causes no immediate unsettling storm or turbulence in the normal run of life of the place. This postulate comes in striking contrast with characters like Shanta Bai in The Dark Room, Shanti in Mr. Sampath and Vasu in The Man-Eater of Malgiudi whose entry for their own variant reasons brings about a tornado-like tumultuous commotion in the normal familial relationships or run of life of the, Malgudian inhabitants who come in contact with them in their daily routine. No doubt in the later part of the novel, the exposure made by Grace herself to the protagonist that she is not formally married to Mali despite their living together under the same roof renders a crumbling jolt to the latter's edifice of thought and pious belief in the inviolable sanctity of a social institution like marriage in terms of the Hindu conventional point of view. Hence, the protagonist faces an irreconcilable moral dilemma. He decides not to live in the house which has been irredeemably defiled and tainted by the illegitimate and unholy co-existence of Grace and Mali. The impact of this disgraceful behaviour is an addition of one more disillusionment to the already disillusioned mind of Jagan. The longing for seeking retirement to the calm and peaceful retreat of consoling natural surroundings with a pond and luxuriant green wild vegetation across the river has already taken birth in his mind and soul. Now, it becomes finally cinched.

      Jagan's ultimate renunciation of his homely world, Vanprastha, is more a result of the series of disillusionments he has received from his son, Mali, rather than from Grace. Irrespective of all that has happened, he nourishes a sympathetic feeling and a sense of gratitude towards Grace confided in his cousin by him at the time of bidding him farewell. Grace does not prove an undoing catalytic agent in the life of the protagonist to that alarming extent to which Shanta Bai proves to Ramani's conjugal harmonious life, Shanti does to Sampath's and Ravi's normal run of life and Vasu becomes a carrier of all-round disaster and defilement to all that is worthwhile, civilised, human and sanctimonious in the life of the Malgudians and their hallowed social, ethical and spiritual institutions and convictions. In this sense, Gracee is distinct from them despite the common fact amongst them that they are all outsiders and intruders into the place, Malgudi.

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