Narayan's antihero in The Guide, Raju explores the complexities of a 'Reluctant Guru'. His multifaceted career is inevitably controlled by his destiny, as ironically he turns into a true hermit. Familiar with traditions, Narayan was surely aware of the unsavoury pasts of ancient sages like Valmiki. Through Raju, he tried to highlight the problems and possibilities of spiritual transcendence in a materialist world.
Originally a railway vendor turned tourist guide, Raju meets and comes close to Rosie, and seduces her away from her husband Marco. As she acquires fame as a dancer, Raju as her impresario establishes himself as an influential member of the Malgudi high society. Then follows his imprisonment, and when set free, he continues as a fake hermit amidst the villagers of Mangal, till he discovers in him amazing spiritual strength and turns into a true ascetic. He has a kaleidoscopic, quicksilver personality. Such a dizzying trajectory of roles advocates a wide range of interests and sensitivity looks unusual in a humble country youth. His taste for finer things of life, unlike his father's provincial limitations suggested by "the state of crops", stands him in good stead when he masquerades as the holy man. While a railway vendor, and even as a servant in the jailor's house, he learns a lot from 'scraps'. Clearly, he is no common conman. Narayan wanted to focus on the enigmas of human motivation rather than depicting a mere saint or pseudo-saint, and hence created Raju with even more care than his other would-be hermit, Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts.
The dominating tendency of Raju is to guide – whether the tourists of Malgudi, or Rosie through her career, or the inhabitants of Mangal. The author suggests this by frequently using phrases like 'taking charge', 'under your guidance', 'old habit of affording guidance' etc. He is affable and articulate, and blessed with "a kind of water-diviner's instinct" to choose the right word or action in any situation – "Anything that interested my tourists was also my interest. The question of my own preferences was secondary". Simultaneously, he is quite enterprising – "If someone wanted to see a tiger or shoot one I knew here to arrange it… It kept all of us happy and busy and well-paid." Ironically, all these positive qualities fail to overpower his single shortcoming – the lack of judgment. He loves to be liked by everyone; he refuses the reality while in troubles and takes the easy way out. He loves to be admired, and dislikes them who refuse to do so like Marco. Throughout motivated by these self-regarding instincts, Raju's personal redemption is achieved only when he considers others' needs above his own requirements.
His success as a guide provokes Raju, in an act of hubris, to consider himself a kind of omnipotent master, able to shape the fate of others if he wants. As the tourist guide, he pretends to know every detail about the sites. He relishes his role as Rosie's impresario, sitting on the middle sofa in the first row, surrounded by obsequious hangers-on, conducting the show simply with a signal by his hands. In the prison, he revels at being "the master of the show". The humble villagers of Mangal also admire him, believing that he can really control the destiny and "fix it with the gods". Raju is eager to maintain his superficial importance. He dresses in better clothes for the outing with Rosie, spends money extravagantly to secure a place in the Malgudi high society, and keeps a beard and a long hair to look like a true hermit. He assumes that the best bait for winning Rosie is to show interest in classical dance, and for making full of the villagers, to create an air of mysticism.
Troubles arise as soon as he begins to believe in his own role-play. Caught up in his own egotism, he fails to realize the needs of others. Never he tries to understand Rosie's sensitive, introspective nature. Bharat Natyam, to him, is simply "the greatest art business". While Rosie loves the dance, Raju likes the cheque that it brings in. Rich with Rosie's money, Raju begins to feel "vastly superior to everyone", and ironically resembles Marco – "She was my property. The idea was beginning to take root in my mind". Later when she continues with her career independently, Raju shockingly realizes how his own creation, Nalini the dancer, has been the Frankenstein.
Still, he learns nothing, and repeats the same mistake with the villagers. While he had decide to reconcile to a common swami, uttering mysterious profundities to the people in return of food and respect, they wanted a 'Mahatma'. Faced with the prospect of a fast unto death, his flamboyance is silenced by fear as he realizes the enormity of what he has done – "He felt that he had worked himself into a position from which he could not get out…He had created a giant with his puny self."
Early in the fast, he swallows his leftover food on the sly, and yearns to get rid of his ironical state. However, on the fourth day, he resolves to pray for the rain with earnestness. Later, while answering to the American reporter, he remarks – "I am only doing what I have to do…My likes and dislikes do not count". Clearly it resounds his earlier comment as Railway Raju, but this time he overlooks his own good. Irony reaches the zenith as on the next and final day, he denies the repeated pleadings of the doctors to break the fast. "Help me to my feet", he only says before collapsing down, and the self-absorbed man finally moves to self-renunciation.
The blending of the two narratives perhaps suggests the reader to judge the character Raju both socially and spiritually. According to E. M. Foster's terminology, he thus can be distinguished as a 'round' character with surprising unpredictability.