The setting of R.K. Narayanís novel, The Guide, as in most of his novels, is Malgudi, a fictional town in southern India. The novel is told through a series of flashbacks.
Raju, the central character, grows up near a railway station, and becomes a shopkeeper, and then a resourceful tourist guide. He meets Rosie, a beautiful dancer, and her husband, whom Raju nicknames Marco, because the man dresses in a thick jacket and helmet as if undertaking an expedition, like Marco Polo. Marco is a scholar and anthropologist, who is more interested in his research than in his young wife Rosie.
Rosie and Marco engage Rajuís services as a tourist guide, and he takes them sightseeing. She wants to see a king cobra dancing; Marco wants to study cave paintings. Rosie and Marco quarrel constantly, and Marco remains cold and aloof toward Rosie. While Marco is away studying cave paintings, Raju falls in love with Rosie. When Marco discovers that Raju and Rosie have become lovers, Marco abandons her and returns to Madras.
Raju becomes infatuated with Rosie. He is so obsessed with Rosie that he forgets his business, falls into debt, and loses his shop at the railway station. He also loses his motherís respect because he is living with a married woman. Rajuís mother moves out of their house, and the house is claimed to pay off his debts.
Raju encourages Rosie to resume her career as a dancer, and becomes her manager, launching her on a successful career as an interpreter of Bharat Natya, the classical dance of India. But he spends money extravagantly, and is tricked by Marco into forging Rosieís signature for a package of her jewels, a mistake that earns him a two-year prison sentence.
On his release from prison, Raju stops to rest near an abandoned temple, where a villager named Velan mistakes him for a holy man. Raju does not want to return in disgrace to his friends in Malgudi, and reluctantly decides to play the part of a holy man. He is happy to accept the daily offering of food which the villagers bring him. Gradually he accepts the role which has been thrust upon him, and he acts as spiritual advisor to the village community.
Raju is content with the arrangement, until a drought occurs, and, to save face, he has to take up a 12-day fast. As a great crowd gathers to watch him during his ordeal, he begins to believe in the role he has created. He has taken on an unselfish task, not for love or money, for the first time in his life. Despite grave danger to his health, he continues to fast until he collapses. His legs sag down as he feels that the rain is falling in the hills. The ending of the novel leaves unanswered the question of whether he dies, or whether the drought has really ended.
A central theme of the novel is the transformation of Raju from his role as a tour guide to that of a spiritual guide. The title of the novel, The Guide, has a double meaning, and Raju is in a sense a double character. As a tour guide and lover, he is impulsive, unprincipled, and self-indulgent. After his imprisonment, and after his transformation as a holy man, he is careful, thoughtful, and self-disciplined.
The novel also tells two stories, that of Rajuís relationship with Rosie, and that of Rajuís relationship with the villagers as a holy man. The novel begins with Raju sitting beside the temple and meeting the villager named Velan, who mistakes him for a holy man. The novel then alternates between an account of Rajuís career as a holy man, which is told in the third-person, and Rajuís account to Velan of his previous career as a tour guide and lover, which is told in the first-person. This dualism reflects the dualism in Rajuís character. He is transformed from a sinner to a saint, though he is never truly a sinner, and never truly a saint. Because of his capacity for empathy, Raju is a sympathetic character throughout the novel.