‘Father’s Help’ was published in 1982 by William Heinemann Limited in their collection ‘Malgudi Days’ and includes familiar characters from R.K. Narayan’s first novel ‘Swami and Friends’. ‘Swami and Friends’ tells the story of a young, lazy, and naive South Indian boy called Swaminathan who is always pulled up by his strict father for his studies, behavior, or actions. ‘Father’s Help’ was a short story published not along with ‘Swami and Friends’ but still tells the story of Swami, who does not wish to go to school because he prefers idleness and playing. Subtle situational humor of the unpretentious kind is highlighted in the story, making the tale realistic. The story though published in the year 1982, is timeless, telling of the strict and sometimes cruel nature of the paternal figure in Indian homes during the twentieth century and the strictness and violence meted out to students by their teachers. However, in this story, the teacher or master Samuel has done nothing to deserve condemnation.
The story ‘Father’s Help’ begins on a Monday morning when Swami is still at home when he is supposed to be at the Albert Mission School of Malgudi. He feigns a headache to get the sympathy of his lenient mother, who allows him to stay home for the day and miss school. His strict and authoritarian father sees Swami sleeping on a bench in his mother’s room and scolds him rudely, ordering him to go back to school. He denies that Swami has a headache because he is well aware of the tactics his son uses. Swami, however, is a habitual liar and tries to convey to his father that he would not like to go late to a certain Samuel master’s class because he was very violent and brutal with students. Swami exaggerates that Samuel canes a child till the child bleeds and then makes him press the blood on his head like a caste mark. Swami’s father is shocked by the behavior narrated to him and immediately decides to send Swami to school late as a challenge to Samuel. He also pens a letter of complaint, which he orders Swami to hand over to his Principal or headmaster. Swami is dejected and scared to approach either the headmaster or Samuel because his conscience is pricking him, as he is aware that Samuel is not that terrible a teacher. However, Swami being mortally afraid of his father, decides not to hand over the letter to the Principal until the end of the day and until he makes Samuel ‘deserving’ of the harsh words in the letter by caning Swami for coming late to class. As the story goes, Swami tries many times to harass or be rude to Samuel, the teacher, while the older gentleman is going about his business teaching Arithmetic and Indian History. At the end of the class, he gets some deserved caning and happily makes his way to the Principal’s office with the letter. However, the peon there informs him that the Principal is on leave and the assistant headmaster in charge is Samuel himself. Swami at once runs away without delivering the letter. Swami’s father, on finding that his son had not delivered his letter to the Principal, tears the letter and thrusts it into his wastepaper basket, declaring that Swami was a coward and did not deserve his help with a brute like Samuel.
‘Father’s Help’ carries on the themes of conscience, violence at school, compassion, false pretenses, exaggerations, and school life in the early twentieth century India. The author of this short story is R.K. Narayan, an Indian writer also popularly known as the Grand Old Man of Malgudi. This story takes place in the fictitious South-Indian town of Malgudi, created by R.K. Narayan himself. Narayan is well known for his subtle humor in his stories which is brought out here in ‘Father’s Help’ through the interactions of the protagonist Swami with his father and teacher Samuel.
Swami’s parents are wise to his weaknesses and incompetence. They both know he hates going to school, but his mother is more charitable with him and believes his tall tale about a headache. However, when he hears the same complaint, his father remarks sarcastically about Swami’s loafing about in the hot sun on Sundays. He mentions that if Swami left off playing and concentrated more on his academics, he would not be getting headaches and also want to miss precious school time. We notice a sort of underlying humor in a satirical form in the criticism of Swami’s father of his wayward son.
The topic of violence at school is common in both ‘Swami and Friends’ and all of R.K. Narayan’s other tales regarding the character Swami. Narayan even mentions his preoccupation with teachers who are violent with their students in his memoir ‘My Days’. Swami is a habitual liar and exaggerates the violence his school teachers meted out to him to avoid returning to school that day. He specifically attacks the character of Samuel, which his father takes to heart as an attack on his own ego and prestige. Notice the fact, as is also mentioned in ‘Swami and Friends’, that Swami’s father is very fond of solving the problems of his son’s school life with formal letters to the Principal. He especially despises Christian teachers and their way of treating the native children of Malgudi. Due to the exaggerated descriptions of Swami, his father decides to ‘help’ him by sending a scathing letter about Samuel to the Principal. Swami is stunned to silence because he is afraid to tell his father that he was not telling the truth regarding both his headache and Samuel.
Therefore, the help given to Swami by his father is more of an ego hassle and a half-baked reaction to a total lie mentioned by his lazy and deluded son. Notice, however, in the text that Swami, in his naivety, does not want to admit that he could be a liar and that Samuel has done no act to deserve to be put in jail or dismissed from school. Swami is more afraid of the ridiculing and mockery of his arrogant father and so decides in his innocence to make Samuel deserving of the letter rather than tell his father the truth that his letter could make an innocent man lose his job and reputation. Swami thus goes about trying to provoke Samuel to violence.
This part of the text reads comically to a child or rather adult of the twentieth century who is used to the strict behavior of teachers. However, the twenty-first-century children would not find this part of the text so ferociously witty because they are meted out better treatment at school these days. Swami, from the time he appears at Samuel’s class door, tries various ways to provoke the otherwise genial and gentle schoolmaster:
- By casually mentioning that he had a headache and had come late to class.
- He did not do his arithmetic homework because he had a headache.
- He wanted to answer out of turn about Vasco Da Gama and Christopher Columbus.
- He wanted to shout because it was his usual voice given to him by God.
- That he wanted to rise from his bench when Samuel had explicitly told him to remain seated and quiet.
- Despite Samuel calling him bluntly ‘mad,’ he wanted to interrupt his class still and speak out of turn.
- That he instigated Samuel verbally to do great violence to his person.
The irony behind the tale is that try as he might, Samuel does not react violently towards Swami but behaves unusually kind, considerate, and compassionate. This is humor in simplicity and, at its best, highlights the patience of a teacher and the plight of Swami with his defaming letter. Samuel, however, out of sheer desperation for decorum, ultimately gives Swami a few dozen cuts on his hands. The boy is excited by the violence meted out to him though he is disappointed that he did not bleed from the cuts. Notice in the text the compassion Samuel feels towards Swami regarding his headache, his father’s opinion about not missing school, and Swami as a whole by being patient with him even though he was acting out of character that school day. Samuel is overall a genial man, especially with Swami, which pricks Swami’s conscience to hand the scathing letter over to the Principal.
The anti-climax to the tale is that at the end of the day, the Principal had taken the afternoon off, and it was Samuel who was playing the role of an assistant headmaster. The joke is on Swami, and his exaggeration can now get him into serious trouble. Swami did not want to be beaten and his charade to be found out, so he hastens back to his home without delivering the letter which was supposed to ‘help’ him with his teacher. Swami’s father mocks him and calls him a coward when he returns. Swami’s father is cruel, strict, rude, and highly authoritarian. He comes out in R.K. Narayan’s writing as a highly amusing pompous character who thinks the world revolves around him and wishes his son to be brought up strictly. There is every indication in the novel ‘Swami and Friends’ that because Swami’s father is a lawyer, he wanted his son also to do well for himself, which he would not do if he loafed around all day and did not attend classes.
The father’s patience was at an end, him being unusually sadistic and sarcastic, and so he, in irritation, tears Swami’s letter and flings it into the wastebasket. Thus ends the ‘help’ or assistance that Swami’s father tried to lend him. However, we realize from the text that the letter was nothing but a nuisance to Swami, and he would have been more than glad that his father was not pursuing the matter further, and thus, he would be out of trouble for the time being. In reading this short story titled ‘Father’s Help’, we realize that Swami’s father, instead of helping him or trying to understand the sentiments of his son towards studies, tried to almost make a fool of himself in front of the entire school with the letter, he was sending via Swami. The violence mentioned in the text is exaggerated but not something unusual in the times of the pre-Independence and early post-Independence period of India. Narayan’s opinion has always been negative of the entire education system of India, especially the rote learning and the emphasis on academics that we focus on. He mentions the same in his memoir ‘My Days’ and has, in many non-fiction essays, analyzed and dwelt upon this crucial problem in the Indian Education System. He hoped for a better mode of education for the young, especially those in kindergarten, making India one day on par with the West, if not better. He shows his disregard for the Indian education system in his satirical short stories like ‘Father’s Help’ about the character Swami and his adventurous but realistic school and study life. He ends the short story with an anti-climax that Swami’s father will never concern himself with the boy’s teachers again, be they violent or not, which was not how R.K. Narayan behaved with his own daughter and the children he came across in his lifetime.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story from ‘Malgudi Days’ by Indian writer R.K. Narayan. I hope to re-read and analyze more of R.K. Narayan’s short stories soon. If you are interested in more of my reviews and analysis of R.K. Narayan’s novels and short stories, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading some multiple award-winning Indian women-centric novels, you can check out my books titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom or Amina: The Silent One. If you were helped by this analysis and want to know more about my life, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai or The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra. I hope to re-read and review more Indian fiction in the coming days.
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