Swami and Friends is the first novel penned by R.K. Narayan based in a fictional South Indian town called Malgudi. Swami and Friends is also the first book where Narayan introduced to the literary world the wonderful world of Malgudi from the viewpoint of a child studying in Albert Mission School in the pre-Independence period of India. Narayan based his first novel on his own childhood experiences living in Madras and Mysore, as is mentioned in his autobiography titled My Days. Swami and Friends was first published in 1935 with the help of the bestselling contemporary classic writer Grahame Greene who acted as a sort of mentor to Narayan.
Swami and Friends is the story of a South Indian schoolboy called Swaminathan who was mischievous, naïve, and impressionable. His best friend and playmate is a tough-looking boy named Mani, who fails several times in the Albert Mission School but is always looking out to use his muscle power. The other close friend of Swami is Rajam, who is the new police superintendent’s son. Rajam is a boy used to living a posh lifestyle, is studious, excels in whatever he does, and is highly patronizing towards Swami. Rajam, at first, does not get along with Mani when he first arrives at Malgudi, but soon the three become thick friends.
Other friends of Swaminathan are mainly those he meets in school. Sankar is the topper and scholar of the class whom no one in the group really trusts. Somu is the virtuous and amiable monitor of the class who has some leadership qualities but who, in the end, fails to be promoted to a higher standard, thus falling behind his school friends. Then comes the Pea or Samuel, the only Christian in this group of friends. Due to his slight frame, the Pea is called a ‘gram’, but he is a cheerful lad ready to crack many a joke with Swami during and sometimes after school hours. The Pea, however, is at times divided in his loyalty towards his friends, especially concerning his Christian faith and his attachments towards the British rule, which the Swadeshi public was against.
The novel revolves around Swami’s school life before the birth of his younger infant brother till the time he loses the trust of Rajam, his closest friend, when he bunks an important cricket match. The story is realistic, entertaining, and highly satirical of South Indian middle-class society in the pre-Independence period and until the time of Globalization in India. Through the characters of Swami’s family, we get a good view of life in a white-collar South Indian family in India. W.T. Srinivasan Swami’s father is a lawyer and is very strict and tyrannical with Swami. Swami’s father always tries to control the actions and movements of Swami and is stopped many a time from doing so by his wife and by his mother, who is Swami’s elderly and senile paternal grandmother. Srinivasan, at times, is very harsh and cruel with Swami and is especially fond of grudging Swami his playtime in the afternoon sun during the school’s Summer Vacations. Many hilarious but satirical incidents between father and son are a delight to read and relish for their rich content and the subtle framing of sentences in different contexts. One such example is when Srinivasan commands Swami to solve a Simple Proportion sum on the price of mangoes. Swami asks his father first to tell him whether the mangoes are ripe or not so that he can make a better estimate about the price! This shows Swami to be selectively clever, witty, and brilliant. On the other hand, Srinivasan rules his home with an iron hand, but he tends to fail in his conquests, especially concerning his wife’s and mother’s take on specific important issues.
The first school where Swami studied was Albert Mission High School, a prestigious and well-reputed school in Malgudi run by a British Christian administration. The second school he attended was the Board High School, where Swami studied towards the latter half of his school career sometime after the Civil Disobedience Movement strike in Malgudi regarding the arrest of Gauri Sankar in Bombay on account of the Indian Independence Non-Violent Movement. In his hyper and highly suggestive state, Swami takes part in the protest against the arrest of Gauri and damages the window panes of the Headmaster’s office at Albert Mission High School. When the Headmaster pulled him up the next day, Swami ran out disrespectfully from school, which led to him being dismissed, and he had to be enrolled in the Board High School.
The Board High School was stricter and more activity-based than the Albert Mission High School. We notice that the Albert Mission High School signifies the complacency of the British Raj while the Board High School represents the upcoming wave of Indianized schools with their rigorous school studies and extracurricular and co-curricular activities to mainly prove that even indigenous schools could be run as well as British schools. Thus, the Board High School does not allow a student free time to muse over life at all, attendance is compulsory even for drill practice, and the homework and classwork surpass that of Albert Mission School. We notice, however, that compared to the Albert Mission High School lifestyle, Swami, who otherwise takes life as it comes in a laid-back manner, is forced to wake up to reality in the Board High School and take charge of his life and studies.
Swami’s friends keep in touch with him even though Swami changes schools because they all belong to a cricket club called the Malgudi Cricket Club or M.C.C. Swami is a good bowler in this club and is nick-named ‘Tate’ for his super wicket-taking ball curves. Rajam is the true think-tank behind this club and is its captain and guiding force. We see leadership and a sense of logical and organized thinking in the actions of Rajam in this portion of the text. Rajam implores Swami not to miss the after-school cricket practices, for they will have an important match with the Y.M.U. or the Young Men’s Union. Swami tries his best to live up to Rajam’s expectations of him. Alas, the boy can only leave school after 5:00 pm from his regimented school drill practices and turns up every time on the cricket field when the sun is already set below the horizon, thus terminating any practice.
Swami is still convinced that he will make it to the rest of the practice sessions and tries to convince a medical practitioner to write him a leave note for the same. The medical practitioner, Dr. T. Kesavan, promises to speak to Swami’s Board High School Headmaster on his behalf but purposefully does not fulfill his promise landing Swami into a lot of trouble. Swami then decides to run away from the Board High School but realizes that this time his father, Srinivasan, would not tolerate his dismissal even from this school in a matter of a few months. Thus, Swami resolutely decides to run away from home. This part of the text indicates the naivety of Swami, thinking that even though he was running away from home, he would be able to return somehow to the Y.M.U. vs. M.C.C. cricket match happening in one and a half-day.
Swami misses the match and loses Rajam’s trust, favour, and friendship in the bargain. He and Rajam no longer are on talking terms. Mani now acts as the middleman between Rajam and Swami. This is ironic because, at the beginning of the novel, Swami was first the middleman between Mani and Rajam, especially when they were challenging each other to a sort of duel contest. In that duel, the three put aside their differences and became friends and became a popular trio in their area. True, most of the friends, including Swami, befriended Rajam because of his clout with the higher authorities and the police, as well as the fact that he was well versed in English and was much more intelligent and wealthier than them all. Rajam, at the beginning of the novel, was the peacemaker of the group. He managed to unite the friends, especially after the violent quarrel over calling Swami a ‘tail’ of Rajam! Swami, the Pea, and Sankar had had a physical and verbal fight in this instance. Also, later on in this account, Mani, and Somu, the monitor, had an equally violent fight. Rajam brought them all back together at his house by bribing them with gifts from his toy cupboard.
The central portion of this novel centres on the study schedule of Swami and his friends, especially during the time of the examinations. Swami’s tyrannical father forces Swami to study for long hours at his desk and not waste his time with his grandmother, baby brother, mother, or friends. Swami does not realize the importance of an examination and is more interested in the summer vacations. From time immemorial, the summer vacations, especially for junior school students, have always been exceptionally long in India. Still, Swami’s carelessness towards his studies is hilarious to read and ponder over. All his friends, including Mani, seem to realize the importance of an exam and answering an exam paper with all sincerity or at least as well as possible, except Swami. Swami instead is bothered about non-essentials like clips, pins, nibs, exam cardboard pads, etc. He is more interested in going shopping at a stationary mart for these purchases with the money his father would loan him. Instead, Srinivasan ridicules Swami’s list and cancels many of the items on his list, thus taking the wind out of Swami’s dreams of going shopping for exam materials.
Swami answers his Tamil paper haphazardly, especially where the last question is concerned, and leaves the examination hall twenty minutes early. His friends are all busy with their papers, and Swami is puzzled why they are taking so long to answer a simple moral question. Little did he know that the last question he had answered in just one sentence required pondering and a longer answer. Swami hides his mistake from his friends. Due to this inferiority complex, he often tended to make a fool of himself or land himself into trouble. This was also the case when the first time Rajam came to Swami’s home, Swami lied to Rajam, saying that the room they were seated in was his room and not his father’s when the opposite was true. Rajam sees past Swami’s sham and yet is gracious enough not to ridicule him in his own dwelling. We notice this sagacity in Rajam many times throughout the whole text.
On the other hand, Swami suffers from a severe inferiority complex that affects him and the people he is dealing with. Elders are aware of this aspect of Swami and try to cover up for him, but Srinivasan begs to differ with their mollycoddling of Swami. He prefers treating his son with a dictatorial hand that tends to be severely harsh, especially when Srinivasan is irritable. However, Swami’s father does have pity and is fond of his son. That is why in one part of the text, we see him taking his son along with him to the club where he plays cards and tennis, to cheer him up. Srinivasan can be a pleasant person to interact with but is not precisely exceptionally good at handling children of Swami’s age and temperament. The time Srinivasan learns that his son has not returned home from the Board High School towards the end of the novel makes him guilty about how he has been treating his son all through the major part of the boy’s school life. Thus, during the disappearance, the prime thought in his mind is not that Swami has had an accident or been kidnapped but that he must have committed suicide due to harassment.
Srinivasan, therefore, checks the Sarayu River to see whether his son’s dead body is floating on the surface or whether his body has been mangled on the railway tracks of the Malgudi Railway Station. Srinivasan knows about Swami’s minus points and that he can tell a lot of lies to suit his convenience. Swami tried to bunk school the day Rajam was going to visit the Headmaster at the Board High School by faking to his grandmother and mother that he had a fever. Through sympathy and not through the truth of the thermometer, Swami was allowed to stay at home, which Srinivasan detested but was a good enough sport to congratulate his son on his victory!
Swami has a somewhat distanced relationship with his infant brother. The boy is born in the home with the help of a lady medical practitioner. Swami, at first, seems uninterested in the birth of his brother but later warms up to the child because of his adorable cuteness. Swami is too innocent and simple to realize that babies grow up and believes that his brother will remain as he is forever. Srinivasan is friendly and affectionate with his younger son, even skipping his attendance at work to spend some quality time with the child. This is in stark contrast to Srinivasan’s attitude towards his older son, for whom he does not even think of buying new clothes or toys. Still, Swami seems fond of his younger brother though he realizes that the brother is given more attention than he is.
Swami’s mother’s name is Laxmi, and she is a highly irritable and complaining sort of individual. She is dependent on her husband and needs his permission even to pay small amounts to the people who did service for her. In fact, as is mentioned in the autobiography My Days, Srinivasan and Laxmi are very much similar to Narayan’s own father and mother. They lived in Mysore, where Narayan spent the latter half of his schooling. Compared to Srinivasan, Laxmi, too, is pretty aloof from her elder son. She is more preoccupied with the kitchen work and nursing the younger son. Swami deals very little with her and usually only seeks her help when he wishes to avoid an unpleasant situation. When Swami goes missing, Laxmi goes berserk, creates a funeral atmosphere in the house, and stops eating until Swami returns. Swami notes with relish and gladness that his younger infant brother was sidelined in place of him, at least in this singular instance in his life.
Swami’s running away is something typical of his retreating nature. He is of a romantic disposition and highly dramatic, exaggerating the separation between his friends of the M.C.C. and himself. Ironically, he does not even get to spend a good one day away on his own, and the cravings for home food and his mother’s good cooking call him back homeward. However, he gets lost on the way back and, being petrified, hallucinates the way a half-famished child usually does when in such a situation. He falls asleep in the middle of the road and is picked up by a cartman who brings him to the District Forest Officer, Mr. M.P.S. Nair who contacts Rajam’s father and then his parents to come to collect their missing son.
Rajam does not forgive Swami for running away just a few hours before the commencement of a crucial match that could make or break the M.C.C. In the absence of Swami, the M.C.C. lose miserably, and all Rajam missed that day of the game was that his team needed a good bowler to win the match. Rajam converses with Mani but ignores Swami. Rajam does not even bother when Swami is found with Nair. Swami is shattered by the news that he missed the cricket match. He thought he was a day early for the game, little knowing that Nair fooled him to calm him down. Swami is furious at Nair for tricking him and thus giving him a false notion of the actual time.
The last part of the text indicates a train farewell. Rajam’s father was transferred to Trichinopoly, and Rajam was leaving, having bidden farewell to Mani but not having said a word about Swami. Swami, heartbroken about the separation, decides to gift Rajam his favorite book of Anderson fairy tales. This is Swami’s pathetic and simplistic gesture to at least keep his memory fresh in the mind of his friend, who meant so much to him. It is evident that Rajam would never read Anderson because he was too old and well-read for reading fairy tales. The indication is that the whole story of Rajam, Mani, and Swami was like a fairy story itself. Rajam came like a tornado into the lives of Swami and the rest and changed them forever, raising their standards about studies, friendship, and good behaviour. Now he was leaving forever, and Swami was determined to believe that just the way he would never forget Rajam, he hoped in the same way, Rajam would not forget him. The story ends with Swami watching Rajam’s train leave the Malgudi station and Mani watching the parting of once two inseparable friends. It’s an anti-climax of sorts like most of Narayan’s novels which makes one feel incomplete at the end of the tale, thinking that somewhere in a place called Malgudi, Swami still lives there with Mani, the Pea, Somu, and others living a life similar to many Indians and yet so different from our present time and generation.
Swami and Friends is a celebration of the ideal and typical South Indian childhood of the twentieth century. It highlights the main activities that meant a lot to the pre-digital generation of children, like cycle hoops, playacting, cricket matches after school, and long summer vacations spent running around in the heat of the noonday sun. Swami and Friends did not sell many copies when it was first released in 1935, but today it is one of the most loved of R.K. Narayan’s novels, and Swaminathan is one of the most analyzed Indian fictional characters in the Indian literary scene. The book is still a first read for young children, full of realistic and homely characters with their own eccentric peevishness but which makes them relatable. R.K. Narayan is known as the Grand-Old Man of Malgudi and is the celebrated author of several novels and short stories, all primarily set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi.
I enjoyed re-reading and reviewing Indian writer R.K. Narayan’s novel, Swami and Friends. If you want to read my analysis of R.K. Narayan’s autobiography titled My Days, you can check that out here. If you want to read more of my short story analyses of R.K. Narayan’s short stories, you can check that out here. If you liked this book review and want to know more about me, check out my memoirs titled The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra and Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to re-read and review more of R.K. Narayan’s fiction soon.
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