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HomeNewsA Tale to Tell: Swami and Friends 

A Tale to Tell: Swami and Friends 

rk narayan

–Janaki Balasubramanian–

Why R K Narayan? 

Many might have this question. 

But I have a short tale to tell. When I was 12 or 13, I recall having a lot of conversations with my father. Typically, he will conclude those discussions with his catchphrase, “Stop feeding your visuals with images, feed them with words.” I obviously disregarded those words because I am his daughter at the age of thirteen. When I was 14 years old, our family had an arrangement whereby children had to share a room during the summer vacation. At one point, my father took a few books off our bookshelves and gave them to my brother and me. Like the kite that fell into Rajini’s palm in the Baba movie, Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan landed in my hand.

Swami and Friends is a semi-autobiographical novel by R.K. Narayan, first published in 1935. It follows the adventures and misadventures of Swaminathan, a 10-year-old boy living in the fictional town of Malgudi. Set in British colonial India, and the fictional town of Malgudi Town. 

The cover illustration is by RK Laxman, his illustrious cartoonist brother, who is a wizard on his own. The beauty of the cover brings out the three characters— Mani, with his club on the left, Swami, with his confused look in the middle, and Rajam, the rich son of the Deputy Superintendent of Police.

An overview of the novel, Swami is a lazy school boy, who prefers to while away his time, than concentrate on his studies. He lives with his Father, Mother, and Granny in Malgudi. He attends the Albert Mission School with his friends Samuel, Sankar, Somu, and Mani. The arrival of a new student, Rajam — the son of a wealthy police superintendent — threatens Swami’s popularity. After an initial rivalry, Swami and Rajam reconcile and become friends.

Swami joins a Gandhian movement (including burning the Lancashire cap that turns out to be Khadar) and flees his Albert Mission School after receiving charges with pelting stones and shattering windows. He eventually ends up at the more challenging Board High School.

Rajam, Swami and their friends form a cricket team called Malgudi Cricket Club ( MCC) and challenge another team. Swami, their bowling spearhead, received the nickname ‘Tate’ after the renowned Maurice Tate. But Swami is not able to turn up for practice because of his strict school routine, which prompts an intervention by Rajam that turns nasty for Swami. Swami runs away from Board High when the headmaster canes him.

He becomes disoriented after wandering into the neighbouring woods. Through the DSP and the District Forest Officer, a cart man named ‘Ranga’ transports him to his home. While Swami is still figuring out the adulation and attention he is getting from his family and friends, the shocking news that MCC has lost the match. Rajam breaks their friendship and Swami is heartbroken.

A few days later, he learns that Rajam is moving out of Malgudi, because of his father’s transfer. Heartbroken, he desperately tries to see Rajam, along with Mani. He tries to gift a book to him. Rajam’s response gets lost in the sound of the train engine as they shout.

The novel is notable for its gentle humour, its realistic portrayal of Indian life, and its focus on the ordinary people of Malgudi. Swaminathan is a relatable character, and his struggles with school, family, and friendship are sure to resonate with readers of all ages.

One of the key themes of the novel is the importance of friendship. Swaminathan’s friendships with Somu, Sankar, Mani, and Pea provide him with a sense of belonging and support. However, his friendships are also tested by conflict and jealousy. Another key theme of the novel is the conflict between tradition and modernity. Swaminathan is from a traditional family, but he finds himself drawn to the modern world. This conflict appears in his interactions with friends, family, and teachers. 

Narayan explores the innocence of childhood through Swami and Friends. Through, Swami, Narayan explains, the more enduring joys and heartbreaks of boyhood. ‘Swami and friends’ is an apt title because we watch the group form alliances, break them off and reform again. The boys seem easily offended, quick to make fun of others, and desperate to feel loved. Swami, at the centre of the story, goes through a series of juvenile emotions—he is rebellious, he feels guilty, he is playful, he is cruel, he is afraid and he seeks protection (from his grandmother). 

In addition, the most poignant scene in the book is the final one when Rajam leaves Swami behind at the railway station. Swami sends him Anderson Fairy Tales as a gift, but Rajam says nothing in response, implying that he (Rajam) is leaving childhood behind and entering a larger world, while Swami continues to be navigating the pleasures and pitfalls of boyhood.

Swami and Friends is a coming-of-age story that explores the themes of friendship, family, tradition, and modernity. It is a well-written and enjoyable novel that provides a glimpse into the life of a young boy in India.

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