Swami and Friends was the first novel by R.K.Narayan (Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami), one of the famous Indian writer in English, contemporary of Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao. Swami and Friends is the first novel of the trilogy that is set in the fictional town of Malgudi. It is also set in British India- 1930.
Monday morning (the exposition)
The novel opens with the unpleasant Monday routines of Swaminathan, getting up in the mourning, doing his homework, getting ready and going to Albert mission school. Characters like Swami’s headmaster fire-eyed Vedanayagam, his History teacher D.Pillai known for his kindness, and his Scripture master Mr.Ebenezar a fanatic are introduced.
It is in scripture class Swami’s blood is heated up, as his teacher criticizes his faith in Hinduism. Christianity was imposed on the students by teaching it as a subject (religious imperialism).
But the Brahmin Swami did never accept Christianity as eating flesh and drinking wine was permitted in it. Swami’s friends are also introduced- Somu the monitor, Mani the mighty, good for nothing, Sankar the most brilliant and Samuel the pea (based on his size).
Rajam and Mani
River SARAYU the pride of Malgudi is introduced. It is here Swami and his friends spend most of their leisure. Rajam, a new student in their class who spoke English ‘exactly like a “European”’ was respected above all (English was to be feared and respected in British India).
In addition, he was a police superintendent’s son. Thus Rajam was rival to Mani and so Swami would act as a cord of communication between them. Soon they became good friends at the banks of Sarayu.
Swami spends most of his time with his granny (which is absent in today’s kids) and shares his admiration for his new friend Rajam. Soon the weekend comes and Swami waits for his dad to leave and then sets out to meet his friends. He spends time at Rajam’s home with Mani. Rajam shows his attitude as the superintendent’s son.
What is a tail
Somu, Sankar and Pea refuse to talk to Swami and name him ‘tail’ – a long thing that attaches itself to an ass or a dog referring to Rajam which upsets him. According to them, ‘how can everyone be a son of superintendent?’, as they felt inferior and were losing Swami’s attention.
But Swami, being upset with his new name considered them to be his enemies and thus could not enjoy. Rajam and Mani were absent when all this happened.
Rajam had promised Swami that he would visit his house on Saturday. Swami desires to show his attitude as a lawyer’s son. He borrows his father’s room and pleads his mother to cook better than other days.
Everything goes smoothly as he planned. Swami, entering the class, finds the word ‘tail’ written on the blackboard. A fight begins. Mani and Rajam appear and try to stop them. Mani is infuriated as he understands the issue and starts fighting with Somu.
A Friend in need
A few days later Rajam invites Swami and Mani to his house promising them a surprise. They are shocked to see their ‘enemies’ at Rajam’s house.
After gathering Rajam delivers a lecture on friendship and also warns them of the punishment for the ones who have ‘enemies’ as mentioned in Vedas. A little later he distributes the gifts that he got for them. In this way ‘Enemies’ become close friends.
A new arrival
Swami’s mother Lakshmi is about to give birth and stays in her room and thus Swami loses her food and attention. He sleeps with his granny. One fine day doctors and nurses appear at his house. The new baby ultimately arrives. Swami being excited shares about the ‘funny-looking creature’ to his friends at school.
Before the examination
The final examination is about to come and everyone started focusing on his studies. Swami’s father forces him to study (which happens at every home even today). He missed his chat with his granny and his fun time with his friends at the banks of Sarayu. He develops an interest in the new member of his family.
“Nowadays beauty is taken for granted, yet we take time to notice it when it is uploaded to social media”. Swami was the only one still focusing on friendship while his friends shifted their focus to studies.
Swami tries his best to study and starts practising maps. He says “Europe was like a camel’s head” (Europe- ‘five sense animal’ – might be author’s voice, in British India) commenting on the shape of the continent, and questing for the origin of maps.
School breaks up
During the examination, Swami writes short answers and completes his exam before his friends. After the exams vacations began with the final ‘prayer’. Students leave the campus with a lot of fun throwing ink on each others shirt that marks the colourful beginning.
Vacations were boring for Swami without a hoop (metal part of the cycle wheel to play with). He meets a coachman and requests a hoop and gets cheated. In the rage, Swami and his friends kidnap the coachman’s son by showing him a colourful top(an object to play with). How he comes out to be wiser enough to run away with it.
In his father’s presence
Swami makes fun with his friends after his father leaves for the court. Soon vacation began for his father too and he forces his son to learn the previous year lessons. It irritates Swami. In the evening, his dad takes Swami to his club as compensation for the morning torture.
There is a protest at the banks of Sarayu against the arrest of Gauri Sankar, a prominent political leader of Bombay. Swami’s blood boils with patriotism by the speech in which it is said “let every Indian spit on England and the quantity of saliva will be enough to drown England” (author’s voice- shows the anger thought it appears to mean also the fact that Europe can be defeated anytime by Indians).
He is asked to burn his cap as that is not made up of khaddar. He at once throws it in the fire for the sake of the country. The protest continues. Students are not allowed into schools for the sake of their leader.
Swami desires to do something for his country. He breaks some windowpanes and joins the protest. The protesters are warned to disperse by the police led by Rajam’s dad. This shocks Swami and he brands Rajam as the head of those traitors.
(British employed Indians to control Indians and these employed men were ready to do anything for the British to remain loyal to them in British India). At the word, ‘charge’ police attacks the protesters brutally who run away. Many of them are injured. Swami runs back home.
Next day at school he is accused by a peon of breaking the panes. Rajam doesn’t turn to look at Swami as he is on the side of his father (traitor). Being distressed Swami runs out of the school to escape the punishment and is dismissed.
Swami is admitted to Board High School. His friend Sankar leaves the town. His friend circle shrinks and is limited to Rajam and Mani. Rajam visits Swami as he had forgiven him and inquires about his new school.
Swami talks about his Muslim classmate Akbar Ali who irritates Rajam because he is a Hindu. Rajam treats Muslims as his enemies because they destroyed their temples and tortured them (Hindu Muslim dispute is one of the unsolved issues to date).
Rajam’s dad was a Brahmin. But he didn’t participate in religious ceremonies (he was in the process of assimilating the western principles). His family did not intervene in political affairs as his father was a government ‘servant’. Rajam plans to start a cricket team (imperialism, in the minds, which has not yet left the minds of Indians).
MCC (Malgudi Cricket Club) is made the name of their team. Soon the issue of ‘tax’ comes up. “The government seems to tax everything in the world”, is the omniscient comment in the text. (Tax were collected from Indians). They start making a list of materials that their team requires.
They also receive a letter from Somu. Till the ordered material reaches them, they start practising with the things that they had. Granny shoves her ignorance: Swami finds his new school to be worse than the old one. He has extra homework and drill classes after the school which was compulsory. Thus he could not go for practice on time.
He feels guilty as he cannot spend time with his grandmother (but today no one is guilty of it). One night after practice he sits with his granny and discusses cricket. He feels proud of being called as Tate (Maurice Tate- English fast-medium bowler), as he is a good bowler.
But he feels bad for not able to participate in the practice on time. Captain Rajam meets Swami’s headmaster which makes things worse
Before the match
MCC accepted a friendly match with Young Men Club. Swami is not able to reach on time. One day he escapes a class informing the drillmaster that he was suffering from ‘delirium’ (a disturbed state of mind with restlessness, illusions and other disorders). Next day Swami gets an idea of producing a medical certificate.
He visits a doctor namely T.Kesavan who refuses to give a false certificate (or with the fear of being caught) but assures him that he will talk about it to his headmaster.
Trusting his words Swami bunks all the drill classes and goes to practice with the goal of winning the match and pleasing his captain Rajam. This enthusiasm doesn’t live long. He is accused of bunking the drill classes.
He also comes to know that the doctor has cheated him. With the rage and anxiousness, he runs out of the school again to escape the punishment. He starts imagining so many things. He plans to run and before that goes to meet Rajam.
After meeting Rajam he runs off into a forest. Soon he feels homesick and decides to return back home but loses his way. He really suffers from delirium. On the other side, his parents are worried and search for him everywhere.
The Day of the Match
Swami moves around searching for his way, soon he faints. He is rescued by a traveller and is taken to the forest officer. He doesn’t even know that it is the day of the match.
The forest officer sends a letter to Rajam’s father. and also informs Rajam about it but he acts indifferent towards the issue as he is worried that his team was losing because of Swami’s absence. Soon Swami is brought back to home.
All his relatives come to meet him, but Swami’s heart longs for his friends. Mani comes to meet him and it is through him he gets to know that the match is over and their team lost. This grieves Swami because he did all this only for that match and for his friend and now he lost both.
Swami learns from Mani that Rajam is leaving Malgudi as his father has been transferred. Swami is upset because his friend is leaving him with anger. He sets out to meet Rajam at the railway station with a book to gift him.
The station is crowded with men in uniform. He and Mani cannot get near Rajam. As the train starts moving Swami runs with hope and apologizes to Rajam. Before he could utter a word the train leaves but he succeeds in giving the gift to Rajam. However, he is never fully convinced.
R.K.Narayan covered all the political issues with a safer theme of friendship. Here lies the intelligence of the writer.