Swami and Friends by R.K.Narayan
Created: Sat Mar 20 14:55:19 2010 | Last modified: Sat Mar 20 14:55:19 2010
R.K.Narayan's first short novel, Swami and Friends, also provides the setting for his later novels and short stories, Malgudi. Malgudi is the typical Indian middle and lower-middle class town and something that provides a window into the life-blood of South India: its unique culture, its simple people and also its paradoxes.
With that brief synopsis, I begin my journey into Swami's world which is a small town called Malgudi in the 1930s.
At first glance, Swami and Friends is nothing more than a simple, charming story of a ten-year old boy who lives in a world of (in his eyes) bossy adults - be they parents or teachers at school - and his friends and enemies at school. His life is fairly complex and he has a tough job to do: pleasing both his demanding peers and also the dour world of adults around him. He manages his tough balancing act for a while but then two incidents change his life forever. Finally, he gets out of trouble, but the cost is heavy: he loses the friendship of Rajam, the son of the Police Superintendent and is devastated at his departure at the end.
Swami is a paradox throughout the narration. R.K.Narayan does a wonderful job in bringing out his emotional pysche. While Swami sincerely and innocently believes in the sanctity of his friendship with Rajam, Rajam remains aloof and impersonal. Swami's relationship with his peer group is very complex as so-called 'friends'. The novel is full of irony and subtle wit. And also disturbing. Friendship at that age is nothing more than peer pressure and this is a fact that Swami cannot fathom. He tries to impress his friends and peers. He acts impulsively and loses control of himself on more than one occasion. He gets little emotional support at home or from his peers. School is a place where life is tough. Constant pressure from all directions finally tells on Swami and he bends.
Narayan also gently laughs at the world in which Swami lives. The paradoxes of pre-independence India, the alternating aloof and passionate nature of the people, the confusions that encompass the mind of a child in such a volatile environment: all those things are brought out beautifully. Narayan takes a dig at the educational system too as envisioned by the British masters. The use of the cane, the degrading and humiliating nature of the 'stand-up-on-the-desk' punishment, the heavy workload are all shown up by Narayan for what they are: a cruel way of education which mass-produces unimaginative clerks and subordinate staff to serve in the British administrative machine. The real irony of this is seen when Swami runs away from the Board High school and feels nostalgic about his old school: the Albert Mission.
In the final analysis, Swami and Friends is more than the story of a child. It is the story of a generation of Indians who are born and brought up in the shadow of the British colonial Raj and who inherit the confusions of the cultural and social conflict. This is best seen where Swami is seen alternatively admiring and envying Rajam: the rich boy who walks to school dressed like a 'European'. Swami is caught between two worlds as represented by Mani and Rajam. Rajam who stands for all that is posh and urbane, smooth and unemotional, well educated yet hard and ruthless in a way. The other end is Mani who is rough, untamed, naive, emotional and yet loyal. The masterly irony is seen because these two characters not only meet but (in Swami's eyes) they also apparently get along well. To the end, Swami cannot understand the difference and hence the pathos in the final scene.
Narayan passes no judgement on anybody. He presents Swami for what he is and also the world around him for what it is. His style is smooth and simple. His sentences are crisp, yet unconventional. His use of certain 'Indianisms' might alienate the foriegn reader, yet they convey his meaning adequately. The apparent discontinuity of narration at places serve to enhance, rather than dispel, the overall effect. The cultural aspect is very visible throughout: for example Swami's fearful respect towards his father, his closeness to his grandmother, his turbulent relationships at school and his total emotional isolation in spite of physical proximity to so many people are so typical of Indian life where visible demonstration of love and care are seen as signs of weakness and a thing of shame. Throughout Swami grovels in darkness around him and yet does not see himself as being in the dark: that is the final irony and the one the cuts deepest.
A highly readable novel that can be read on all levels. While my review focusses more on the psychological aspects of the book, the book can also be read without all this mental baggage. That is what keeps Swami and Friends evergreen and fresh at even this day and age.