Swami and Friends is a delightful novel written by R.K. Narayan that tells a story through the eyes of Swaminathan, a ten year old studying kid. Set in the 1930s in the small town of Malgudi in South India, Swami and Friends have been claimed by Graham Greene as
a book in ten thousand. R.K. Narayans pen has given immortality to the fictionalized town of Malgudi, on the bank of the rive Sarayu, a place where many of his later novels are set.
Swami and Friends is the story of idyllic childhood, when life for some lucky kids consists entirely of avoiding the homework and playing all the time in the street with friends. Swami is one such lucky boy, studying in standard 1 A, at Albert Mission High School. We are soon introduced to his class mates and they are a reasonable lot. Shankers specialty is to top every exam, the Pea and Somu occupy the middle positions but Mani is Swamis best friend who sits on the last bench and takes more than one year to clear some classes. Together Swami and Mani lord over the class and just barely manage to scrape past the exams. They live for summer vacations.
But this peaceful setting is disturbed occasionally by the stern headmaster of the school and sometimes by the religious study teacher, Ebenezar. Though real chaos happens when a new boy, Rajam, comes to study in Swamis class. Rajams father is the police commissioner of the town. In 1930, that would mean working for the British Government. After some scuffles that threaten to involve wooden clubs on Manis part and an air gun on Rajams, peace descends on 1 A again and Swami, Mani and Rajam become fast friends. We see them getting involved in forming a cricket club and harassing cart drivers.
But all good things come to an end, and Swami manages to get thrown out from his school. He participates or rather gets caught in Anti-British protests. Next day, when his headmaster tries to cane him, he runs away swearing he will never come back. His father is forced to change the school. Still, his friendship with Mani and Rajam totters along, till Swami manages to run away from the second school too. He feels that now there is nothing left but to run away from home also. Eventually Swami returns home, only to find one of those childhoods great calamities, lying in wait for him. The book ends on a bitter-sweet note.
The first thing in the favor of the book is that it is not at all moralistic and it does not have a sweet, happy ending. It is a flawed world in which Swami and his friends manage to have a great childhood.
The second best thing about the book is the excellent humor and the wonderful narration by R.K. Narayan. He manages to present such a fine picture of the world through Swamis eyes. Swami is particularly scared of math. One day, to top it all, in the summer vacation, Swamis father asks him to solve a sum which, involve finding the price of one mango if the price of 10 is given. For Swami it becomes a problem of ethics, and the information supplied in the question inadequate. He cannot answer the question till he knows whether the mangoes are raw or ripe and whether the price charged is just or not.
Similarly hilarious is the situation when Swami, Mani and Rajam try writing a letter to Messer Binns in order to procure cricketing goods for MCC (Malgudi Cricket Club). But the situation becomes riotous when they get a reply from Binns in which he thanks them and would be obliged if the MCC made 25% of the payments beforehand. The kids for their life cannot figure what is obliged and what is 25% of what. After a lot of pondering they return the letter to Binns saying it must have reached them in error. Equally good is the portrayal of the adult world that consists of various parents, a few cart drivers and forest officers, from the childs point of view.
The characterization in the book the book is superb, all the children have a unique personality and you cannot confuse who is who. Mai is the daredevil, Rajam, though naughty, usually acts as a voice of caution and Swami a bit shy, but yet impish and impulsive. There are few adults in the novel but they are generally referred to as Swamis mother or granny or Rajams father and the like. They have been described from the point of view of children and they seem to be so big and scary most of the time.
My two teenaged nephews too have read this book and they often compare Swani with Calvin (of calvin and Hobbes fame) because mischief is the lifeblood of both but in the end they find Swami more timid of the two. For them, Calvin is the ultimate brat with Swami a close second.
The book is easy to read and the language is wonderful and brings alive the atmosphere of a sleepy, small town in rural India and the life of its inhabitants. Swami and Friends is a R. K. Narayan classic and my only complaint is that he wrote just one Swami book.
The one thing that could probably upset some is the caning involved in the school life, and though I strongly disagree with a practice, I had to remind myself that the book is set in 1930s.