Reminiscences of R.K Narayan’s ‘Swami & Friends’
As a child and a young adult, one author who left a long lasting impression on my mind was R.K.Narayan. Whether it is his ‘Swami and Friends,’ or ‘The English Teacher,’ or ‘The Bachelor of Arts,’ he created a fictional world that was unique because of its Indian-ness and the manner in which he explored the lives and experiences of the young characters, spanning the age groups from school going kids to teens and mature adults. Take the example of ‘Swami and Friends,’ which revolves around a naughty, ten-year old boy Swami. The way a growing boy’s troubles, idiosyncrasies and excuses are depicted is so very real and relatable to a young adult. When one reads about him roaming around Malgudi with his friends, one can truly relate to the life of a ten-year old. I am particularly interested in analysing the relevance of ‘Swami & Friends’ as a text from the viewpoint of a child or even a young adult. As a literary work, the book is extraordinary in its approach that catches the fancy and generates interests across age groups. I enjoyed reading it two decades back as a part of my growing-up years, and I can still read it as a full-fledged adult with the same enthusiasm and interest.
As a child when I first read Swami & Friends and then saw the televised series of the same as Malgudi Days on Doordarshan, the impact was tremendous on my young mind. Narayan writes of youth and young adulthood in the semi-autobiographical Swami and Friends. He provides a universal vision of childhood in the book. The small confusions and distractions that a child faces as he/she is growing up and reaching adulthood were unfolded before me. The pangs that Swami feels while growing up, any child of his age would feel too; and that may be the reason that I was so engrossed while reading it. The way Narayan has displayed the characteristics of children can be gauged from the restlessness and anarchic strain in Swami’s character, so very typical of children in their growing-up years. The very fact that children are oppressed by authority of any kind can be judged from Swami’s disgust at the severe Christian teachers at school, and his own instructive father at home. But just like children usually feel secure by the stability offered by authority, Swami feels that, that state of confusion is so very a part and parcel of a child’s life, especially a child who is about to leave childhood and enter his teens or young adulthood.
Those who have read the book will remember the fondness of Swami for Rajam, the police officer’s son, with his bungalow and toy rail engine. This again shows the infatuation of a normal child with another person of almost the same age who has something extraordinary to offer, which Swami feels makes him a privileged one. Not only this, the fact that Swami, while playing cricket, wants to show Rajam that he is a modern, rational adult is an act of innocence on the part of a ten-year old child. The anxiety, impatience and restlessness that a child has to connect and be loyal to a friend are so well expressed by the author. Such episodes remind you of your childhood days and transport you back to a similar kind of a world that you have been a part of as a child or a teenager. The fact that Swami listens to a story every night from his old grandmother before going off to sleep is something that I related to doing myself, as a child.
One of the reasons why children and young adults would enjoy ‘Swami & Friends’ could be the simplicity of Narayan's fiction, in terms of literary theory and technique. He is known for a lean, lucid, undecorated style, but wonderfully expressive and full of understated surprises. Narayan was a master of the 'clear glass' style long before that term of art was invented. "Since the death of Evelyn Waugh," declared Greene, "Narayan is the novelist I most admire in the English language." (Frontline, Volume 18 - Issue 11, May 26 - June 8, 2001). Reading his ‘Swami & Friends,’ one doesn’t feel the need to struggle to understand his work. What makes the book a memorable read is the fact that in a simple, innocent manner, Narayan talks about a happy-go-lucky childhood in a South Indian village, but he does not forget to mention some painful realities of growing-up. So, one does get to read about a child, in the process of growing-up and the complexities involved in that process, specifically in the mind of the character. Any teenager would relate and feel solace in reading about these realities as happening to him/her. As kids, we too have grown up with similar kind of anxieties, and follies as mentioned in the book and this takes us back in our childhood.
Considering the young adult reader, we do get a glimpse of the many gray shades of Swami's character also. His behaviour with his grandmother, his running away from home oblivious of his parents' pain, and the careless way in which he thanks the forest officer who took care of him while lost, all point towards a very believable and real character. Generally boys his age do behave in a similar manner. One cannot forget the typical Indian family, for example: a loving yet authoritarian father; a supportive and doting grandmother who just showers her love on Swami without any selfish motives, even when Swami bluntly tells her that her being so old embarrasses him in front of his friends. His mother Lakshmi, is more or less a secondary influence and has a shadowed kind of existence in his life and this too is pretty common for a boy his age for whom the mother’s existence is more or less related to food and kitchen.
One of the most important aspects of growing up years is the friendships that youngsters develop with kids of their age and liking. Swami & Friends delves so well into this aspect that one feels nostalgic and the feeling of déjà vu is there. The way Narayan has made the reader see the world from the eyes of children is awe inspiring and so real. The description of the ‘fire eyed Vedanayagam’, Swami’s class teacher and the Headmaster with his ‘long thin cane’, the classrooms, and the teaching of different subjects in a typical rote learning manner, could be any typical Indian school that you went to. Not only the school setting, but the way Swami strikes friendship with the intelligent and all rounder Rajam, the jealousy of the mighty Mani on seeing Rajam as a competitor in the class, the studious and brilliant Sankar who always scores 90%, and the ordinary, weak, nervous ‘Pea’, who is not good in anything: neither studies nor physical activity, all these characters are drawings of real life personalities that you see in any classroom. When I read about these characters, it was not at all difficult to visualise lookalike students and peers I knew in my classroom, when I was a kid.
Swami and Friends is also special because of the variety and movement of the chapters that describe the sweet as well as the bitter memories of growing up. The fear, anguish, and peer pressure to be accepted and acknowledged in your friend circle is so very integral to young adults. Swami is called ‘a tail’ of Rajam and jeered at by his friends. And Swami is not able to take that accusation of his friends. The fear of examinations has been depicted in great detail and one cannot help but remember the phobia that students have about examinations. This is made clear from the description of Mani’s character having sleepless nights thinking about what questions will come in the paper and trying his best to bribe the school clerk to get some information on expected questions in the paper. I remember myself going through that phase of extreme stress during examination days in school.
Another important aspect of growing-up that has been highlighted in the book is the fear of being alone, of solitude, especially at nighttime for a child. This is brought to light in the chapter “Swami Disappears” where Swami’s fear on being lost in the Memphis Forest is so vividly depicted. He imagines all sorts of demons, wild animals, and creatures of the forest, evil spirits attacking him or conspiring to kill him. The innocent thoughts and fears of a child alone in the forest are so commonly experienced by kids normally even if they are asked to go in a dark, lonely, secluded part alone, even within the four walls of their own house. Not only this, but the way Swami reacts to the headmaster’s whacking mercilessly with the cane when he doesn’t answer him why he didn’t come to school the previous day, shows the silent anger and aggression that keeps seething inside swami and then finally explodes when he gets down from the desk and declares to the headmaster, 'I don't care for your dirty school.” So well Narayan has captured the child psychology that fear and threats don’t work with kids and teenagers after a certain point of time. The headmaster’s beating and scolding of Swami finally breaks the child’s patience and fear of the head master and turns him into a kind of rebellion.
The hunger for unconditional love, affection and friendship is beautifully captured in the last chapter of the book, “Parting Present”, where Swami is so disturbed when Mani tells him that Rajam is leaving Malgudi that very day as his father is transferred to Trinchinopoly. Swami is shattered and wants to meet Rajam desperately and his act of gifting Rajam a book as a parting gift is very touching. It shows the soft and innocent heart of kids who don’t understand any manipulations and for whom their friendship is a treasured thing. When Swami starts crying on seeing Rajam leaving, his innocent and selfless love comes to the fore. I must have experienced the same kind of pain and agony umpteen number of times when as a kid my father was transferred from one city to another and when I had to leave my friends behind.
The book is an amazing amalgamation of the kids’ world and the adults’ world. Swami & Friends truly represents the literature of young adults and I strongly feel that it would be an interesting read for years and generations to come because it talks about something that is basic to the nature of children - affection, friendship, belongingness, security, rebellion, etc. What makes the book all the more interesting is that if on one hand it talks about the young adults and their tribulations, it’s also a reflection of the kind of anxieties, problems, thought processes that young adults go through. For example, the way Swami tries hard to belong to a group of friends shows how much peer pressure plays an important role in their lives. Also the fact that the poor boy doesn’t get any emotional or psychological support from his parents or family also gives us a glimpse into a typical Indian family where interaction with the kid is painfully restricted only to food or studies.
The simplicity of language displaying the complexity of a young adult’s life and thinking is the reason for making the book an instant hit with young adults. It doesn’t require painful efforts or constant looking into the dictionary to understand or enjoy it and that I feel is the success of the author. The book is a refreshing take on childhood and brings back all the good and bad memories of growing up years for any adult. The novel hooks you with its simple yet interesting content and is just like a flight back in time for an adult. For young adults, it is like a peep into their own lives and this is a very soothing experience for them.
1. Narayan, R.K. - Swami and Friends. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
2. N. Ram. “Malgudi’s Creator: The Life and Art of R.K Narayan.” Frontline.
Volume 18 - Issue 11, May 26 - June 8, 2001.