Would you describe this book as realistic? How does the author, R. K. Narayan, play with both myth and realism in the construction of the narrative?
In his novel Swami and Friends, R. K. Narayan evokes a mythical setting of Malgudi that is both grounded in specific local details and generic enough to stand in for a universal and authentic imaginary of India. While Narayan sketches out the contours of the town by giving us place names of important features, such as the River Sarayu where Swami and Rajam meet for their duel, he eschews ethnographic detail of the town to focus on the vivid inner and social life of Swami. Therefore, one may argue that the novel is realistic in the ways that it evokes the spirit of Indian boyhood in British India, but it is less concerned with a kind of historical or ethnographic realism. Therefore, one could say that the realism of the book is colored by the sense of wonder and naïveté of a young boy and therefore combines both traditional realistic and mythical elements.
How would you describe the tone and attitude of the narrator toward Swami and the other characters?
The narrator of the novel inhabits a point of view of someone clearly wiser and older than Swami. Sometimes, the narrator will at times playfully mock Swami, such as when he receives the letter from the sporting goods company and completely misunderstands it. The narrator, by recounting word-for-word the letter, enables readers to read the letter themselves and realize how woefully the boys have misread the letter.
The narrator, despite moments of ironic sympathy, does not intervene or comment explicitly on Swami and his antics. Instead, the novel closely follows their movements and thus our reading is synchronous with Swami's experience of reality, which intensifies the emotional immediacy and sense of drama. This becomes most explicit when Swami gets lost in the woods at the end of the novel; we encounter every odd sound, devilish whisper, and scary imagining that occurs to him. There is no given space to distance or process the sensations separately from Swami—instead we inhabit his point of view closely.
Swami and Friends is a children’s novel about a schoolboy and his friends, but it also weaves together historical conditions of popular revolt against colonial rule and for independent nationhood. How does the schoolboy narrative interact with India's colonial history and struggle for independence?
Power struggles run through the entirety of Swami and Friends. The underlying struggle in the novel is the historical struggle of India attempting to gain independence from Britain. By telling a schoolboy narrative in a mythical town, Narayan evokes this period of time in an intimate scale and with the lightheartedness of everyday life. In doing so, Narayan shows the insidious ways that colonialism is assimilated into everyday life by influencing how one stands in relation to another—in particular, how the parts of Swami's life deemed feminine and other are positioned as inferior, which is evident in his relationship with his granny. Swami consistently goes to her for emotional support and for a listening ear when he is bored or wants to brag about Rajam. Yet, he also consistently devalues her because she is old and doesn't know anything about cricket, an English sport that he and his friends becomes obsessed with.
Boyhood is defined as an escape from maternal figures and independence from patriarchal and colonial figures. The struggles that define Swami's boyhood involve subverting and escaping patriarchs—most prominently, his headmasters and his father. His struggles dovetail neatly with the larger historical struggle, as is evidenced in the “Broken Panes” chapter when he easily joins the protests and throws stones at the headmaster’s windows, motivated by his personal antagonism toward school emboldened by the larger political mood. True independence is something that Swami yearns for but fails to achieve, or at least stumbles toward it. The novel thus chronicles his missteps toward freedom and brings India's historic independence movement down to the level of perception of a young, small-town boy.
How does the protagonist, Swami, navigate his dueling desires for community and for freedom? What do you think he learns at the end?
Belonging and freedom are two powerful yearnings that Swami experiences. Swami desires social affirmation, especially from his father and his friend, Rajam, whom he looks up to. The problem is that belonging is conditional upon following certain rules and norms, which he struggles with because he also desires freedom from coercion, as becomes evident in his escape from school and participation in the political strike. However, whenever Swami runs aways, he is reeled back in because he powerfully misses the belonging entailed in being part of a community, whether regarding his family, his friend group, or even his school. Thus, Swami is perpetually torn between ingratiating himself into the center and escaping to the periphery. Indeed, while Swami chafes against the authoritarian style of his teachers, he happily submits himself to Rajam, who, assuming intellectual authority, lectures him on cricket and the Vedas and rebukes him for participating in the political strike.
The novel begins with descriptions of Swami's close friends and how he gets along with them, demonstrating their centrality to his life in Malgudi. He works extremely hard to impress Rajam because he is ultimately afraid of being socially rejected by him. When he briefly has a falling out with his old friends over being “Rajam’s tail,” he is shocked and deeply uncomfortable. He comes to regret his expulsion from Albert Mission School because he fears that he will lose contact with his school friends. By the time he expels himself from the Board High School, he looks back longingly at his old missionary school, reflects on his old “cosy and homely” history class, and almost weeps at the memory of his friends “happy dignified and honored” within the walls of the missionary school. The image of Swami, on the verge of tears as he stands outside the boundaries of his former school, about to escape into the woods because he dreads the consequences of his actions, is reflective of the conundrum between freedom and community that he has always faced.
At the end, actually on his own in the woods, he finds himself entirely miserable, on the verge of delirium, hungering after his mother’s cooking and hallucinating about the cricket game that he was supposed to have played with his team. Precisely when he is alone, when Swami is the most “free” from the social coercion that he faced, he comes to terms with his powerful attachments and attempts to return. While he is able to return to his old school, the Board High School, and is welcomed back to his family, he has missed the cricket game and is unforgiven by Rajam.
How does the structure of the narrative inform the sense of time in Swami’s world?
Time passes unevenly and subjectively in Swami’s world. Every day is a new day. The novel proceeds in short, episodic chapters that revolve around a single incident or person, resulting in a shape of time expressed in punctuated, self-contained units that gain coherence by filling out a profile of Swami’s life. Despite the shortness of each chapter, the pacing is slow because the chapters do not connect with each other or build momentum, but rather start afresh to illuminate a new aspect of Swami’s life in Malgudi.
The novel expresses a subjective sense of time by the absence or presence of specific time markers. Indeed, the novel begins, “It was Monday morning.” Swami struggles to wake up because after the “delicious freedom of Saturday and Sunday,” he could not adjust to the “Monday mood of work and discipline.” School oppresses his sense of time and assimilates it into a binary of school day and weekend, a time of work versus a time of freedom. Before certain big deadlines—namely, the examinations and the cricket game—time is heightened with suspense and clearly demarcated with each passing week and day noted. In other times, such as after school is let out, time passes smoothly and without hard distinctions between days or weeks.