Swami and Friends

Swami and Friends Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5-9


In the next chapter, Rajam promises to visit Swami at his house, which sends Swami into a frenzy over how he will entertain his friend from a wealthier family. He notifies his granny that she cannot be seen while Rajam is in the house because she is too old, which she accepts with unusual cheer. He goes to his mother and asks her to prepare something special this afternoon, instead of her usual coffee, and tells her she must put on a clean, white dhoti before coming into his room. He then asks his father if he could have his room for the afternoon to receive his friend, which his father agrees to upon learning that Rajam is the police superintendent's son. Rajam’s visit goes off without a hitch except for when, upon seeing all the gilt-edged law books in the room, he questions Swami about where all of his own books are. To distract him, Swami takes Rajam out to meet his granny, contradicting his earlier instructions.

The next day, Swami walks into the classroom and sees the word "TAIL" chalked on the board. He approaches the Pea and slaps him, prompting pandemonium as he, the Pea, and Sankar all start fighting. The bell rings and Rajam, Somu, and Mani enter— their fight moves outside. Mani demands an explanation and Swami sobs that the Pea called him Rajam’s tail. Mani is angered after Somu makes a smart comment and lands a blow on Somu, and they get into a fight. The other three onlookers are astonished and, fearful that they might kill each other, call upon the headmaster, who eventually breaks up the fight.

Swami and Mani go over to Rajam’s house, speculating why Rajam had called them over and what surprise he might have in store for them. They encounter a servant at the door and decide to play-act as a cat and dog, with Mani crawling around the floor like a blind puppy and Swami doing the same as a blind kitten until they realize that their friends-turned-enemies are also in the room. They scramble to their feet and are laughed at by Somu and company. Swami glares back and tells Rajam that he is leaving, but Rajam stops him from leaving and flatters him enough to stay. After eating, they are in good spirits, and Rajam lectures on friendship, quoting scriptures of the Vedas that warn of punishments inflicted on those who foster enmity. In an effort to repair the fracture and bind the group back together again, he promises to give each friend a prize if they cease their enmity. Everyone receives their gifts and appears to have reconciled.

Meanwhile, back home, Swami’s mother has been bedridden for two days, and his granny informs him that he will soon have a brother, news that he receives without enthusiasm. He is bewildered by the preparation for his brother’s birth and eventually falls asleep. The next morning in Tamil class, he tells the Pea the news about his new baby brother, saying that his face is red and awful like a chili.

School examinations are coming up in two weeks. Swami realizes that his father is becoming stricter and constantly hounds him about studying more so as to avoid being left behind by his classmates if he were to fail, which kicks Swami into form and he begins to study as well. Everyone at school is subdued and disciplined by the specter of the examinations. Mani comes to the clerk’s house one day and gives him a plate of fresh brinjals and expresses his anxiety about the examination. He manages to flatter the clerk into telling him information about what questions will be asked in the exam. Satisfied with his bribing, he shares his intel with Swami.

Swami is bored and tries to come up with interesting tales for his granny. First, he tells her that some boys in his school got into a fight. Finding that it landed flat, he talks about how his headmaster knocked his toe against a doorpost and was limping for the rest of the day. However, Granny is in a sleepy mood, and Swami moves on to play with his little brother, whom he has grown much warmer toward, but is further disappointed upon seeing the baby asleep. He is extremely restless at home and misses his friends, but eventually he takes out his atlas again to study. He looks over a political map of Europe and puzzles over how people could live in a such a crooked country, how they managed to live on the tiny width of a cape, and how they managed to not be strangled by the contours of the land. He begins to wonder how the map was made and how India would look like on a map. He copies down the map of Europe and is very pleased when his father compliments him for studying. Swami writes down a list of his needs for the examination, such as paper, nibs, ink, clips, and pins, and approaches his father, who is in a bad mood from being interrupted. Swami gives him his examination list, but his father brusquely dismisses it as "preposterous." He tells him that he should take what he needs from his own desk and that he doesn’t need the rest, crossing out items in red. Swami is badly disappointed, as he had been looking forward to shopping with his friends.

Finally the day of the examination arrives, and Swami strides out of the examination hall, exhausted but triumphant. He is slightly uncomfortable because he finished and left the exam earlier than all of his friends. He contemplates the questions in the exam and his answers. One of them asked him to infer a moral from a story about a Brahmin and a tiger. When the bell rings and the rest of the students come trickling out of the examination hall, Swami asks a classmate what he wrote for the last question. Swami is surprised when he replies that he wrote a one-page response, as Swami had only written one line. He realizes that his friends have all written three-quarters to one-page responses. To save face, Swami lies that he wrote about half a page. But school has ended and they are on break. The boys burst out of school in a great ecstatic rush and let loose their steam. Mani begins wrenching ink bottles from the little boys and, with Swami’s assistance, pouring the ink over their clothes. The school peon eventually rushes into the crowd and breaks up the boys’ revelry.


The power struggle between Swami and Rajam intensifies and takes a swift turn from enemies to friends. However, tensions remain, mostly regarding their class differences, which Swami anxiously attempts to smooth over to a sometimes embarrassing degree. Rajam’s visit to Swami’s house is a high point in the plot that reveals the class and colonial dynamics at play in their friendship and throughout the novel. Swami requesting his grandma to hide herself while Rajam is in the house because she is “too old” reveals that Swami has already internalized a colonial notion that his Indian ancestry and heritage, represented by the matriarch of his family, is embarrassing and needs to be hidden.

Swami’s deference to Rajam causes him problems back at school when he gets into a fight with his former friends over the word “TAIL” written on the chalkboard. The fight, which Swami instigates, reveals his spontaneous, insecure, and short-tempered nature as a character, which gets him into more trouble further into the story. The innocence of the narration is again highlighted by their friends’ reactions to the schoolyard fight, which they think will end in the boys’ deaths, flagging the melodrama of youth in which every conflict takes on larger-than-life stakes.

The conflict between Swami and his ex-friends is resolved, at least on the surface, by Rajam’s intervention. He invites Swami and Mani to his house and surprises them when Somu and company are present too. He quotes the Vedas about the punishment awaiting anyone who fosters enmity and bribes everyone with gifts so that they eventually reconcile. Rajam, by taking on a didactic role within the group, consolidates his own authority in the friend group, which only further grows as he becomes the captain of their cricket team.

The examinations loom large as the central focal point and dampens the moods of all the characters, showing the degree to which school is not merely a place, but an event in its own right with its own plot and mood. Swami is very bored with studying and, in an effort to enliven his life, tries to tell his granny adventures of his daily life, showing that he himself is already actively scheming and narrating his life.

In preparation for his exams, Swami studies geography and, in particular, a political map of Europe, which prompts him to wonder how people managed to live on such a crooked and narrow land mass and how maps are made in the first place. His naiveté estranges us from maps as a technology, one that has been instrumental to the exploration and colonization of the world. Once again, the author stages an encounter between the innocence of boyhood and the technology of British colonial rule, suggesting the ways that colonialism operates not only as a form of governance but also as a subtle, everyday, lived reality.