Swami wakes up on a Monday morning dreading the day of school ahead, which means more work and discipline. He mentally catalogues all of his homework for the day and completes it in the two hours before school. At school, he is taught arithmetic, history, and scripture at the end of the day, a class taught by Ebenezer, a Christian "fanatic" who expresses disdain of the Hindu gods as dirty, lifeless, wooden idols that pale in comparison to the Christian Jesus. Swami’s blood boils, and he gets into a fight with his teacher; when his father gets wind of the fight, he sends Swami back to school with an angry letter penned wherein he strongly objects to the “assault” and rough treatment that he suffered under Ebenezar. His father accuses the school of not wanting non-Christian boys to attend the missionary school and threatens to remove his son from the school.
The next day, Swami sheepishly hands his father’s letter to the headmaster, who then walks into the classroom in the middle of Ebenezar deconstructing and discrediting the Bhagavadgita. The teacher swiftly switches topics, switching to lecturing on the Bible, randomly landing at a page in the Bible and reading out loud the Nativity scene. The headmaster interrupts and asks the teacher why he is only at the Nativity at this late point in the semester, so close to the terminal examination. The headmaster tells Swami that he is “here to look after [him]” and that, if an incident should occur again, he should come directly to the headmaster instead of going to his father.
The narrator moves on to describe the River Sarayu, which is the “pride of Malgudi” and a popular gathering spot for locals. Crowds gather on its sandbanks during the evenings in particular. Swami and his friend Mani are sitting on the riverbanks enjoying the evening when Swami announces that he wishes to take the new student in their class, Rajam, bundle him up, and throw him into the deep part of the river. Rajam, the new arrival in the school, is an immediate rival to Swami and his popular status at school. Rajam dresses very well, arrives at school in a car, and is a very good student.
One day in class, Mani passes a note to Swami, who in turn passes it to Rajam, which questions his masculinity. They meet after class and Mani challenges Rajam to meet him at the river for a duel the next day to prove that he is a man, which Rajam agrees to do. The next day, Mani and Swami are sitting by the river, waiting for Rajam, with Mani contemplating how he will break Rajam’s head, what would happen to Rajam’s body, and what consequences he might face. Rajam arrives late with a gun, which Mani decries as unfair, given that he has none. Rajam asks Mani what he’s done to offend him, and Mani responds that he called him a sneak, which Rajam dismisses as a lie. In an abrupt turn of face, they agree to put aside their anger and become friends. Swami is astonished but is extremely happy because he had secretly admired Rajam and desired to be his friend.
In the next chapter, Swami is at home with his grandmother and exclaims to her the enmity-turned-friendship between Rajam and Mani. He starts telling her glowing accounts of Rajam and begins telling a story about how Rajam killed a tiger, but stops when he suspects that his grandmother is not listening to him and accuses her of indifference. She protests that she does indeed care enough to soothe Swami and eventually begs off so that she can finish a story of Harichandra that she had been reading before Swami interrupted her.
Swami and his classmates have free time in the middle of a school day due to a teacher’s absence, so he goes wandering, noting with disdain the younger years who are playing with clay, thinking that such an activity is improper for school. He finds his friends, except for Rajam and Mani, playing underneath a tamarind tree and joins them. They noticeably give him a cold shoulder, and when Swami asks his friends to let him join their game, no one responds, but instead joke about a “tail'' being among themselves. A tail is a long thing that attaches itself to an ass or a dog, and Swami burns up, inferring that he is the tail. He runs away and walks home, but Somu, one of his friends, stops him along the way and informs Swami that he has earned a new name—Rajam’s tail. He is stunned that his friends have turned their back on him but eventually grows accustomed to their new enmity.
One day, while going for a walk, he notices that his former friends – Somu and company — are walking behind him. He becomes self-conscious and wants to run away or turn in a different direction, but that would only mean giving away his awareness and being construed as a coward. Eventually he makes up the fact that he left his notebook somewhere and sprints off in the made-up direction of his notebook.
The story, written from a third-person point of view, follows Swami, a rambunctious young boy who spends his time scraping by school and adventuring with his friends. The narrator’s tone is sympathetically close to Swami, disclosing his everyday fears and hopes, and takes on the innocence and naiveté of Swami’s boyhood self.
The structure is episodic, with each chapter devoted to a particular scene or aspect of Swami’s life. The episodes do not directly build on each other but rather work to establish a tableau of everyday life. The lack of a progressive structure slows down the narrative pacing and enables the story to move without reference to a linear, calendrical time, except for the occasional instance when time does burst in, such as later in the novel during the political protests on August 15, 1930 in the “Broken Panes” chapter.
These early chapters sow the seeds of the defining conflicts of his boyhood. In particular, these chapters highlight his antagonistic relationship to school, his group of friends and their personalities, and the arrival of a new boy who threatens Swami's popular status at school, Rajam.
Swami’s conflict with Ebenezar and with his headmaster over their religious teaching demonstrates the story’s concern with the historical conditions of India, namely, British colonial rule. The theme of school as a site of colonial indoctrination is made explicit through Dr. Ebenezer, who glorifies the Christian religion and degrades the native Hindu gods as mere lifeless idols. Swami’s anger at his teacher, which gets him in trouble, foreshadows his escalating conflicts with the school authorities.
The tail is a schoolyard taunt that becomes a symbol of the unequal relationship between Swami and Rajam. Rajam’s authority over Swami is based on his higher class position in a colonial hierarchy, evident in his British accent and his father’s job as police superintendent, the enforcer of British law and order on the ground. The power dynamics are learned behaviors; for example, when Rajam invites his friends over to his house, he decides to keep them waiting for a few minutes because he has seen his father do the same.