The narrative is told with the innocence of its seven-year-old boy protagonist, Swami. He does not understand maps, nor the politics of the anti-colonial nationalist movements, nor how money works. A lot of the tension driving the storytelling is based on the misunderstanding and tomfoolery that results when he and his pals try to engage with matters that they do not fully understand. Their innocence also creates a sense of irony that permeates throughout the novel wherein the narrator will sometimes tell us details that Swami himself does not know. For example, while Swami is wandering through the woods, he thinks that he is on the main road on his way back to his house. The narrator, however, informs us that he is actually quite lost on a branch road because he has been following a gentle, imperceptible curve that has led him astray.
The novel begins with Swami waking up and immediately dreading the prospect of going to school and listing the homework that he still has to do before class starts in two hours. At school, he encounters very domineering figures and hierarchical power structures. We are introduced to school first through Dr. Ebenezer, his scripture teacher, who demonizes and denigrates the native Hindu gods as "lifeless" and "dirty" objects and uplifts the Christian Jesus as a true god. This episode of British colonial domination through religious indoctrination is a more overt instantiation of a theme that runs throughout the novel. School structures his time to the extent that the central conflict by the end of the novel is that school ends too late for him to attend his cricket practice on time.
Mythological Construction of the Everyday
Malgudi is a made-up town, the setting for much of Narayan's fiction. It is both mythical and mundane, a place that is no place yet also could be every place in India. Narayan gives us very few identifying features of Malgudi and eschews a close realism in his depiction of the town. In this way, he gives the setting a sense of folksy unreality wherein each reader might transplant and project their own ideas of what Malgudi might be or look like.
Patriarchy and Authority
Swami is always navigating men who wield authority over his life, whether his school headmaster, the doctor, or his father. The men in the story are whom Swami both fears and resents, but also desires approval from, as evidenced by his elation when his father invites him to the club with him. In contrast, the women—primarily his mother and his granny—are the people whom he relies upon to listen to and care for him. His mother always brings his coffee and sugar as his afternoon snack after school. His granny is always available to listen to his latest story or lecture. When Swami fakes sickness, he manipulates his mother and granny to convince his father to let him stay in bed. The women, while not associated with the formal institutions of power, still exert a powerful force upon Swami. For example, hours into getting lost in the woods after trying to escape, Swami recalls his mother and her cooking as one of the most powerful sensations of home.
Belonging, Community, and Competition
Belonging to a group is central to the story and Swami's life. The novel shows that belonging is not an easy, smooth affair, but often happens through exclusion, hierarchy, and competition. Swami feels confidently established as the charismatic head of his friend group, but Rajam's arrival threatens to displace him. Instead, Swami befriends Rajam, but then Swami's old friends feel abandoned by his new friendship and start mocking Swami as Rajam's "tail." This is eventually resolved when Rajam proposes that they all form a cricket team. Thus, they all belong together in one unified identity as a team, but their sense of camaraderie is sustained through the exclusivity and competition of sports.
Boyhood is the overall period of life through which Swami and his friends are living through, and its sense of adventure earns comparisons to famous American boys such as Huck Finn or to the English tradition of schoolboy fiction, such as Kipling's Stalky & Co. Boyhood is defined by its sense of escape and adventure through evading and resisting authorities, as well as by a strong sense of group identity and friendship.
Oppression and Escape
For Swami, Malgudi transforms from an idyllic town to a place of unbearable pressure and judgment in his school from the headmaster, in his family from his father, around town from the police officers, and even within his own friend group with Rajam, who smoothly assumes authority over Swami due to his fluent command of English and wealth. While their adventures are often fairly innocent and the stakes low, Swami's tensions are connected to larger systems of oppression that he continually bumps into and that land him into tight corners. He continually tries to escape as his method of achieving freedom—from the Albert Mission School and later the Board High School—but instead of giving him freedom, it often lands him in bad situations wherein he must rely on authority figures, such as his father, to bail him out.
Swami is ultimately anti-work in his everyday life and tries to skate by school with doing as little work as possible. This often earns him harsh words from his father, who is invested in him being a good student. His anti-work ethos dovetails with the larger historical conditions of his time in which Indians striked in solidarity with freedom fighters against British colonial rule. In the "Broken Panes" chapter, Swami is overjoyed to hear that a strike is happening, at first because he is relieved to not have to go to school, but later because he imbibes the liberating mood and begins to act on it, throwing stones at the school.
Swami and Friends Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Swami and Friends is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.