Swami and Friends

Swami and Friends World-building

Swami and Friends is the first novel of a trilogy, the entirety of which takes place in Malgudi. Therefore, Malgudi is salient not only because it is the setting of the story, but also because it is the entire world in which Swami and the local townspeople inhabit. Thus, world-building is an important literary element of Swami and Friends in grounding and orienting the reader in a fictional setting with sufficient verisimilitude to suspend disbelief.

World-building is a literary technique of constructing an imaginary world and is most commonly used in fantasy or science fiction genres. To give a vivid and coherent sense of a world, the author will often give a history, geography, language, and ecology specific to the setting. Famous examples of world-building include J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Like these series, Swami and Friends is part of a series, showing that the project of world-building is a longitudinal project that often requires several installments. Similar to these series, we are given a hero who takes us through this imaginary world—Swami—albeit one who remains in childhood through the whole book, which corresponds to a similarly circumscribed geographic world.

Narayan is operating on a much smaller and more intimate scale than many fantasy or science fiction novels, showing that he is less interested in creating a mythical universe of India than constructing a setting in which Swami and his friends might convincingly live. His imaginary world is a small town of Malgudi in south India. Swami, as a child, is limited to the boundaries of the town, as his consciousness is limited by his boyhood. Additionally, he does not go deep into historical detail about the town or its surroundings; instead, it remains very present-focused to the conditions and events that Swami himself has personally experienced. Therefore, the world-building is directly tied to the experiences and imagination of Swami, the protagonist.

The author takes care to establish a geography of Malgudi by giving specific proper names for places such as the River Narayu or the Nallappa's mango grove, which is located near the river. He mentions certain key streets, such as Market Road where the strike protest takes place, and Ellaman Street and its position as "the last street of the town" (19). The repetition of these proper names creates a stable solidity to the world in which the characters inhabit.

However, Narayan still applies a fairly light touch to the setting, not going so far as to historicize the town of Malgudi or contextualize the town in its wider geographic location. The town remains a filled-out island on an otherwise very loosely sketched map. The lack of context for Malgudi creates an aura of innocence and indeterminacy that reflects the same innocence with which Swami, the seven-year-old protagonist, views the world. Narayan strikes a careful balance between grounding the reader within a realistic world while letting it remain open and porous, still full of possibility.