Swami and Friends by R K Narayan

Review by Tejas Jayasheel

I believe everyone must have read the Math of Rama, Krishna and their mangoes as a lesson in high school English. This was just a small chapter from the legendary Swami and Friends by R K Narayan. One of the most celebrated English authors in India, R K Narayan is a name that is not easily forgotten if you have ever read any of the books by this great man. As a 90s kid born and brought up in a small town, I was often found in the streets and on the river bank rather than at home glued to some computer game or books. If anyone ever asks me to summarize my experiences during the last decade of 20th century, I would point to this novel.

The story is contemporary to the freedom struggle in India i.e. around 1890s. Swami – a kid of 1st or 2nd grade at one Albert mission school in a small town of Malgudi on the river bank of Sarayu lives a very adventurous life in his own imagination. A small world of school, home and his friends – “Mani” a bully, Somu the class leader, Batani (green pea) a Christian boy who just understands every joke that Swami finds, is uprooted and gets caught in a whirlwind when Rajan arrives. Rajan being the son of a high rank police officer in the service of British, he’s well educated, daring and on top of everything, rich.

The feud between Mani – Swami’s best friend and Rajan a new super power in the class brings Swami to crossroads but their feud however ends in a friendship between the three on the river bank of Sarayu. The story is so beautiful that it brings a sort of heaviness to reader’s heart. Anyone who reads this would want to relive their childhood in the small town of Malgudi. The trio stick together only to face the wrath of their classmates again. This time Swami faces the dire problem of status quo in the society. A dialogue from Somu – “Are we not classy enough to be your friends?” would portray the kid’s mentality of the 90s.

Rajan somehow manages to bring them all together, however these three remain the best friends ever. The raging freedom struggle would play a part in Swami’s expulsion from Albert mission school away from his friends. Rajan gets angry over Swami as he took part in freedom movement. But this is also short lived as they come together again for the love of cricket.

As kids, they form a cricket club and write to big corporation asking for cricket bat, ball and wickets. Without any money to spend, they had to revert to custom made bats from local carpenters (which not even resembles the shape of a cricket bat). Swami turns out to be an amazing bowler and this finds him a place in the upcoming match against a local team from neighbouring village.

All this brings the story to a classic climax that is stunning and page turning as any other chapter. You will feel a lump in throat when you finish the book. This is not the book that brings a happy ending but it’s not a total tragedy. The entire book makes you laugh till your stomach hurts, but in the end R K Narayan makes your heart ache. You wish there’s more when you turn the last page of the book and it leaves you empty like a hollow shell. Readers feel a strong emotion after they put down the book but it becomes difficult to classify it as sadness or happiness or indifference. That is the same effect R K Narayan produces with his books. A few others from the same author include “Guide” which was made into a Bollywood movie and Malgudi days which was made into a television serial directed by legendary Shankar Nag. Happy reading.

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