That exalted world, once the exclusive preserve of Brahmins, is changing fast: it is no accident that Swami’s greatest source of fear in Malgudi is the low-caste, slum-dwelling ball boy at his father’s tennis club.
The game of cricket, with its simultaneously rule-bound and anarchic nature, offers Swami, as it does millions of Indians, emotional release from the strains and pressures of adjusting to his ever-altering circumstances. But the captain of the cricket team is Rajam himself, before whom Swami tries hard to pose as a modern rational adult, an act in which even his old affectionate grandmother becomes a shameful embarrassment someone to hide from when Rajam visits his house.
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When Swami, giving in to his natural rebelliousness, runs away from home just before an important cricket match, he knows not only fear and uncertainty but also guilt. His feeling that he has been irresponsible and cowardly, that he has failed to act like a man, colours the heartbreaking last two pages where Narayan’s swift clear prose so naturally a part of his alertness to physical and emotional actuality, the randomness of events and emotions describes Rajam’s departure for the bigger world outside Malgudi.
A nervous Swami has gone to the railway station with another grownup friend, Mani, to see Rajam off. He has a present Andersen’s Fairy Tales for Rajam. But Rajam, whose own attitude towards Swami has alternated between harsh indifference and brisk curiosity, is already remote. The train starts to move; Rajam takes the book but says nothing: childhood has ended for him and he won’t prolong it any further for Swami:
Swaminathan and Mani stood as if glued where they were, and watched the train. The small red lamp of the last van could be seen for a long time; it diminished in size every minute, and disappeared around a bend. All the jarring, rattling, clanking, spurting, and hissing of the moving train softened in the distance into something that was half a sob and half a sigh. Swaminathan said: “Mani, I am glad he has taken the book. Mani, he waved to me. He was about to say something when the train started. Mani, he did wave to me and to me alone. Don’t deny it.”
“Yes, yes,” Mani agreed.
Swaminathan broke down and sobbed.
“Swami and Friends” was at once hailed by critics as a great work of art. The novel describes the rainbow world of childhood and early boyhood of boys of the likes of Swami growing up in the interior of South India. It seems that Narayan’s personal experience at school has gone into the making of the novel. We get a vivid portrayal of the thoughts, emotions and activities of school boys. It is as though everyday reality has taken over Narayan’s pen and written this universal epic of all our boyhood days.
The novel is remarkable for the author’s understanding of child psychology and for his depiction of the carefree, buoyant world of school-boys in a most realistic and convincing manner. It renders people and their actions as they appear to boys at school-stage. Swami is one of Narayan’s immortal creations. Chandran, Raju, Jagan and others came much after in his fiction. Some writers have the tendency to convert their childhood into shrines and further on they try to mystify their own boyhood. Narayan has consciously avoided that because he never wrote any more tales of boyhood after “Swami and Friends”.
In addition to depicting Narayan’s skill in characterization, the novel also highlights the brilliance of his never-cloying humour. Despite minor defects like its looseness in construction, the novel is a remarkable first achievement, and it displays Narayan’s peculiar genius to the hilt. Graham Greene, for example, considered it “A book in ten thousand” and Compton Mackenzie observed that “he had never read any other book about India in the least like it.”