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Swami and friends by R.K. Narayan

December 28, 2014 33 comments

Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan 1935 French title: Swami et ses amis (out of print in French, I think)

NarayanMaybe I’m sentimental but there’s something special about reading a book that has travelled half the world to get to you. My copy of this omnibus edition of Narayan’s work was sent from India by Vishy from Vishy’s Blog and I’m really grateful he made me discover this writer.

My copy includes four works by Narayan (1906-2001), all set in the fictional city of Malgudi: Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room and The English Teacher. Of these four novels, only The Dark Room is still available in French. So far I’ve only read Swami and Friends but you’ll be sure to hear more about Narayan in the coming year.

Swami and Friends introduces us to Malgudi where Narayan frequently set his novels; it seems to be his Wessex. Malguldi is not featured with pages of description but we get a strong impression of the city through passages like this one:

During summer Malguldi was one of the most detested towns in South India. Sometimes, the heat went above a hundred and ten in the shade, and between twelve and three any day in summer the dusty blanched roads were deserted. Even donkeys and dogs, the most vagrant of animals, preferred to move to the edge of the street, where catwalks and minor projections from buildings cast a spase strip of shade, when the fierce sun tilted towards the west.

I don’t know you, but I can imagine the heat, the blinding sun that weighs on one’s shoulders and make you want to crawl into shade and not move until it relents. Details add up until you have a sense of the place.

Swami and Friends relates moments of Swami’s life at the age of 10. (Swami is short for Swaminathan.) It’s not a story with a beginning, events and an ending. It is more composed of sketches about Swami’s life that give you a picture of the childhood of a middle-class Indian boy in the 1930s.

Swami lives with his parents and his grand-mother. His father is a lawyer and his mother stays at home to take care of her family. At the beginning of the book, Swami is an only child until he is informed that his mother has given birth to a little brother. Apparently, nobody told him about her pregnancy. He doesn’t know what to think of the little bundle that occupies his parents greatly. I loved the following paragraph:

Now he peered in and was disappointed to find the baby asleep. He cleared his throat aloud and coughed in the hope of waking him. But the baby slept. He waited for a moment, and tiptoed away, reminding himself that it was best to leave the other alone, as he had a knack of throwing the house in turmoil for the first half-hour whenever he awoke from sleep.

Poor Swami doesn’t know how to interact with this baby and he’s still adapting to all the changes his little brother brought to the family’s routine. It reminded me of my daughter’s puzzled look when she first saw her younger brother. She didn’t seem to know what to think of this strange thing lying in his crib.

Narayan_françaisEverything is described from Swami’s point of view so we see life through the lenses of a ten-year old boy. The narration is consistent with a child’s vision of time and life. He’s absorbed in school that gives rhythm to his life and his days are filed with children’s routine: school, homework, relationships with friends. He’s trying to be a good pupil but sometimes he gets bored. He’s afraid of some of his teachers but shows a great deal of character when confronted to adults.

The opinion of his friends is as important as the opinion of his parents. When a new boy comes to town, Rajam, everyone wants to be part of his crowd. He’s an important boy, his father is the new chief of the local police. He’s more sophisticated, he’s richer, he’s got nicer toys. Swami’s full of admiration for him and Rajam becomes popular and gets his power after leading a little war against the former popular boys.  Swami and his friend Mani befriend him after Rajam takes the power. Rajam will be the one to finance the creation of a cricket team. Swami plays well and is passionate about the game. It’s one of the most important things in their lives, something they’re ready to fight for, even if it means go and talk to a dreaded headmaster to secure regular practices.

Swami and Friends is about school, friends, cricket, the birth of a younger brother and Swami’s relationship with his parents. It is set in India but Swami’s main concerns are the same as any middle-class pupil of his time and ours. Of course, there are cultural differences. He learns how to count with mangoes when a European boy would have heard about pears and apples. And he plays cricket, a game almost nobody plays in France. (I’ve seen a team in a neighbouring town: all the players were of Indian or Pakistani origin). And for him Europe is as imaginary as Neverland.

He sat at his table and took out his atlas. He opened the political map of Europe and sat gazing at it. It puzzled him how people managed to live in such a crooked country as Europe. He wondered what the shape of the people might be who lived in places where the outline narrowed as in a cape, and how they managed to escape being strangled by the contour of their land.

I thought it was quite funny. But apart from local differences, it felt universal.

The fact that this is colonised India also seeps through the novel. For example, at the beginning of the book, Swami goes to Albert Mission School until his father decides to change him of school and make him attend the Board High School. The change came after a teacher denigrated the Hindu religion in class only to praise Christianism. And there is a protest march in Malgudi because a political militant was arrested in Bombay.

I read Swami and Friends at the same time I was reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Both relate childhood memories but I preferred Narayan’s tone. As it is Swami’s point of view, the reader can’t expect a deep insight on what’s happening around him. It is different when it’s an adult telling his story like in Cather’s novel. Narayan’s book has the warmth of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. The two writers were contemporary. Small people come to life under their pen and the characters and places become familiar and loveable.

Thanks Vishy!

PS: Swami and Friends is out of print in French but I picked the French cover anyway because it’s a collection for young readers and I’ve discovered many great books in Livre de Poche Jeunesse. These covers belong to my childhood memories.

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