Swami and Friends

Swami and Friends Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on R.K. Narayan's Swami and Friends. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of R.K. Narayan

R.K. Narayan was born into a middle-class family of the Tamil Brahmin caste, a notably intellectual and creative group within India’s system of social castes. He was raised in the city of Madras in South India and was cared for largely by his grandmother, whose stories and friends are said to inspire much of Swami and Friends. Although writing was an uncommon career for Indian men of his time, his family was supportive of his choice. Narayan also broke with tradition by deciding to forgo an arranged marriage and instead choose his own wife, although she died of typhoid fever in 1939, only five years after their marriage. Narayan raised his one daughter on his own and never remarried. Swami and Friends was Narayan’s first published book and was championed by the English author Graham Greene, Narayan’s friend and mentor. Narayan went on to publish 15 novels as well as a memoir and numerous essays and short stories, and he also became an activist for causes including environmentalism and children’s rights.
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Historical Context of Swami and Friends

Swami and Friends was written between the first and second World Wars, a literary period of notable creative experimentation that likely encouraged Narayan in his mission to create a uniquely personal, comedic depiction of his remembered childhood. The historical context of British colonial rule over India is also particularly crucial to the story, as Swami and his friends begin to comprehend the essential oppression of their country while simultaneously growing up loving aspects of England, in particular the sport of cricket. Britain would continue to rule India until the late 1940s, so Swami witnesses the stirrings of the independence movement—led by Mahatma Gandhi—that would come to redefine the nature of India in the coming years.

Other Books Related to Swami and Friends

Swami and Friends is the first of Narayan’s many novels set in the fictional town of Malgudi, all of which deepen and expand the themes and locations introduced in this novel. In particular, this work is often considered the first in a trilogy of Malgudi coming-of-age novels, the second and third of which are The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. Although the second two books in the trilogy concern different characters and do not extend Swami’s story, they are nonetheless closely linked thematically. Swami and Friends also shares characteristics with a wide range of novels about groups of friends attending boys’ schools and struggling for autonomy in the face of domineering authority figures. One notable example is Rudyard Kipling’s story collection Stalky and Co., which Narayan’s friend and advocate Graham Greene saw as a parallel to Narayan’s early stories about Swami. Finally, Narayan was one of the earliest Indian novelists to write exclusively in English about everyday life in India, thus paving the way for generations of Indian writers to do the same. These later writers include Arundhati Roy, a contemporary Indian novelist who gained fame for her novel The God of Small Things, which was based partly on Roy’s childhood in India and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 1997.
Key Facts about Swami and Friends
  • Full Title: Swami and Friends
  • When Written: Early 1930s
  • Where Written: South India (uncertain whether Madras or Mysore)
  • When Published: 1935
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Novel, Bildungsroman, Sociocultural Satire
  • Setting: The fictional town of Malgudi, in South India
  • Climax: Swami’s disappearance
  • Antagonist: English colonial rule, oppressive educational systems
  • Point of View: Third person limited omniscient, mostly closely focused on Swami’s point of view but occasionally touching on the perspectives of other characters

Extra Credit for Swami and Friends

Write What You Know. Several of the novel’s events, including the pivotal protest for Indian independence, are based on Narayan’s real-life childhood activities.

The Other Side. After his wife’s untimely death, Narayan become immersed in trying to communicate with her spirit and even based a Malgudi novel, The English Teacher, on his spiritual experiences.