A schoolboy named Swami wakes up on Monday morning, reluctant to get out of bed. He dreads facing his school, teacher, and the Mission School’s Headmaster, especially since he has left all of his homework to do in the two hours before school starts. He settles into his desk in a corner of his father’s dressing room and begins to work.
The opening scene establishes Swami’s character as youthful and self-centered, with only childish concerns like finishing his homework on time. This small travail sets the stage for Swami to develop a much greater sense of responsibility and awareness of the world around him.
Swami sits in his classroom, bored throughout the first few hours of school. He can only stand to be at school at all because he enjoys watching the toddlers in the nearby Infant Standards classroom. His teacher, Vedanayagam, appears very ugly to him and pinches his hand when he finds that Swami’s math homework is incorrect. Swami enjoys his next class more, because it is a history class taught by a kind man named D. Pillai who tells stories of great battles in history rather than following any “canon of education.”
Swami’s boredom during most of the school day introduces Narayan’s skepticism of the value of conventional education settings. Rather than wise authority figures, the teachers appear as comic caricatures, frightening demons like Vedanayagam, or loveable buffoons like D. Pillai.
The final class of the morning is scripture class, taught by Mr. Ebenezar, a religious fanatic. Swami and his classmates sometimes enjoy the colorful Bible stories they learn there, despite the fact that Mr. Ebenezar insults the beliefs of the non-Christian students. Mr. Ebenezar launches into a rant about the failings of the Hindu god Krishna in comparison to Jesus, which causes Swami to stand up and argue against his teacher. Mr. Ebenezar twists Swami’s ear as punishment.
Ebenezar’s fanaticism is the novel’s first example of an oppressive colonizing force in Swami’s life. Although he does not yet know about the movement for Indian independence from England, Swami intuits that Ebenezar’s forceful rejection of Hinduism constitutes an offensive threat to Swami and his values. Swami is physically punished for speaking up, an early example of the way that colonialism’s violence manifests in every corner of even a seemingly carefree Indian life.
Swami arrives at school the following day, feeling guilty about a letter that he carries in his pocket. He thinks that he is an idiot for telling his father about the trouble with Mr. Ebenezar. Swami delivers the letter to the Mission School Headmaster, at which point the reader learns that Swami’s father has complained to the headmaster about discrimination against non-Christian students. The letter states that the school should be more tolerant of students of other religions and requests that the headmaster inform Swami’s father if Hindu boys are not welcome at the school, so that he can send Swami to school elsewhere.
Swami’s father’s intervention from a more mature perspective clarifies the point that Swami’s school acts as a microcosm of colonial oppression of Indian life. The letter also demonstrates that, at this point in Swami’s life, his father acts as his trustworthy protector. This initial relationship is important because Swami’s ability to rely on his family, especially his father, changes substantially over the course of the story.
When Swami exits the Mission School Headmaster’s room, his classmates crowd around to find out what happened. However, Swami refuses to tell anyone but his four best friends, who are introduced one by one. The first friend is Somu, the class monitor, who is a mediocre student but relaxed and well-liked by everyone, including the teachers. The next friend is Mani, described as “the Mighty Good-For-Nothing.” Mani is a powerful bully who never does his homework but is never punished. Swami is especially proud to be Mani’s friend. The third friend is Sankar, known as the smartest boy in class, and whom Swami greatly admires. Swami’s final close friend is Samuel, who is known as “the Pea” because he is small and unremarkable. The Pea has “no outstanding virtue” but gets along well with Swami because they have similar senses of humor.
The introduction of Swami’s friends as simple characters with clear defining traits shows that, at this early stage, Swami views identity as fixed and straightforward. This perspective is essentially childish and will be increasingly challenged in later interactions with these same friends.
Swami tells his friends about his father’s letter and all four of them approve of his telling his father about Ebenezar’s behavior, although Mani wishes he could have attacked the teacher himself. The Pea feels embarrassed because he himself is a Christian and agrees with Ebenezar, but he does not say so to his friends. The day’s scripture class proceeds normally at first, with Ebenezar vigorously denouncing Hinduism, but then the Mission School Headmaster enters the class and criticizes Ebenezar’s teaching, embarrassing the teacher.
Like Swami, most of his friends are comfortable with the idea of relying on their fathers for support. Only Mani, who is noted for making trouble, would consider handling the situation himself, again showing that Swami and his friends have not yet achieved much of a sense of autonomy.
At the end of the day, Swami is called to see the Mission School Headmaster, who has Ebenezar waiting in his office. Swami is uncomfortable talking with Ebenezar present and wishes to leave, but the headmaster keeps him in the office long enough to tell him that, in the future, Swami should trust the headmaster and come to him with complaints instead of telling his father. The headmaster gives Swami a letter to give his father and Swami runs home, relieved.
Despite the headmaster’s scolding of Ebenezar, Swami discovers in this conversation that the oppressive force of the school is still essentially intact. Furthermore, the headmaster’s request that Swami not turn to his father with problems is the story’s first indication that Swami will have to learn to grow into the ability to face issues on his own. However, he runs away after this conversation without reflecting much on its meaning, simply happy to have escaped punishment. This reaction further illustrates Swami’s relatively innocent perspective at this point in the story.