Swami and his friend Mani are sitting on the banks of the River Sarayu, a pleasant area near the center of their town, Malgudi. Mani tells Swami that he wants to throw Rajam, a new student at their school, into the river. Rajam dresses well, speaks good English, gets good grades, and has impressed the class enough to be a rival to the powerful Mani. Swami points out that Rajam’s father is the Police Superintendant, but Mani says that he doesn’t care and hints that he might beat up Swami if Swami gets too friendly with Rajam. Swami protests that he hates Rajam, convincing Mani that he, Swami, is on Mani’s side.
Mani’s reaction to the threat of Rajam is an early instance of the ways in which Swami and his friends re-create their conflicted political context within their own relationships. Mani relies on violence to express dominance, while Swami perceptively notes that having a powerful father makes Rajam less vulnerable. Swami’s eagerness to please Mani also hints at the slowly increasing importance of Swami’s friendships, which will begin to overshadow his family connections over the course of the novel.
As the conflict between Mani and Rajam grows in the following days, Swami acts as their go-between, passing notes full of insults and challenges from one to the other. During class, Swami is forced to stand on a bench as punishment for getting a question wrong. At the end of the day, Swami, Mani, and Rajam gather and Mani and Rajam challenge each other to a fight at the river the following evening. Mani asks Rajam to promise not to tell Rajam’s father about the fight and Rajam agrees.
Swami’s continued experiences of humiliating punishment at school furthers Narayan’s depiction of it as an oppressive, harmful place. Meanwhile, Rajam’s father’s stature continues to cast a shadow over the conflict between the boys, with even brave Mani expressing nervousness that the powerful Police Superintendent might find out about his misdeeds.
The next evening, Mani arrives at the river carrying a club, ready to fight Rajam, and Rajam himself arrives with an air gun. The two talk awkwardly for a few minutes and then Rajam asks Mani what he has done to offend him. Mani answers that he had heard Rajam had called him a sneak behind his back, but Rajam denies doing so and says that he wouldn’t mind being friends. Mani agrees that he would also be glad to be friends, and the two drop their weapons. Swami, having secretly admired Rajam, is delighted at the turn of events, and the new friends sit by the river eating cookies that Rajam brought to share.
By bringing weapons to a fight between children, both Mani and Rajam demonstrate that they have internalized the necessity of using violence to solve problems, which they likely learned from the political environment in which they’ve grown up. However, their awkward conversation and reluctance to use the weapons shows that they are essentially still children, unsure of what to do with the tools of their society. Rajam’s rapid transformation from enemy into friend also underscores the central theme of fluidity of identity, showing that an objectively “true” identity of good or evil may be an illusion.