A young boy named Swami wakes up on Monday morning in the town of Malgudi in South India. He rushes through his homework at his desk in his father’s room and then goes to the Mission School, where he is bored throughout most of his classes. Swami gets a bad grade on his mathematics homework and then, in his scripture class, gets into an argument with his teacher Mr. Ebenezar, a Christian fanatic. Swami is offended at his teacher’s dismissal of the value of Hinduism and arrives at school the next day carrying a letter from his father to the Mission School Headmaster, in which his father complains to the headmaster that the school does not welcome non-Christian boys.
Swami tells his four closest friends about the letter. These boys are Somu, the friendly class monitor; Mani, a powerful but lazy bully; Sankar, “the most brilliant boy of the class”; and a small boy named Samuel, nicknamed “The Pea,” who is not remarkable in any way except that he makes Swami laugh more than anyone else. Later in the day, the headmaster scolds Ebenezar but also tells Swami not to report incidents to his father in the future, saying that the boys should instead turn to the headmaster with any problems.
On the subsequent evening, Swami and Mani sit on the banks of the Sarayu river, discussing a classmate named Rajam who Mani wishes to throw into the river. It becomes clear that Rajam is known in school as a kind of rival to Mani, due to his fearlessness, intelligence, and wealth. Rajam’s father is also the Police Superintendent. Swami insists that he supports Mani more than anyone else, and when they return to school Swami begins acting as a go-between for the two rivals. Eventually, they decide to meet for a fight on the banks of the river to see who is more powerful. But when the time for the fight comes, Rajam suggests that they put aside their differences and become friends, to which Mani happily agrees. Having always admired Rajam, Swami is also delighted at this turn of events and glad to be the friend of both powerful boys.
The reader is introduced to Swami’s grandmother, whom he calls Granny. She lives with Swami’s family in a small passageway, and Swami feels safe and secure in her company. Swami excitedly describes Rajam to Granny and, although she tries to tell him stories of his own grandfather’s similarly impressive accomplishments, Swami refuses to listen. On a Saturday shortly thereafter, Swami ignores his grandmother’s requests to spend time with him and instead goes with Mani to Rajam’s house, where they are impressed by his luxurious home, numerous toys, and the delicious food his cook serves.
Back at school, Swami runs into his three friends Somu, Sankar, and The Pea. However, they are unfriendly to him and make a joke about a “tail.” After school, Swami makes Somu tell him about their joke, which it turns out refers to their calling him “Rajam’s tail” because they believe Swami now thinks himself too good for his old friends. The rejection by his friends is the “first shock” of Swami’s life, and he reflects miserably on how quickly people can change. At home, he makes a paper boat and puts an ant on it, then watches as the boat is consumed in a flood of water. As the days continue, Swami’s friends continue to ignore him, and school becomes an increasingly painful experience.
On another Saturday, Swami excitedly prepares for Rajam to visit his house. He anxiously orders his father, mother, grandmother, and cook through various preparations. The visit goes well, and Rajam even charms Granny with his stories. The next time Swami attends school, he is again faced by his old friends mocking him, and he slaps both the Pea and Sankar. Joined by Somu and Mani, the group goes outside, and Swami explains to Mani that the other three call him Rajam’s tail. Mani defends Rajam and fights with Somu until the other boys get the headmaster to break up the fight.
Three weeks later, Swami and Mani go to Rajam’s house again, this time because Swami told them he had a surprise for them. When they arrive, they jokingly pretend to be a blind puppy and a blind kitten to get Rajam to let them in, only to discover when they open their eyes that Somu, Sankar, and the Pea are also present. Rajam serves the group food and then lectures them all on the value of friendship, offering them each a gift if they promise not to be enemies any more. One by one, each boy accepts his gift.
At Swami’s home, his mother has been in bed for two days and seems confusingly changed to him. Granny tells him that he is going to have a baby brother, but he is indifferent even when the baby is born, telling the Pea that the baby is “hardly anything.” The Pea assures him that the baby will grow up quickly.
In April, Swami and his classmates have only two weeks before their school exams. Swami’s father forces him to study constantly, and all of his friends are also unhappy under the stress of studying. Swami only feels that his efforts are worthwhile when his father compliments his work. Shortly before the exam, Swami makes a list of supplies that he needs and, disappointed that “his wants were so few,” he makes a more complicated list and brings it to his father. His father scolds him and refuses to give him money to buy supplies, instead telling him to take supplies from their desk at home.
At last, Swami’s final exam is over. He worries that he finished faster than his friends and did not write enough for one question, but his worry quickly turns to excitement as the other students finish and form a joyful crowd to celebrate the end of school. The group of boys destroys paper and ink bottles, creating happy chaos until a school administrator breaks up their celebration.
Without school in session, Swami realizes that he is closer friends with Mani and Rajam than with Somu, Sankar, and the Pea. He also wishes to get a hoop to play with, and gives some money to a coachman who promises to get him one, only to realize that the coachman tricked him. Rajam forms a plan in which Mani will kidnap the coachman’s son as revenge, but the plan goes awry when the boy gets away and his neighbors attack Mani and Swami to chase them away. Sitting on a road outside town and feeling frustrated, the three friends accost a young cart boy named Karuppan, frightening him with claims that they are the Government Police before eventually letting him go.
Soon thereafter, Swami’s father begins making him study again even though school is out. Feeling sorry for Swami after a long day of work, however, his father also brings him along to visit his club in the evening. Swami enjoys the visit until he realizes that the coachman’s son works at the club. He becomes increasingly fearful that the boy will attack him, not even trusting his father to protect him, and cannot relax until they leave.
In August, Swami and Mani find themselves in the midst of a protest for Indian independence. Moved by the speakers, Swami and Mani swear to support India against England and boycott English goods, with Swami even burning his cap when someone suggests that it’s foreign-made. The next day, Swami is nervous about not wearing a cap to school, but finds a crowd of protesters blocking entrance to his school. The group says that school is canceled due to the imprisonment of an Indian political worker, and Swami gets caught up in breaking windows and destroying property at both the Mission School and the nearby Board School. Eventually, the protest moves to a square in town, where Swami sees Rajam’s father order his policemen to violently disperse the crowd, a sight that shocks and frightens Swami. Later, his father expresses sympathy for the protesters but scolds Swami for losing his cap, saying it was made in India all along. The next day in school, the headmaster punishes all of the students who participated in the protest and Swami angrily runs away in the middle of class.
Six weeks later, Rajam finds Swami to tell him that he forgives his political activity and to invite him to form a cricket team. Swami has transferred to the Board School, while his group of friends back at the Mission School has broken up: Somu was held back, Sankar moved away, and the Pea started school late. Swami agrees to join the cricket team, and he and Rajam call themselves the M.C.C. With Mani, they write a letter to a sporting goods company ordering supplies. Although the company writes back asking for a deposit, the boys continue believing that their supplies will arrive and begin practicing with improvised equipment in the meantime. Swami quickly reveals himself to be a good bowler and earns the nickname Tate, after a famous bowler.
Swami discovers that the workload at the Board School is heavier than he is used to and also that it requires him to participate in daily afterschool drill practices. Consequently, Swami leaves school too late to attend cricket practice on time, which makes Rajam angry. One evening, Swami is concerned about his grandmother, whom he ignored earlier in the day when she said she didn’t feel well. He is relieved to find that she is well, but she disappoints him when she does not know what cricket is. However, Swami decides to educate her rather than scolding her. When Swami continues to be late to practice, Rajam decides to confront the Board School Headmaster and convince him to let Swami leave school early. Although Swami protests, he insists, and leads Swami to the headmaster’s office. The headmaster ignores their request and Rajam eventually gives up his effort.
The M.C.C. schedules a cricket match against another local team, but Swami is still not able to get enough practice time. With only a week left before the match, he decides to try and get a pass from a physician named Dr. Kesavan. Dr. Kesavan proclaims Swami healthy but agrees to tell his headmaster that Swami should get to miss drill practice. Delighted, Swami skips drill practice every day to attend cricket, only to find at the end of the week that the doctor never spoke to the headmaster. The headmaster threatens to cane Swami, but Swami throws the cane out the window and runs away. Swami fears that his father will be too angry to let him live at home without attending school, so he decides to run away. He goes to the Mission School and, after reminiscing about how much he loved being a student there, he finds Rajam to say goodbye. However, Rajam convinces Swami to run away only briefly before participating in the match and then leaving for good.
The narration’s perspective switches to Swami’s father, who wanders the town alone late at night, looking for Swami. Swami has not been seen for hours and his mother and grandmother are sick with worry, with his father growing anxious as well. After looking everywhere else he can think of, Swami’s father fearfully peers into the Sarayu to see if Swami has drowned. Not finding him, he continues to walk along the rail lines.
The narration returns to Swami, who is wandering on a quiet road far from home. He reflects that he was foolish to leave over such a trivial problem and wishes to be back home with his family. He decides to return home but unwittingly goes the wrong way, becoming more and more lost until he at last begins to hallucinate in despair, thinking that he is being attacked by animals. He falls unconscious after a fantasy of winning the cricket match. The next morning, a cart man named Ranga finds Swami in the road and takes him to the District Forest Office, where an officer named Mr. Nair helps Swami figure out who he is and where he is from. Soon, Swami’s father takes him home with the assistance of Rajam’s father, where he is content to celebrate among his family until Mani arrives and informs him that he has missed the cricket match. Having thought that the match was the next day, Swami is devastated. Mani also says that Rajam is furious, so Swami resolves to speak with Rajam the next day and repair their friendship.
Ten days later, Swami still has not spoken with Rajam due to fear of his reaction. However, he has learned that Rajam’s father has been transferred and the family is about to move away. Swami searches his possessions for a going-away present for Rajam, settling on a book of fairy tales, and resolves to go to the train station in the morning to give it to Rajam. Swami goes to the station but is again too intimidated to talk to Rajam, who gets on the train without saying goodbye. Panicking, Swami asks Mani for help and the two boys run alongside the train, finally giving Rajam the book. Rajam seems to say something to Swami, but his words are lost under the noise of the train. Mani tells Swami that Rajam has his address and will write, but Swami is unsure if Mani is telling the truth.