Difficulty within educational settings is one of Swami’s constant conflicts throughout the novel. Rather than simply depicting the ordinary childhood struggles of homework and unfair teachers, Narayan uses these familiar obstacles to enact a smaller version of the colonial oppression that suffuses the book. For Swami, school is a place of both growth and restriction, where rigid rules come into conflict with Swami’s nuanced inner life. Throughout, Narayan’s depictions of Swami’s school days add depth and specificity to the book’s larger points about the intersection of the personal and the political.
Many of Swami’s most immediate experiences of oppression occur within school settings. He encounters violence, humiliation, and requirements that quash his imaginative and sensitive nature. All of these restrictions on Swami’s individual life seem to mirror the dehumanizing nature of colonial power on India’s larger population. At both of his schools, Swami is subject to punishments that cause him pain and embarrassment, such as being caned or being made to stand on a bench in front of the class. After he leaves the Mission School and enters the Board School, Swami’s schedule becomes more restrictive, and he is required to complete drill practices and scout classes after school in addition to a heavy load of homework. Even though the Board School Headmaster is eventually revealed to be a frail older man who sleeps on the job, he still wields absolute power over Swami and will not let him leave school early to participate in cricket practice. Narayan’s descriptions of Swami’s engagement with academic work also hint at the way that his schools fail to engage his full humanity. Puzzling over a mathematical word problem about selling mangos, Swami feels “utterly hopeless” without deeper knowledge of who the men in the problem are and how their personalities affect the situation. With this example, Narayan hints at the ways that Swami perceives the lack of humanity in the structures he encounters at school.
However, Swami also derives meaning and a sense of belonging from his schools, even as they cause him pain. The positive aspects of Swami’s educational experiences indicate that because these institutions are so deeply ingrained in Swami’s life, he must necessarily learn to derive some satisfaction from them, just as the Indian people under English rule must carry on finding meaning in their lives even in unfair circumstances.
School forms the core of social life for Swami and his friends, as indicated when their friend Somu fails an exam and then vanishes from the story: “Somu was not promoted, and that meant he was automatically excluded from the group, the law being inexorable in that respect.” Because Swami’s friendships are so important to him, and school defines the structure of those friendships, the school plays a crucial role in developing meaning in his life. Although the Board School causes Swami more difficulty, it also helps him develop academically. He gains “rigour and discipline” where before he was unengaged with his work, which allows him to live up to his father’s high expectations and gain a greater sense of self-efficacy and interpersonal connection—even in regard to his old school. When Swami prepares to run away after leaving the Board School, he stops at his old mission school and fondly remembers his time there, thinking: “All his friends were there…happy, dignified, and honored within the walls of the august Albert Mission School. He alone was out of it, isolated, as if he were a leper.” His sense of belonging indicates that he considers the school a kind of home and that he is invested in the idea of its goodness, despite the pain he experienced there.
The schools’ dual role as structures of both support and oppression plays out vividly in the way that the school setting can change quickly from organized to chaotic. This sense of instability and potential for confusion again functions as a microcosm of Swami’s broader sociopolitical context, where the margin between safety and danger is often small. When the term ends at the Mission School, jubilant celebration rapidly turns into destructive mayhem. As Swami reflects on the rumor that enemies stab each other on the last day of school, Narayan writes: “Swaminathan had no enemy as far as he could remember. But who could say? The school was a bad place.” This scene exemplifies the uncertainty and sense of amorphous danger that pervades Swami’s life at school and, as the story progresses, begins to affect him outside of school as well.
Education and Oppression ThemeTracker
Education and Oppression Quotes in Swami and Friends
Ebenezar attempted to smile. Swaminathan wished to be well out of the whole affair. He felt he would not mind if a hundred Ebenezars said a thousand times worse things about the gods.
He nibbled his pencil and reread the list. The list was disappointing. He had never known that his wants were so few. When he first sat down to draw the list he had hoped to fill two or three imposing pages. But now the cold lines on the paper numbered only five.
At the end of the prayer the storm burst. With the loudest, lustiest cries, the gathering flooded out of the hall in one body. All through this vigorous confusion and disorder, Swaminathan kept close to Mani. For there was a general belief in the school that enemies stabbed each other on the last day. Swaminathan had no enemy as far as he could remember. But who could say? The school was a bad place.
The headmaster was sleeping with his head between his hands and his elbows resting on the table. It was a small stuffy room with only one window opening on the weather-beaten side wall of a shop; it was cluttered with dust-laden rolls of maps, globes, and geometrical squares. The headmaster’s white cane lay on the table across two ink-bottles and some pads. The sun came in a hot dusty beam and fell on the headmaster’s nose and the table. He was gently snoring. This was a possibility that Rajam had not thought of.
Another moment and that vicious snake-like cane, quivering as if with life, would have descended on Swaminathan’s palm. A flood of emotion swept him off his feet, a mixture of fear, resentment, and rage. He hardly knew what he was doing. His arm shot out, plucked the cane from the headmaster’s hand, and flung it out of the window. The he dashed to his desk, snatched his books, and ran out of the room.
The only important thing now was home, and all the rest seemed trivial beside it. The Board School affair appeared inconsequent. He marvelled at himself for having taken it seriously and rushed into all this trouble. What a fool he had been! He wished with all his heard that he had held out his hand when the headmaster raised his cane. Even if he had not done it, he wished he had gone home and told his father everything.