Just as Swami’s story reveals the somewhat illusory nature of personal identity, so too does it slowly strip away conventional notions of childhood innocence. While Swami seems at first to embody the quintessential idea of a carefree child, his growth over the course of the novel shows that even children of his young age are burdened by serious concerns and real-world threats. Narayan demonstrates this gradual loss of innocence in large part through his portrayal of Swami’s relationships with the members of his immediate family, which grow increasingly complicated and less protective over the course of the story.
At the start of the novel, Swami is almost wholly dependent on his family. He blithely takes them for granted while also calling on them to support his whims and desires, and their firm but kind presence grounds the seeming innocence that Swami enjoys in the early chapters. Swami’s mother and father, though strict at times, offer him safety and resources to pursue his academic and social goals. Even when Swami meets Rajam, whom he views as a role model, he still requires his father’s room and his mother’s cooking in order to host Swami at his home. Thanks to his parents’ help, the visit goes well, and Swami feels independent in his friendship with Rajam even as he relies on his family to support it. Swami’s Granny, whom he considers unsightly and senile but nevertheless loveable, also offers him unquestioning comfort. She affirms Swami’s stories even when they are implausible, and although she tells him stories from the family’s past, Swami dismisses her words as “old unnecessary stories.” Swami views his relationship with his grandmother as simply “snug and safe,” but Narayan makes clear that this perception relies on Swami’s ability to ignore the more complex, challenging stories that his grandmother wishes to tell. In describing the conflict between Swami and his headmaster at the mission school, Narayan hints again at the deeper reality that underlies Swami’s outwardly innocent reliance on his family. After Swami brings in his father’s letter complaining about Ebenezer’s treatment of Swami, the Mission School Headmaster scolds Ebenezer but then tells Swami that he was “foolish to go to [his] father about this matter.” The headmaster requests that Swami turn to him instead of his father about future problems, foreshadowing the novel’s later events in which Swami’s father is powerless to protect him.
As the novel progresses, Swami’s feeling of security with his family begins to erode, as both he and the reader discover evidence that his innocent trust in his own safety may have been an illusion all along. When Swami’s mother gives birth to an unnamed baby boy, Swami is initially indifferent to his new brother, calling him “hardly anything.” But as time passes, Swami realizes that the baby is now the center of the household. Although Swami soon comes to love his brother, he is also forced to admit that he is no longer the sole focus of his parents’ and grandmother’s love and attention. Around the same time, Swami notices that his father has changed to become “fussy and difficult.” His father begins to take a more active role in making Swami study for his exams, and Swami resents the realization that his father’s role is not only to protect him but also to pressure him toward growth. In the middle of the novel, Swami enters into a conflict with the son of a coachman who tricks Swami into giving him money. This episode in particular illustrates the tension between Swami’s youthful innocence and his dawning knowledge of the genuine danger of the world around him. The episode begins with Swami’s intense desire to get a hoop, a childish wish based only on a love for simple play. However, that innocent impulse soon transforms into a violent conflict with the coachman’s son; Mani beats Swami in an attempt to get the boy’s attention and then, when they confront him, his neighbors throw rocks and chase them off with dogs. Most significantly of all, Swami encounters the son again while visiting his father’s luxurious club, but finds that his father is oblivious to the danger. He decides to “seek protection” by telling his father, but quickly reverses his choice, deciding that “his father had better not know anything about the coachman’s son, however serious the situation might be.” As Swami moves away from his father’s protection, Narayan demonstrates more forcefully that Swami’s family is not truly the refuge that it initially appears to be.
By the novel’s conclusion, Swami has experienced the genuine danger of the world around him and, at the same time, come to realize the limitations of his family’s ability to comfort him and keep him safe. Through this process Narayan shows that Swami shares in the universal realities common to all coming-of-age stories, even within the unique sociopolitical context of India under English colonial rule.
After Swami and his friends form their cricket team, Swami discovers that his grandmother does not know what cricket is. Although he is upset by her “appalling ignorance,” he is nonetheless patient with her because he remembers his recent, irrational fear that “she was going to die in a few minutes” because he refused to bring her a lemon. Swami’s shift toward caring for his grandmother and her feelings marks a reversal of his previous belief that his family are the ones responsible for him. When Swami goes missing, a chapter from his father’s perspective reveals that he is completely powerless to find Swami and, given that Swami actually ran away, save him from himself. His father’s desolation and inability to alter the situation underscores the fact that Swami must now take responsibility for himself, rather than relying innocently on his family. When Swami is rescued by Mr. Nair, he is initially confused and calls the man Father. He is unable to understand his situation, thinking: “Who was this man? Was he Father? If he was not, why was he there? Even if he was, why was he there? Who was he?” This internal breakdown of Swami’s ability to comprehend his father’s role in his life represents a moment of profound growth in Swami’s self-efficacy and maturity. Later, he laments that he forgot to say goodbye to the Officer, hinting at the core truth that one cannot appreciate childhood simplicity until it is gone. Swami still lives with his family at the novel’s end, but he has lost the illusion that his life there is innocent or free of worry.
Innocence, Family, and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Innocence, Family, and Growing Up 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.
Swaminathan gasped with astonishment. In spite of his posing before Mani he admired Rajam intensely, and longed to be his friend. Now this was the happiest conclusion to all the unwanted trouble. He danced with joy. Rajam lowered his gun, and Mani dropped his club. To show his goodwill, Rajam pulled out of this pocket half a dozen biscuits.
‘His father is the Police Superintendent. He is the master of every policeman here.’ Granny was impressed. She said that it must be a tremendous office indeed. She then recounted the day when her husband, Swaminathan’s grandfather, was a powerful submagistrate, in which office he made the police force tremble before him, and the fiercest dacoits of the place flee. Swaminathan waited impatiently for her to finish the story.
This was probably Swaminathan’s first shock in life. It paralysed all his mental process. When his mind started working again, he faintly wondered if he had been dreaming. The staid Somu, the genial Somu, the uncle Somu, was it the same Somu that had talked to him a few minutes ago? What was wrong in liking and going about with Rajam? Why did it make them so angry?
‘You had better prepare something very nice, something fine and sweet. Rajam is coming this afternoon. Don’t make the sort of coffee that you usually give me. It must be very good and hot.’ He remembered how in Rajam’s house everything was brought to the room by the cook. ‘Mother, would you mind if I don’t come here for coffee and tiffin? Can you send it to my room?’
The company was greatly impressed. Rajam then invited everyone to come forward and say that they would have no more enemies. If Sankar said it, he would get a bound notebook; if Swaminathan said it, he would get a clockwork engine; if Somu said it, he would get a belt; and if Mani said it, he would get a nice pocket-knife; and the Pea would get a marvellous little pen.
‘I say, Swami,’ said the Pea, ‘these things grow up soon. I have seen a baby that was just what your brother is. But you know, when I saw it again during Michaelmas I could hardly recognize it.”
Swaminathan reflected: suppose the Pea, Mani, Rajam and Sankar deserted him and occupied Second A? His father was right. And then his father drove home the point. ‘Suppose all your juniors in the Fifth Standard become your class-mates?’ Swami sat at decimals for half an hour.
Swaminathan stood before the gods and with great piety informed them of the box and its contents, how he expected them to convert the two pebbles in to two three-paise coins, and why he needed money so urgently. He promised that if the gods helped him, he would give up biting his thumb.
Swaminathan began to cry. Mani attempted to strangle him. A motley crowd gathered round them, urchins with prodigious bellies, women of dark aspect, and their men. Scurvy chickens cackled and ran hither and thither. The sun was unsparing. Two or three mongrels lay in the shade of a tree and snored. A general malodour of hencoop and unwashed clothes pervaded the place.
When they came to the car, Swaminathan got in first and occupied the centre of the back seat. He was still in suspense. Father’s friend was taking time to start the car. Swaminathan was sitting all alone in the back seat, very far behind Father and his friend. Even now, the coachman’s son and his gang could easily pull him out and finish him.
Swaminathan was watching the scene with little shivers of joy going down his spine. Somebody asked him: ‘Young man, do you want our country to remain in eternal slavery?’
‘No, no,’ Swaminathan replied.
‘But you are wearing a foreign cap.’
Swaminathan quailed with shame. ‘Oh, I didn’t notice,’ he said, and removing his cap flung it into the fire with a feeling that he was saving the country.
He had walked rather briskly up Hospital Road, but had turned back after staring at the tall iron gates of the hospital. He told himself that it was unnecessary to enter the hospital, but in fact knew that he lacked the courage. That very window in which a soft dim light appeared might have behind it the cot containing Swaminathan all pulped and bandaged.
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.
Swaminathan was considerably weakened by the number of problems that beset him: Who was this man? Was he Father? If he was not, why was he there? Even if he was, why was he there? Who was he? What was he saying? Why could he not utter his words louder and clearer?
Swaminathan had a sense of supreme well-being and security. He was flattered by the number of visitors that were coming to see him. His granny and mother were hovering round him ceaselessly, and it was with a sneaking satisfaction that he saw his little brother crowing unheeded in the cradle, for once overlooked and abandoned by everybody.
Mani ran along the platform with the train and shouted over the noise of the train: ‘Goodbye, Rajam. Swami gives you this book.’ Rajam held out his hand for the book, and took it, and waved a farewell. Swaminathan waved back frantically.
Swaminathan and Mani stood as if glued where they were, and watched the train. The small red lamp of the last van could be seen for a long time, it diminished in size every minute, and disappeared around a bend. All the jarring, rattling, clinking, spurting, and hissing of the moving train softened in the distance into something that was half a sob and half a sigh.