Set in a fictional town in south India circa 1930, Swami and Friends is defined by the pressures and complexities of British colonial rule over India. While the book’s events revolve around common childhood trials and tribulations, the personal experiences of the protagonist and his friends are colored by their political context, even when the characters themselves have little understanding of it. By examining British colonial rule through the lens of an ordinary boy’s relatable childhood, R.K. Narayan demonstrates the pervasiveness and subtlety of this political structure’s power. Swami’s story shows that the impact of colonial rule is present in every corner of Indian life during this era, and that no individual’s personal life can be truly separate from colonialism’s profound, sometimes contradictory effects.
The lighthearted conflicts of the book’s early chapters underscore Narayan’s point that that colonialism is present even in the innocent misadventures of children, although it may seem entertaining, inconsequential, or even impressive in their eyes. Narayan first addresses the influence of colonialism in the book’s opening chapter, when Swami and his classmates attend scripture class with Mr. Ebenezer, their fanatical Christian teacher. Narayan notes that the students sometimes enjoy the class because of the “stirring pictures” they imagine based on Biblical tales. For Swami and his friends, the Christianity imposed on them at the mission school is initially a source of idle entertainment rather than a menace or something to contemplate deeply. Yet Swami soon perceives the way that Ebenezer’s Christian teachings conflict with his own Hindu beliefs, and protests against his teacher. However, the consequences of this conflict are trivial; the class enjoys watching their teacher get scolded by the Mission School Headmaster and Swami is simply happy to escape punishment. Again, even in this direct conflict Swami is primarily occupied by childish concerns like impressing his friends and pleasing his father, and colonialism remains a backdrop that affects Swami without occupying much of his attention.
The budding friendship between Swami, Mani and their new classmate Rajam again illustrates the ways that the young boys take existing power structures for granted. Although Mani and Rajam at first intend to fight with each other, that animosity quickly dissolves into mutual admiration, leaving the boys untroubled by their initial reliance on violent dominance to solve their problems. When Swami finds out that Rajam’s father is the Police Superintendent, he is impressed and excited to be associated with such power, again demonstrating his childish inability to reflect on the value and legitimacy of the powers around him.
As Swami’s story progresses, however, the political context around him increasingly intrudes on his contained understanding of his life. Swami begins to take actions that appear outwardly political, but he still experiences these events in a personal, self-centered way. By blending Swami’s still-childish perspective with large-scale political events, Narayan again fuses the personal with the political and illustrates the impossibility of separating them, particularly within a context of colonialism. Swami, Mani, and Rajam try out the experience of being in power themselves by bullying a young boy named Karuppan and saying that they are “the Government Police out to catch humbugs like you.” The three boys make unreasonable demands and frighten the boy, but seem not to reflect on the effects of their actions. It seems, then, that Swami and his friends develop an unconscious tendency to act out the oppression they have experienced. Shortly thereafter, Swami and Mani inadvertently participate in a public protest against English oppression of Indian peasants, and become immediately emotionally attached to the cause. Swami “resolve[s] to boycott English goods” and burns his own cap “with a feeling that he was saving the country.” At this point, Swami’s emotional reaction to the notion of English oppression becomes clear, but he is not yet able to connect that feeling with his own actions more generally. When Swami finds himself caught up in a school boycott the next day, he participates actively in the increasingly dangerous event but thinks mostly of the fun he’s having rather than his behavior’s political meaning, as when he realizes happily that “there were many glass panes untouched yet.” It is only when Swami witnesses Rajam’s father “grimly ticking off seconds before giving orders for massacre” that he begins to gain awareness of the political tension present in his own life. Narayan notes that Swami “had unconsciously become defiant” through his new experience of protest. It is this subconscious change that leads Swami to run away from the Mission School, for the first time renouncing a major aspect of colonial oppression in his own life.
Though Swami and his friends gain some degree of political consciousness over the course of the story, their lives continue to be circumscribed by colonial power in ways that are largely invisible to them. Narayan illustrates this reality especially vividly through the boys’ experiences forming a cricket team. By highlighting the prominent and complicated role that a quintessentially English activity plays in the friends’ lives, Narayan demonstrates that individuals living under colonialism often have no choice but to tolerate—and sometimes even embrace—the cultures of their colonizers.
Although Swami, Mani, and Rajam are initially excited about starting a cricket team, they quickly discover that the logistics are more complicated than they expected, and Swami in particular worries about government registration and taxes. Reflecting on these difficulties, Rajam has “a momentary sympathy for Gandhi; no wonder he was dead against the government.” By equating the boys’ seemingly trivial problems with Gandhi’s opposition to the government, Narayan humorously points to the oppressive presence of the government in every Indian’s life, no matter how slight it might seem.
The formation of the cricket team initially serves as a way for Swami and Rajam to repair their friendship after their conflict over what Rajam calls Swami’s “political activities,” but eventually, the cricket team is also responsible for the breakup of Swami and Rajam’s friendship, when Rajam is unable to forgive Swami for missing the match. By using the game to both unite and divide the story’s protagonists, Narayan indicates the extent to which the characters may be at the mercy of English influence, even as they devote themselves to an English sport with seeming freedom. Political forces work their way into the personal goals and relationships of Swami and his friends even during their leisure time, again demonstrating that no private life can be truly independent from politics in the context of a colonized state.
The Political and the Personal Under British Colonial Rule ThemeTracker
The Political and the Personal Under British Colonial Rule 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.
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.
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.
‘Whom do you address as “boys”?’ asked Rajam menacingly. ‘Don’t you know who we are?’
‘We are the Government Police out to catch humbugs like you,’ added Swaminathan.
‘I shall shoot you if you say a word,’ said Rajam to the young driver. Though the driver was incredulous, he felt that there must be something in what they said.
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.
When he turned his head Swaminathan saw to his horror that it was Rajam’s father! Swaminathan could not help feeling sorry that it should be Rajam’s father. Rajam’s father! Rajam’s father to be at the head of those traitors!
The Deputy Superintendent of Police fixed his eyes on his wrist-watch and said, ‘I declare this assembly unlawful. I give it five minutes to disperse.’ At the end of five minutes he looked up and uttered in a hollow voice the word, ‘Charge.’
Rajam realized at this point that the starting of a cricket team was the most complicated problem on earth. He had simply expected to gather a dozen fellows on the maidan next to his compound and play, and challenge the world. But here were endless troubles, starting with the name that must be unique, Government taxes, and so on. The Government did not seem to know where it ought to interfere and where not. He had a momentary sympathy for Gandhi; no wonder he was dead against the Government.
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 demons lifted him by his ears, plucked every hair on his head, and peeled off his skin from head to foot. Now what was this, coiling round his legs, cold and slimy? He shrank in horror from a scorpion that was advancing with its sting in the air. No, this was no place for a human being.