I have never quite understood the best end to start reading a writer’s body of work from if you want to experience a writer completely. Is it the works coming from the beginning of a writer’s career or those towards the end or from the middle? All of them are significant in the writer’s literary landscape – the works at the beginning of a literary journey tell you the ideas the writer dealt with before coming of age, those in the middle see the same ideas shape into fuller themes or if the writer digressed while the ones towards the end are generally on the same lines as before but more ambitious, more skill-intensive.
With RK Narayan I have made a reverse journey. I haven’t read his Guide (which is one of the books on my must-read list) but watched the movie. Many years ago, I read a RK Narayan omnibus and glimpsed snippets of his memorable works. Then I read his Financial Expert written when the author was in his mid-career. And recently I finished his Swami and Friends, which marked his literary debut and is among the first batch of English books to be published by an Indian.
I haven’t read a simpler book and there are very few books that have touched me so much. Swami and Friends is about growing up – all the challenges and fears and insecurities, and lows and highs we experience in our formative years. Several times it left me ruminating about my days in school and friends. Albeit, as the story progressed, I realized I had very little in common with Swami, who is much more rebellious and much less tolerating of the oppressive world that school can be than I ever was.
Swaminathan is growing up in a small imaginary town in South India, Malgudi. Swami goes to a missionary school (Albert Mission School) where his Brahaminical beliefs often come into conflict with the Christian theosophical lessons imparted on children. Swami and his group of friends are equals in every sense, educationally and in terms of economic background they come from, leaving very little scope for ego conflicts. But this tranquility is broken by the entrance of Rajam into their school and their lives. Rajam’s father works in police and due to his transferable job Rajam has been to many places and several good schools – and therefore comes from a wider base of experience than Swami and friends who have never stepped beyond Malgudi. He leaves Swami and friends intimidated with his superior spoken English, clothes and with many other aspects.
In the background, the winds of freedom struggle, sweeping across the country, enter Malgudi and ruffle the quiet world of the small town. A handful of youth, carrying the message of Quit India Movement, hold demonstrations exhorting Malgudians to shun foreign clothes and embrace khadi.
Suddenly, the crowd turns violent and starts attacking every sign of foreign presence in Malgudi – and Swami’s missionary school inevitably comes at the receiving end. Swept by crowd emotion, an impressionable Swami also joins the trouble mongers and pelts a stone into the headmaster’s window pane only to be spotted by the headmaster in the act.
Next day, in his class, Swami is spanked by the headmaster and after bearing it for some time he snaps up – snatches away the cane, throws it on the floor and runs out. There is only one more school in Maldugi. Swami takes admission there but again manages to run into a complication attracting punishment of the same nature as meted out to him in Albert Mission School – and reacts in the same way as he had done earlier: snatching the cane from the teacher’s hand, throwing it on the floor and running way. This time, however, Swami also runs away from home, only to return later following a harrowing experience and due to a stroke of luck.
How RK Narayan had got a publisher for Swami and Friends is part of Indian literary lore. The manuscript had been rejected half a dozen times and then somehow it had ended up in the hands of Graham Greene, thanks to a friend of Narayan’s who was studying in England. This friend had luckily met Greene, in Oxford, and shown the manuscript to him and been assured by the famous writer that he would find a publisher for it.
But before Narayan knew about this breakthrough, heartbroken that his manuscript wasn’t meeting with any success in England or in India, he had written to his friend that he weight the manuscript with stone and throw it into the Thames. Three months later his friend’s response had arrived from England informing him about Greene’s assurance.
Like any first book, Swami and Friends is highly autobiographical. The world Narayan set the story in isn’t very different from the world Narayan would have grown up in, in Mysore, quite a small town then. Having read about Narayan, I found Swami’s rebellious streak very similar to that of his creator. Narayan’s first rebellion was when he had announced that he would only be a writer, nothing else. Later he had said writing was the only profession that would have given him complete autonomy.
Swami’s reluctance to accept a freedom-denying school life, his rebelling against it first by lobbing a stone into his headmaster’s room and then by throwing away the cane on floor and running away to freedom – are reminders of his creator’s personality.