Schoolboy larks and High Jinks with RK Narayan’s ‘Swami and Friends’

When Deepika at Worn Corners mentioned an RK Narayan Readalong, I jumped at the chance to join in.


I discovered RK Narayan when we read Mr Sampath, The Printer of Malgudi for our book group a few years back, and it was a revelation. The combination of vivid characterisation and boundless comedy make for a real reading treat. Not entirely sure which novels it comprised, I ordered a secondhand copy of A Malgudi Omnibus and was delighted that along with The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher, it also contained Narayan’s very first novel Swami and Friends, so that’s what I read.


Already acquainted with Malgudi, the fictional South Indian town that forms the backdrop to the lives and antics of his characters, a little research revealed that this tale of Swami and his pals was somewhat autobiographical in nature, closely resembling Narayan’s early life in Mysore. It’s certainly true that the young protagonist Swami, shares the same mischievous streak as the author himself!


The tales of Swami along with his pals, Mani and Rajam, reminded me of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, with the boys showing a reluctance to go to school and always getting into scrapes and high jinks. There is even an incident where the boys attend a ‘Quit India’ movement demonstration in protest at Lancashire cotton flooding the market and threatening the livelihoods of local weavers. The boys can’t pass up the opportunity to throw stones at the windows of their daily imprisonment – the school. In this way, Narayan manages to point to the wider political climate of the time, but all the while filtered through the eyes of these young boys. 


And then there’s cricket. The setting up of the Malgudi Cricket Club and the life or death commitment of Swami and his friends to the sport, was hilarious, and a joy to read. I loved every minute I spent in Malgudi in the company of Swami and his friends, and as I’ve still got two novels left in my omnibus, I won’t be leaving long before I return. It’s no wonder that Graham Greene, a friend of Narayan from his Oxford days, called him ‘The novelist I most admire in the English language’.


RK Narayan with close friend Graham Greene at the BBC in 1957