R.K. Narayan has always been one of my favorite Indian authors along with Ruskin Bond. When I tend to casually ask around friends and family if they have heard of him, sadly many simply shake their heads. However, many are very familiar with the fictional town of Malgudi that he created thanks to the TV series Malgudi Days that ran on Doordarshan in the 80s. Several people have also watched the movie Guide starring Dev Anand. Few know that the original novel that the movie was based on was written by R.K Narayan in 1958. The other fascinating fact that I only recently discovered was that R.K Narayan was the brother of none other than R.K. Laxman one of India’s most famous cartoonists, the creator of The Common Man
While I had read several of Narayan’s previous works and novels I only got around to reading his very first novel Swami & Friends over a vacation break. It was this book, where he laid the foundations for the fictional town of Malgudi that was the setting for several of his stories that were to come.
If you read up on the author, one of the things he was sometimes criticized for was the simplicity of his prose. I had read several of his later novels before reading this one and they are extremenly well written. Coming later in his career, one may assume that he got better over the years since his first effort. While this is a subjective opinion, I personally never felt this way about Swami & Friends. A book’s appeal sometimes lies in the quality of it’s prose, at other times in the quality of it’s characters.
Characters is where Narayan excels and Swami the titular character is a fascinating examination of school going boy’s pschye. Other than the fact that Swami is a child in village from a different generation than now, every adventure, every observation, every thought and every action that Swami takes in the book is never less than entertaining, thought provoking and timeless. Through every incident Narayan opens up windows into the mind of a child. A child that everyone of us was at some point in our lives.
While children of today live in a more technologically challenging world than Swami’s they still face the same challenges while growing up. School, examinations, parents, grandparents, friendship and most importantly self discovery. Every tiny chapter examines these challenges in a charming and easy to read manner. Everything is told from Swami’s unique, innocent point of view. Even as an adult in this generation it brought back several memories of school, teachers, examinations, the fear, excitement, anxiety and exhilaration that I ever experienced in my childhood.
More than anything it made me yearn for a time when we lived in simpler world where we weren’t so connected. Perhaps we were more ignorant in that less connected world. But we were a lot more willing to go out there and experience things in the physical world.
For anyone looking for a decent english novel in an Indian setting written by one of our country’s finest authors I highly reccomend Swami & Friends