It is quite a story in itself as to how this début novel by R K Narayan featuring his magical world of Malgudi, a sleepy town in South India, finally found a publisher in England. R K Narayan has profusely thanked his mentor Graham Greene for his help in ensuring that the book found the light of the day.
It is immensely readable particularly so if one comes from the same locale. One instantly relates to the narrative and Narayan’s most delectable creation is the strong character he creates in Swami. Swami comes across a cowardly young boy who is a mixture of naiveté and slyness always looking to escapes his tormentors even at the cost of his reputation. He became an instant stereotype and the TV serial ‘Malgudi Days’ did great justice in reproducing the stories.
It is interesting that Swami remains a lovable character though he is quite an irredeemable character with his ‘ordinariness’ being his trademark feature. It seems as if Narayan wanted to regale us with tales of the encounters that an average child with limited intelligence and utter lack of courage has while growing up in the sleepy town of Malgudi. Still Swami does rise to the occasion in a few instances and show promise of applying a sly wit to tackle his demons.
Swami’s happiest moments are spent in the company of his mates Rajam and Mani. Rajam has returned from Chennai, his father is a DSP and he speaks fluent English. He is good at studies as well as sports. He is shown to the hero that Swami adores. In contrast Mani is a well-built fellow who finds studies to be a tedium. He is all brawn and aggressively asserts himself to resolve the problems that come his way.
Such a group of odd characters still become the thick of friends and share many adventures together. A running theme is the formation of MCC Cricket Team (Malgudi Cricket Club) and the impending challenge match with Young Men’s Union. Characteristically it is Rajam who takes the lead and is the Captain of the team. He takes initiative in forming the team and financially supports the team to get the cricketing gear and supplies. Interestingly Swami has a key role in the team as well – of all things he turns out to be their lead bowler. It seems to odd with the Swami we know but the talent has a role to play in the ultimate unwinding of the tale.
Swami’s antics are rendered cute not just by his inability to manage the issues and situations he faces but by the occasional spark he shows in tackling the issue. He ruthlessly exploits his Granny and Mother while is respectfully scared of his Father. He relies a lot on Rajam and Mani to solve his problems.
The tale wraps up with a humiliating loss in the Cricket match as Swami plays hookey and misses the game. Rajam is all cut up by Swami’s desertion and refuses to talk to him. Eventually he is seen to leave Malgudi as his father has been transferred to Tiruchy. A distraught Swami gets along with Mani to bid an adieu to Rajam at the railway station. It is a sad moment as we are left in doubt on whether Rajam finally forgave Swami or not? It seems to mark a moment when one seems to be at the brink of losing ones childlike innocence and step into the turbulent world of adolescence.