R.k Narayan’s Riddle – Swami and Friends


Narayan’s construction of Swami’s play world, reckless escapades and childhood innocence merges with the more threatening world occupied by adults when the former gets sucked into the maelstrom of the national movement in 1930 and land himself in a series of colossal problems. In an attempt to redirect the unvented energy and youthful exuberance, Swami and friends take recourse to the national unrest to use the public humdrum as the soapbox to their collected frustrations. It is most likely that Swami saw the nationalist movement as an opportunity to unleash his latent anger at the draconian environment of his school. His wrath and dissatisfaction translate into the hooliganism of a child long tormented. As an inevitable result, Swami is seen deriving immense pleasure in vandalising the school property like one who has been nursing an old vengeance against his tormentor.

It must be noted that the popularity of Gandhi was widespread in colonial India as Swami knew him well and readily participated in his endeavour despite the possible dangers concomitant with a rebellion against the despot. People from all sections and age came together to openly defy the government’s arbitrary arrest of the Bombay based freedom fighter. Swami too joined in the public cries of ‘ Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Gandhi ki Jai, Gauri Shankar ki Jai.’ Gandhi’s idea appeals to Swami personally because of his demoralising experience in the scripture class where Mr Ebenezer devoted much of his time in lampooning Krishnan and Hinduism on the whole.

In an excessive spurt of patriotism, Swami unknowingly tosses his khadi cap under the impression that it was foreign made. Although comical, the scene is imbued with a brimming passion of the protestors. Swami indulged in howling, hooting, jeering and expressing his dormant sentiments.

On the surface, Albert Mission School just seemed like any other ordinary school in Madgudi where Swami went for his schooling but a deeper probe revealed the institution to be the very projection of the British Raj and its cruelties. Undoubtedly, Narayan introduced the school and recounted Swami’s life there to underscore the ever-present rift between the ruler and the ruled.

Through the pen-portraits of ‘the fire-eyed Vedanayagam’ and Mr Ebenezer, Narayan addresses the issue of the harsh techniques adopted in the garb of imparting education. It is important to note that Narayan quickly launches into haranguing the education system of colonial India from the very outset of the novel. Swami describes Albert Mission School as a ‘dismal yellow building’ which further reinforces Narayan’s tirade. The deep sense of apathy and aversion that Swami displays for the school gives the readers the inkling that something wrong was going on in the institution. The use of corporal punishment by Vedanayagam and the scripture master is suggestive of the larger oppression India was facing in the throes of slavery. Further, Mr Ebenezer and his religious tolerance highlighted the lack of freedom that Indians had even in their personal sphere. He freely threw derogatory remarks to belittle Hindu beliefs and almost assumed a dictator-like stance in propagating Christianity. He, in fact, functioned to promote the dominant culture.

Issues of stifling dominance were pushed forth in the school that had spread to inform all the levels of society. Another atrocity committed by the school is the biased response of the headmaster to Swami’s grievances. Instead of chastising Ebenezer for his bigotry, he disproved of Swami for dragging his father amidst trivial matters. The discriminate attitude of the headmaster, the very leader of the school gives the final testimony as to who actually was in power. The latter sided with the perpetrator which, in extension, meant that he sided with the British.

Additionally, the unrestrained methods of caning and flogging of students proved the degree to which the school contributed to the physical, mental and psychological distress of the children and was totally unsuitable to their needs. Truth be told, the school was more of a site to socialize children into accepting their second-rate status to the invaders than a place for their edification.

Hence, Albert Mission School was the microcosm of the then Indian society. The experience of Swami served to mirror the extent to which the stranglehold of the East India Company had advanced in India of 1930. The school stood there as yet another symbol of oppression.