Book Review – Swami and friends by R.K. Narayan

Now the kids are not only independent readers but have also acquired a discerning taste when it comes to selecting books to read and they spare no words in sharing their rave reviews or critical feedback. A development that has me reminiscing about the good old days of easily picking up books that all three of us agreed upon readily for reading aloud.
So it was a pleasant surprise when we were able to find a book that intrigued and enticed us in equal measure, prompting us to give it a try. A book that we could actually take turns to read aloud together. Something that we seem to be doing less of, these days, as the kids are growing older and growing apart when it comes to reading interests…choice of themes, genres and authors.

The book we picked needs no introduction. It is “Swami and Friends” by master storyteller R.K. Narayan. In my opinion it is a book that is written with childlike abandon and is one that does not take itself seriously and therein lies its allure.
It is set in 1930s India in a small fictional place called Malgudi in the South and it shares a smooth and eloquent account of the days, marked with quaintness, uniqueness and idiosyncrasies of that bygone era, told through the eyes of a sensitive and imaginative boy who is around 10 years old. The narrative is in the form of a conversational flow of daily life events, scenes and observations and in the process creates endearing character sketches and also traces his relationships and interactions with nature, his family, friends, school and the rest of the outside world that he is exposed to. Some of the aspects left my kids astonished as they could not relate and were curious to understand the underlying mindset that could drive such behavior or events. For instance the event where the bullock cart is stopped by Swami and his friends or the rioting, corporal punishment, apart from a few other things that required explanation.
The narrative sparkles as it lights up the rapid and lively progress of the book page after page with the wild whimsical spirit of childhood, vivid descriptions, laced with humour and sprinkled with tense and wistful moments. Warm, gentle and sometimes unexpected humour that tends to catch you unawares and soaks into your veins, leaving you happily chuckling or roaring with laughter.
How often is it that the essence of the book reaches out and connects with the child within you and transports you so completely and seamlessly into a world steeped in timeless childhood charm, curiosity and sweet innocence that it actually feels like you are reliving your own childhood?! A world where a mathematical word problem makes you wonder about the ripeness of the fruits and the nature of the players involved in presenting the problem rather than delving into the dark realm of fractions to solve it, where well laid out plans with your friends can change in the blink of an eye, enmity can transform to friendship in a moment, a spider can captivate and distract while trying to dust the study table off cobwebs, wanting a cycle wheel to play with…with such intensity that it enters your dreams and drives you to attempt acquiring it with all the focus and enterprising ideas that you can muster till of course the focus shifts, performing last rites on an ant when it is presumed dead after having braved stormy waters in a paper boat, coffee drinking style that reflects the current mood and so many more… It also sustains a realistic feel of those times which were touched by social-political changes, riots, and portrays the protagonist Swaminathan as being not just an observer but also as someone who participates from the sidelines in an event inadvertently, getting carried away momentarily, without losing his innocent and naive outlook on life. So the effect is non-judgmental, non-questioning, non-preachy without any underlying social message, as perceived through the eyes of a middle-class privileged child who registers the strong emotions and scenes around him while retaining his simple and binary view of life.

And when you attempt a proper literary review of a book such as this, that does not take itself seriously… the whimsical child conjured up in the mind, after reading the book, shudders with horror and refuses to let you pen down what it considers to be a boringly academic activity. And it passionately reminds you about indulging in and enjoying the simple things that life has to offer, appreciating childhood pleasures that happen to be the common thread that connects generations, without getting bogged down by the complexity of adult expectations.

This particular experience has made be realize that reading aloud certain books with your children can help not only with bonding but possibly also with identifying and bridging the generation gap using the simple childhood state of mind inspired by the book.
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