RK Narayan's beloved novel may be classified as children's cricket fiction, but it is not limited by its genre
Swami and Friends, set in a small South Indian town during the final decades of the British Raj, is a brimming episode of a schoolboy's life. True to a little one's perspective, seismic events are frequent. Teachers are all-powerful and too often unjust (as are parents), friendships are made while others fall by the wayside, a baby brother is born, examinations are swotted for, and holidays are meandered through. All this is recounted with charm and simplicity, characteristic of the author, RK Narayan.
Having got through a good many troubles, Swami and his friends form a cricket club. Captaincy is taken up by the young autocrat son of the police superintendent. Our hero, Swami, takes a wicket with his first ball in practice and is known thereafter as "Tate". The captain challenges, in the most insulting terms he can devise, another club of the town, Young Men's Union, to a "friendly". Match preparation becomes paramount.
For some Cricket Monthly readers, Swami and Friends was a bedtime story, or studied in school days, or perhaps you watched the television show. Published in 1935, it is the oldest book to be examined, so far, in this series. Dense cricket novels of multifaceted meaning and abstraction are really only the stuff of this century. We enlightened beings live in a progressive age where one can write fancifully on cricket and not lose face, perhaps even gain a bit of cachet. However, our forebears forbore from the subject. It's a curious feature of the genre that literary heavyweights who adored the game, such as Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, didn't touch on cricket in their work. To previous generations, cricket in fiction was restricted to works for the young or for mirth and satire.
Narayan's novel is elegant, written with rich allusion and warmth of characterisation, where a bully and a martinet and a bigoted scripture master are as endearing as a granny
Children's cricket fiction is an ancient and venerable tradition. Beginning at some point around Tom Brown's Schooldays, it's a body that stretches from muscular Christianity to beyond, including PG Wodehouse's The Gold Bat and Mike, countless Boy's Own Adventure tales, Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones, and Brett Lee's child hero, Toby Jones, who time-travels to great matches of yesteryear (has youth time travel ever been put to dimmer use?). Nor are contemporary players slow to capitalise in placing themselves themselves in the pages of youth fiction, with both David Warner and Glenn Maxwell recently bestowing their names to children's book titles.
Given that we're naming cricketers not generally celebrated for their noggins, it perhaps seems scanty praise to declare Swami and Friends the finest work of cricket fiction for young people. This subtle book of gentle, genial humour transcends any limitations that may be associated with that tag. Narayan's novel is elegant, written with rich allusion and warmth of characterisation, where a bully and a martinet and a bigoted scripture master are as endearing as a granny. It's a beautiful read, and the fact that it appeals to young people and features cricket is merely a wonderful supplement.
However, it is a queer mission to commend Swami and Friends as a work of cricket fiction. The novel is an anomaly of the genus in that there is a great deal of talk of the sport but very little of it played. It's the vital auxiliaries of a cricket side that are dwelt upon. Team-naming takes considerable deliberation - the side is gloriously dubbed the MCC (Malgudi Cricket Club) and Victory Union Eleven. A strenuous pursuit, too, is obtaining equipment. The boys enter negotiations with a Madras outfitter, only to become bogged down in the transaction of payment for goods.
Young Tate's scholastic obligations, with drill following class, become so onerous that he is denied the four or five hours' daily practice necessary to acquit himself with leather. As the grand match approaches, this becomes a crisis, with the champion bowler unable to cultivate rhythm, line and length. Swami's attempts to gain exemption from extracurricular activities lead to him departing school in a dramatic manner, becoming lost in the woods and missing the match altogether. His friends, far from understanding, disown him.
Notwithstanding the hefty consequences, this is a pleasing novel and it gives ever more gratification and meaning as one dwells upon it. Swami and his chums' antics, such as taking revenge on a defrauding coachman's impudent son (and bungling it), aren't the most adult of topics. Neither is Swami and Friends the most exhaustive work of cricket fiction to be penned. Who's to care, though, when reading splendour?
'You know what my new name is? I am Tate.'
'What is Tate?' she asked innocently. Swaminathan's disappointment was twofold: she had not known anything of his new title, and failed to understand its rich significance even when told. At other times he would have shouted at her. But now he was a fresh penitent, and so asked her kindly, 'Do you mean to say that you don't know Tate?'
'I don't know what you mean.'
'Tate, the greatest player, the greatest bowler on earth. I hope you know what cricket is, or are you fooling me?'
'I don't know what you mean.'
'Don't keep on saying "I don't know what you mean". I wonder what the boys and men of your days did in the evenings! I think they spent all the twenty-four hours in doing holy things.'
He considered for a second. Here was his granny stagnating in appalling ignorance; and he felt it his duty to save her. He delivered a short speech setting forth principles, ideals, and the philosophy of the game of cricket, mentioning the radiant gods of that world. He asked her every few seconds if she understood, and she nodded her head, though she caught only three per cent of what he said. He concluded the speech with a sketch of the history and the prospects of the M.C.C. 'But for Rajam, Granny,' he said, 'I don't know where we should have been. He has spent hundreds of rupees on this team. Buying bats and balls is no joke. He has plenty of money in his box. Our team is known even to the Government. If you like, you may write a letter to the M.C.C. and it will be delivered to us promptly. You will see us winning all the cups in Malgudi, and in course of time we shall show even the Madras fellow what cricket is.' He added a very important note: 'Don't imagine all sorts of fellows can become players in our team.'
Benjamin Golby is a pre-school music teacher and roulette croupier. Jeffrey Phillips is a Melbourne-based artist
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.