Swami’s cap becomes important to the story as he begins to develop a political consciousness. Swami thinks little of his clothes until the night that he and Mani stumble on a protest against British oppression, and Swami realizes that some of his clothing may be made by British manufacturers at the expense of Indian craftspeople. When a bystander suggests that he is “wearing a foreign cap,” Swami is ashamed and throws the cap into the fire—his first act in support of Indian liberation. However, the cap also comes to symbolize Swami’s naivete about political matters. The next morning, Swami thinks not of his devotion to Indian independence, but of the anger his father will feel when he sees that the cap is missing. Then, even after his intense experience at the protest, Swami continues to view his fledging political activity through the narrow lens of his own self-interest, telling his father that the cap was burned by someone else in the crowd rather than owning up to his own actions. Finally, Swami’s father informs him that the cap was Indian-made all along, undermining Swami’s passionate destruction of what he believed to be a symbol of England. The cap thus underscores Narayan’s point that Swami’s actions are tied to a political context even when he is only able to engage with that context in a childish, haphazard way.
Swami’s cap represents his good but misguided and uninformed intentions, which often lead him to trouble. He destroys his cap in a fit of anti-colonial anger, believing it to be English-made. His father later corrects him, revealing it was actually an Indian-made cap, leading to Swami getting in trouble with his father and later, with his school.
The game of cricket is the story’s most potent symbol of the complex way that English colonization plays out in the lives of Swami and his friends. As a quintessentially English activity, cricket is closely tied to England’s presence in India, but instead of rejecting it for its oppressive associations, Swami and his friends—particularly team captain Rajam—embrace the game as a means of gaining self-determination, dominance over opponents, and interpersonal connection. This paradoxical pursuit demonstrates the ways in which colonized peoples like Swami and his friends must necessarily adapt to the influences of the colonizer, even embracing aspects of the oppressive culture and subverting them into mechanisms of liberation. However, the friends’ cricket team has both positive and negative effects in Swami’s life; it initially helps him put aside his political differences with Rajam, but it also tears apart their friendship when Swami misses the crucial match. Through this symbol, Narayan seems to recognize the unstable and sometimes dangerous role that even the appealing aspects of colonizing nations play in the lives of the colonized.
Not only is cricket a reminder of the colonial influence of Britain in India, it is also a symbol of competition, and on the cricket field is where Rajam and Swami actually come to a head. Rajam uses a threat against their friendship in order to control Swami’s behavior, but Swami cannot help but feel that it is wrong to skip school so that they can compete. The match represents Rajam’s emotionally desperate understanding of “victory” as an important goal. Cricket highlights the conflict between Rajam and Swami and heightens the stakes, ultimately leading to them breaking up.
Cricket is a symbol of Swami’s friendships, especially with Rajam. Swami enjoys cricket and works hard at it, just as he enjoys his friendship with Rajam and works hard to maintain it, much in the way he devotes time to practice. When Swami misses the the first match, he and Rajam both take it as a personal slight, rather than one against the team as a whole.
The Book of Fairy Tales
Swami’s somewhat surprising choice of a book of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen as a going-away present for Rajam acts as a symbol for the crossroads of maturity at which the two boys find themselves. Swami has struggled to enjoy reading through the novel, while Rajam has excelled at it, so Swami’s sensitivity to the kind of present that Rajam would appreciate demonstrates the way that he has begun learning to think outside of himself and his own desires. However, the fact that the book includes fairy tales rather than true facts indicates that the boys’ reality is still largely shaped by fantasy. Even as Swami is forced to face the painful fact that Rajam is moving away without repairing his friendship with Swami, he relies on the power of a book of imagined realities to bridge the gap between them. Finally, Swami thinks that the book is too full of “unknown, unpronounceable English words” for him to ever understand it himself, again hinting that mysterious foreign influence is present in every corner of his life, even the parts that concern fantasy rather than reality.
Geography is one of the subjects that Swami and his classmates learn at school, and they spend a lot of time memorizing the capitals of foreign countries and copying maps. His friend Mani spends many hours copying maps of Europe, India, and Africa in preparation for their exams. Learning geography is an important part in their colonial education in orienting and knowing the world, with Europe at the center. The setting of the novel, the town of Malgudi, is fictional, however, and thus Narayan refuses to map the village.
The Protest (Symbol)
The protest can be argued to represent many things, but first and foremost, it symbolizes the frustration that exists in India because of the colonial presence of the British who dominate the nation as a second-class society. The British represent the broken forces that exist among closed-minded people with economic interests. Among the problems is that India has become chronically poor because its resources are drained by the British.
Escape is a motif that continually resurfaces as Swami escapes from the headmaster in the Albert Mission School and then later at the Board High School. Escape is Swami’s usual method of dealing with difficult or painful situations, but he often ends up getting lost, or in a worse situation than before.
The Cane (Symbol)
When the headmaster of Swami’s school rejects his request to leave early for his cricket game, Swami becomes angry and throws his cane out of the window. This demonstration is a symbol because the action represents the value of the moment in Swami’s real life. The stick becomes a symbol of freedom because the stick goes where Swami wants to go—outside of the walls and hierarchal order of school.
- K. Narayan writes, “He shuddered at every thought of school: that dismal yellow building; the fire-eyed Vedanayagam, his class teacher” (3). The emblematic fire-eyedness renders the class teacher an uncompromising individual who will not bear disruptive behavior from his students. Accordingly, he arouses dread in his students due to the authoritarian persona which his eyes indicate.
Swami’s old friends, who feel like they have been abandoned by Swami, begin calling him “tail.” A “tail” is a long thing that attaches itself to an ass or a dog, as he learns in Chapter 4.
Broken Window Panes
The headmaster’s office window panes, and their shattering, are one of the more concrete symbols of the book. After Swaminathan destroys the window, his future is permanently changed though he does not know it at the time. The broken glass serves to represent that Swaminathan has defied the established order, causing a break that he cannot repair, and crossing a point of no return…
Swami’s younger brother represents his relationship to his family, without the distractions or impediments of school, class…