Father’s Help is one of R K Narayan’s most popular short stories from his famous collection Malgudi Days. In this story, he presents a young boy, Swaminathan who is unwilling to go to school but is forced by his strict father to attend school. The story explains how, through the events that follow, Swami’s original reservations about his teacher, Samuel get transformed considerably. The writer unravels the inner psyche of the school-going child. Through the fabrication of false stories regarding his teacher and his subsequent attempts to justify his ends by Swami, the protagonist of the story hold the main theme. This short story highlights the need for understanding between parents and children and the significance of the ideal teacher-pupil relationship.
Swami is a student of Albert Mission School. Like some boys, he despises going to school and finds a pretext for not going to school. On Monday morning he decides not to go to school and makes an excuse that he has a headache. His mother allows him to stay at home. But, when father comes to know about this then he becomes stubborn and tells him that he must go to school. Swami replies that he is unwilling to go to school late as a teacher Samuel would beat him. Then the boy gives a brief but vivid imaginary account of Samuel’s violent character and says that he is rude to the boys who go to school late. He canes the boy vehemently and does not stop till he sees blood on the boy’s hand which he makes the boy wear on his forehead.
On learning about Samuel’s violent behaviour with the students, Swami’s father was shocked and annoyed. He proposed to send Swami late to his class as a kind of challenge. He also decided to write a letter of complaint to the headmaster of the school and gave it to Swami to deliver to him. On the way, while going to school, Swami’s conscience bothered him for making a false statement about Samuel. Swami felt that he was the worst perjurer on earth. Swami was reluctant to give the letter to the headmaster because he was not at all sure if he had been accurate in his description of his teacher. He could not decide how much of what he had said was imagined and how much of it was real. Samuel did not deserve the allegations that were put against him. He was much more genial than the rest. Swami’s conscience bothered him as he was ruining his teacher and did not want his teacher to be dismissed from his job.
Swami was late by half an hour when he took his first class. He thought that his teacher Samuel would punish him. But Samuel allowed him to enter the class. Swami tried variously to tease and provoke him. He even missed showing his homework, but the teacher considered him sympathetically. When all his trials to irritate Samuel were in vain, Swami became dispirited. Then he thought of another means to excite himself and waited for the last history class. To make his complaints against Samuel successful he talked in an abnormally loud voice with his teacher. Despite several warnings to control the behaviour, he irritated his teacher. At the end of the class, his mission was successful and he received eight strokes of the cane on his palm as a punishment.
Being jubilant he rushed to the headmaster’s room but found the room locked. He asked the peon and came to know that he was on leave for a week so he can give the letter to Samuel, the assistant headmaster. He did not deliver the letter and returned home straight. His father asked him about the letter and then after Swami’s response, he snatched the letter from him and tore it off and threw it into the waste paper box and muttered that he deserved the punishment of Samuel.
Narayan is well known for his subtle humour in his stories which is brought out in Father’s Help through the interactions of the protagonist Swami with his father and the teacher Samuel. In the story, the author puts up the themes of honesty, pity, aggression, imagination, guilt, stubbornness and fear.
Swami’s parents are wise to his weaknesses and incompetence. They both know he hates going to school, but his mother is more considerate of him and believes his tall tale about a headache. However, when he hears the same complaint, his father remarks sarcastically about Swami’s loafing about in the hot sun on Sundays. He mentions that if Swami left off playing and concentrated more on his academics, he would not be getting headaches and also want to miss precious school time. We notice a sort of underlying humour in a satirical form in the criticism of Swami’s father for his wayward son.
Swami is a habitual liar and exaggerates the violence his school teachers meted out to him to avoid returning to school that day. He specifically attacks the character of Samuel, which his father takes to heart as an attack on his ego and prestige. Due to the exaggerated descriptions of Swami, his father decides to help him by sending a scathing letter about Samuel to the headmaster. Swami is stunned to silence because he is afraid to tell his father that he was not telling the truth regarding both his headache and Samuel.
Swami as he is walking to school begins to feel sorry for Samuel. He believes that he will lose his job and go to prison even though he doesn’t know exactly what is in the letter his father has written. It is also noticeable that Swami is not being honest when it comes to Samuel. The story he told his father about Samuel is untrue and is based on hearsay from a generation of pupils who have been taught by Samuel. Despite this Swami is adamant that he will justify his father’s letter though again he does not know what his father has written. If anything Swami has allowed his imagination to run wild when he described Samuel to his father. Though Swami is indeed caned by Samuel later on in the story this is more a case of Swami provoking Samuel so that Samuel is expelled from his job and to justify bringing the letter to the headmaster.
The fact that Swami pities Samuel may be important as it suggests that Swami is battling with guilt. However, rather than admit that he is in the wrong he does everything he can to provoke Samuel. If Swami had stayed silent in Samuel’s class he would not have been caned. He was given a sufficient warning by Samuel yet he continued to obstruct the class by shouting. This may be important as it suggests that Swami is stubborn. Though he knows the path he is travelling is the wrong path he still nonetheless does everything he can to provoke Samuel. It might also be important to remember that Samuel didn’t have to hit Swami with the cane. He had other options. He could have told Swami to stand in the corner of the classroom or to leave the room. So in some ways, Swami may feel justified by the fact that he has been caned by Samuel.
The irony behind the tale is that try as he might, Samuel does not react violently towards Swami but behaves unusually kindly, considerate, and compassionate. This is humour in simplicity and, at its best, highlights the patience of a teacher and the plight of Swami with his defaming letter. Samuel, however, out of sheer desperation for decorum, ultimately gives Swami a few dozen cuts on his hands. The boy is excited by the violence meted out to him though he is disappointed that he did not bleed from the cuts. Notice in the text the compassion Samuel feels towards Swami regarding his headache, his father’s opinion about not missing school, and Swami as a whole by being patient with him even though he was acting out of character that school day. Samuel is overall a genial man, especially with Swami, which pricks Swami’s conscience to hand the scathing letter over to the headmaster.
The anti-climax to the tale is that at the end of the day, the headmaster had taken the afternoon off, and it was Samuel who was playing the role of an assistant headmaster. The joke is on Swami, and his exaggeration can now get him into serious trouble. Swami did not want to be beaten and his charade to be found out, so he hastens back to his home without delivering the letter which was supposed to help him with his teacher. Swami’s father mocks him and calls him a coward when he returns. The father’s patience was at an end, him being unusually sadistic and sarcastic, and so he, in irritation, tears Swami’s letter and flings it into the wastebasket. This ends the help or assistance that Swami’s father tried to lend him. In reading this short story, one realizes that Swami’s father, instead of helping him or trying to understand the sentiments of his son towards studies, tried to almost make a fool of himself in front of the entire school with the letter, he was sending via Swami.