A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  While I slept a great deal of consultation was going on. I learnt about it later through my Master, who was in the crowd — the crowd which had gathered after making sure that I had been properly locked up — and was watching. The headmaster seems to have remarked some days later,‘Never dreamt in my wildest mood that I’d have to yield my place to a tiger ...’A wag had retorted, ‘Might be one way of maintaining better discipline among the boys.’

  ‘Now that this brute is safely locked up, we must decide -’began a teacher.

  At this moment my Master pushed his way through the crowds and admonished,‘Never use the words beast or brute. They’re ugly words coined by man in his arrogance. The human being thinks all other creatures are “beasts”. Awful word!’

  ‘Is this the occasion to discuss problems of vocabulary?’asked someone.

  ‘Why not?’retorted my Master. At which they looked outraged.

  Someone said,‘What a reckless man you are! Who are you?’

  ‘You are asking a profound question. I’ve no idea who I am! All my life I have been trying to find the answer. Are you sure you know who you are?’

  ‘Crazy beggar — with a tiger in there ready to devour us, but for the strong door ... There is no time for useless talk. Let us get on with the business ...’

  ‘What business? What is it going to be?’asked my Master.

  Everyone was upset at this question.‘We must think of those children shut in the hall,’said a teacher.

  ‘Open the door and let them out,’said my Master, unasked.

  ‘Not your business to advise us; who are you?’

  ‘Second time you are asking the same question. I say again, I don’t know,’said my Master.

  ‘Get out of the school premises,’said a man who acted for the headmaster in his absence.‘You have no business here. We can’t have all kinds of intruders ...’

  ‘Did the tiger come on your invitation?’asked my Master.

  ‘We have to think seriously what to do now. Please leave us alone. Go away, I say,’commanded the acting headmaster.

  At which my Master said,‘A headmaster must be obeyed in his school, even if he is only acting,’and slipped back to the farthest end of the veranda.

  ‘Go away,’they all shouted.

  ‘I’ll stay, but promise not to disturb your consultations ...’And then my Master withdrew to a far corner to watch them, to observe how they were going to tackle the tiger. They constantly turned their heads and threw furtive looks at him, feeling uneasy to talk in his presence, but at the same time finding it difficult to order him out. They lowered their voices. The acting headmaster said,‘Now we have to decide on the next step to take ...’

  ‘Yes, yes,’chorused his assistant masters.

  ‘We must get someone to shoot it. Who has a gun in our town?’

  Everyone fell into deep thinking. The mathematics teacher, the most practical-minded in the institution, said,‘I’m sure the police will have it. Send someone to fetch the superintendent.’

  I must have turned in my sleep and knocked over some piece of furniture and that seemed to have scared them further. All of them cried,‘Let us go, it is perhaps trying to break open the door!’and started to retreat desperately.

  At this point my Master shouted from his corner,‘He can’t open the door. He has no hands. Only some furniture ...’

  Whereupon they glared at him and said,‘If you are going to be here, take care not to interrupt our talks.’

  My Master, being calm and wise, merely said,‘Very well, I won’t interrupt.’

  The mathematics teacher now said,‘Shall I call the police to handle the tiger?’

  Another teacher had a misgiving at this point:‘I doubt if this is a police matter. No law has been broken ...’

  ‘Is it lawful to let loose a tiger in a public thoroughfare?’

  ‘Who let it loose? No one. It came by itself.’

  ‘The circus man is responsible.’

  ‘But he is dead ... They must arrest the film producer for endangering public safety.’

  ‘Where are they? They have all vanished — fled before the tiger ... took their shattered cameras too ... We can’t go after them now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tiger has swallowed them up ...’

  ‘I wouldn’t think so,’said my Master again.‘He is not a man-eater ...’

  ‘Isn’t he? Have you tested him?’asked the acting headmaster, rather viciously, annoyed at the fact that the man was still there.

  My Master said,‘I don’t notice any progress in your talk. Why don’t you let all the children go home without making any noise ... and all of you may also go home ...’

  ‘And leave the tiger in charge of the school?’asked the acting headmaster with an untimely irony. And added,‘You must go. We don’t want you on the premises, whatever we may decide ...’said the acting headmaster, glaring at my Master.

  At which my Master shouted back,‘If my presence is the real problem rather than the tiger, I’ll go, but you will see me again, I have no doubt,’rather mysteriously and went off. All eyes followed him till he disappeared beyond the school gate. My Master was only out of their vision, but was at hand, sitting on a culvert keenly watching the goings-on at the school veranda, not missing a single word of their confused babble. He heard,‘Get a gun immediately.’

  ‘Does anyone know how to shoot?’

  ‘The Superintendent of Police has a gun ...’

  ‘But he can’t use it unless a magistrate orders...’

  ‘Where does he live? He used to be in the New Extension ... that yellow house in the Third Cross corner.’

  ‘Now he has moved to the government quarters ...’

  ‘Better we get Alphonse. He is a good shikari, licensed double-barrelled gun. The walls of his house are covered with bison heads and stuff like that. He’s a good shot.’

  ‘But he is a declared poacher; they have confiscated his gun.’

  ‘Can’t be, I saw him yesterday at Market Gate ...’

  ‘Did you see him with a gun?’

  ‘Why should he take his gun to the market? I spoke to him and he said he was going to camp in the forest the next four days -’

  ‘It is rumoured that they have taken away his hunting licence...’

  ‘But he said he was shooting with a camera.’

  ’‘is camera may shoot bullets, too. Don’t you believe such fellows — they are really poachers.’

  Now I let out a growl, a mild one, and that brought their minds back to the business on hand.

  ‘Better get the D.F.O.’

  ‘What is D.F.O.?’

  ‘You mean you don’t know D.F.O. means District Forest Officer?’ At which the man thus corrected was annoyed, and insults and angry words were exchanged until the acting headmaster intervened and reminded them that they were engaging themselves in an untimely wasteful talk. And then he turned to the school servant to ask,‘Do you know where the D.F.O. lives?’

  ‘No, sir,’he said promptly.

  A student came forward — a young fellow who had managed to stay back when all others had rushed into the school hall.‘Ravi is my friend, I know where he lives.’

  ‘Who is Ravi?’His answer was drowned in a lot of cross-talk.

  ‘Don’t forget the H.M. can’t come down. How long can he be crouching in that loft?’

  ‘How are you sure that he climbed into the loft?’

  ‘They had a glimpse while shutting the door ... Don’t waste time in this sort of cross-examination.’

  They seemed to be incapable of reaching any practical solution. My Master, who had been sitting on the culvert, came back to say,‘If you keep chatting like this, I’ll dash up and let the tiger out ...’

  ‘Oh, would you? You will be the first fellow to be devoured,’ said an idiot. And all the members said,‘We said you should keep out of here, why have you come back?’

  ‘Just to see if you fellows will do or say anything useful. Pity the children whose educatio
n and training are in your hands ...’

  At which the acting headmaster drew himself up to say,‘Get out of this place, this is our school. In the absence of the headmaster, I take his place automatically. I have told you that already.’

  ‘Yes, yes, I remember; I have also said that when a headmaster, even if he is only acting, gives an order, it must be obeyed instantly,’ and he went back to his seat on the culvert at the gate, beyond their range of vision but not out of earshot.

  Presently he saw a man arrive on a noisy motor cycle, drowning all other sound, carrying a gun. He slowed down near my Master to ask excitedly,‘I heard of a tiger being somewhere here — is it true?’

  My Master indicated the school, but added,‘You can’t shoot him, if that’s your idea ...’Ignoring it, the man turned into the gate with a haughty toss of his head.

  Now my Master followed a fresh motley crowd drifting in, driven by a mixture of curiosity and fear. Now that they knew the tiger was locked up, throngs of men and women were in the streets purposelessly wandering and vaguely looking for the tiger. All normal activity in the city was suspended. In the crowd one could find lawyers in their black gowns, shopmen who had pulled down the shutters, hawkers with trays on their heads, policemen in uniform, and so forth. The school had never seen such a crowd before in its compound and veranda. An army of anxious parents arrived, desperately searching for their children. They dashed hither and thither and towards the headmaster’s room in a body, demanding, ‘Where are our children? We want our children safely back. What sort of a school that they can’t protect our children when a tiger is about?’

  A teacher was provoked by this remark.‘Why do you presume such things? Haven’t we a responsibility?’

  ‘Where are our children? My child is only seven years old. It’s a mistake to have sent him to this wretched tiger-infested school.’

  ‘You perhaps are always ready to attack the school ...’

  A burly parent came up shaking his fist.‘Don’t go on philosophizing. We don’t want your philosophy. Where are the children? You should have closed the school when the tiger was known to have escaped into the town. If anything happens to the child, I’ll smash you all and set fire to the school.’

  The teacher looked scared between a bully and the tiger. He said in a trembling voice,‘We let them off early, but they came back.’

  Meanwhile a group, having heard the shouts of the children locked up in the hall, went up and forced open the door, and the children poured out of the room like flood water released from a sluice, screaming and roaring with joy. Confusion was at its maximum.

  The man with the gun strode in with the gun in position, shouting at the top of his voice:‘Keep away, everybody. I won’t be responsible if anyone is hurt. I’ll count. Before I count ten, everyone must clear out of the way. Otherwise I shoot and won’t be responsible for any mishap to any individual,’and he held up and flourished his double-barrelled gun, asking,‘Is he in there? I can shoot through the door ...’

  ‘Oh, no, don’t. The headmaster is also in there.’

  ‘He went up into the loft and is crouching there ...’

  ‘I’ll aim and hit right on it, only the tiger. You may keep a flower on its back or even the headmaster himself, but my bullet will leave everything else untouched and bring down the beast alone.’

  At this moment my Master came forward to say,‘Never use that word again ...’

  ‘Which word?’asked Alphonse the gunman.

  ‘“Beast” is an ugly, uncharitable expression.’

  ‘Mind your business.’

  ‘This is my business,’answered my Master, and people, fearing that he might be shot, pulled him away. The gunman continued his plans.

  ‘But how are you to know where he is in that room?’

  ‘If the door is pushed open slightly, I can immediately — ’

  ‘If the tiger dashes out?’

  ‘Oh, a moving target is no problem. I have brought down creatures running at one hundred miles an hour ...’

  ‘No, no, opening the door is out of the question, impossible.’

  ‘Get me a ladder, then. I’ll go up and shoot from the roof ... enough if a couple of tiles are removed ...’Someone was hustled to fetch a ladder from a neighbouring house. They all waited in silence. Somehow the sight of the gunman seemed to have subdued the crowd. They spoke in hushed voices.‘Where is the ladder?’ demanded Alphonse.‘Who is gone to fetch one?’he asked with an air of command. People looked at each other, and no one came up with an answer. At which Alphonse stamped his foot like a spoilt child, and demanded angrily,‘Who is in charge here?’The acting headmaster was unwilling to come forward now, with the tiger on one side and the gun-wielder on the other. He had tried to make himself obscure and slip away unnoticed. But others seized him by his arm and propelled him forward, crying,‘Here is the First Assistant, he is in charge when the headmaster is away.’

  The acting headmaster said,‘The H.M. is still there in his room. He is not away actually.’

  ‘Oh, oh,’someone jeered.

  ‘But is he in a position to issue orders?’

  ‘Perhaps not — may not be audible if he talks from inside the tiger,’a wag suggested. And there was giggling all round.

  At this my Master came forward to ask,‘Is this the time for levity?’

  Alphonse turned on him fiercely.‘Who are you?’

  My Master said,‘Oh, once again the same question! I wish I could answer with so many asking the same question.’

  ‘I am not prepared to waste time talking to you ... Now be off. Don’t interrupt, I don’t care who you are or what you are ... you loincloth-covered, bearded loon ...’He then turned his attention to the acting headmaster and asked sternly,‘Are you in charge of this school?’

  ‘Yes, only when the headmaster is on leave. Not when he is in there ...’He pointed at the headmaster’s room.

  Alphonse glared at him and said,‘I know you are trying to be slippery. Heaven help you if you are going to be tricky. I like people to be straightforward and truthful ... You are the man in charge. If you think you are going to have your chance to take his place by letting him be eaten up, you are mistaken. I am determined to get him out intact — if I have to shoot down everything in my way, I’ll do it. Now get me a ladder. It’s urgent.’The acting headmaster was speechless; the crowed watched in a state of hushed awe. Some persons were trying to leave, unable to judge how the situation might develop and anticipating bloodshed. Alphonse held the acting headmaster with his look and demanded,‘Get me a ladder at once.’

  ‘We have no ladder in this school,’he said timidly.

  ‘Do you mean to say,’Alphonse asked contemptuously,‘that you run a school like this without a ladder?’

  ‘What is a ladder for in a teaching institution?’questioned the assistant headmaster in a foolhardy manner.

  ‘Don’t be impudent,’said Alphonse, glaring at him, at which the assistant headmaster took fright and tried to mollify him by saying, ‘Headmaster requisitioned for one last year, but the D.P.I.’s office are holding up the sanction. Unless they sanction the budget, we can’t even buy a pin ...’

  ‘The procedure is silly,’commented Alphonse.

  A few others murmured,‘True, sir, we all agree with you. We can’t buy even a cane except through the D.P.I.’s sanction.’

  ‘What do you want a cane for?’demanded Alphonse, going off at a tangent.‘Do you mean to say you are using it on the boys? Whenever I find teachers doing that, I give them a taste of it first...’

  ‘Oh, no, I just mentioned cane because it came to my mind. We never do such things ... We get cattle straying into our garden and we use the stick to drive them away.’

  ‘Hmm ... you had better be careful. If you teachers wish to save your skins, remember I’ll as readily bag wild pedagogues as I do wild animals of the forest.’

  ‘Educational norms are different today.’

  ‘What do you mean by it???
?Alphonse asked severely, turning to the speaker.

  ‘We have to handle them psychologically ...

  ‘ood for you, keep it in mind.’

  At this point two boys came through carrying a bamboo ladder between them and placed it before the crowd. Alphonse was delighted. He patted the boys’ heads by turn, one by one, methodically. ‘Where have you got this from?’he asked, very pleased.

  ‘We ran to a house in Kabir Lane, I had noticed that they had kept a ladder in their back-yard, to pluck drumsticks from the tree, and now they had locked themselves in and also shut all the windows because of the tiger, and so I brought it away quietly and they did not see us. I was dragging it along, but Ramu saw me on the way and helped me and both of us carried it down — because we heard you asking for a ladder, I ran out at once, remembering the ladder in the next house ...’

  ‘You are a very intelligent, observant fellow. What is your name?’

  ‘Shekar,’he answered proudly and loudly.

  ‘Shekar,’cried Alphonse enthusiastically.‘Come and see me with your friend. I’ll have a present for you. I’ve a wonderful air-gun, with which you can practise. You won’t need a licence for it although you can hit and disable a buck at forty feet ... Our country needs more boys of your type. You are our only hope.’

  ‘He is the brightest fellow in our school,’the assistant headmaster ventured to suggest with some pride, to please the gunman.

  ‘I’m glad you recognize it, if you really mean it. Shekar, you and your friend take the ladder over there and put it up for me to go up to the roof ...’

  One couldn’t have secured more spirited helpers. Shekar and Ramu felt so flattered that they were prepared to obey any command from Uncle Alphonse.‘He has promised me a gun. I’ll shoot all the crows and dogs in our street.’

  ‘I’ll shoot the donkeys,’said Ramu.

  ‘How can you?’Shekar asked.‘He has only one gun and that is promised to me.’

  ‘It’s for both of us,’Ramu said.‘Let us share it.’

  ‘How can two shoot with a single gun?’sneered Shekar, but before it could develop into a full-scale argument, Alphonse cried, ‘Come on, boys, march on with the ladder.’

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