A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  The two boys took the ladder out to the spot indicated, and Alphonse placed it below the eaves of the headmaster’s office. He then turned to a small crowd, which followed him. He braced himself for the task, put one foot on the first rung, and turned to face his audience:‘You must all be calm and mind your business if you have any. Don’t get panicky if you hear gunshots presently. I can shoot straight and finally, of course, but there can be no guarantee how the tiger will behave when he is hit. Before I send the second shot and dispatch him, he may go mad and devilish and storm his way out of the room, he may spring skyward, or dash through the door or break the walls in his fury. One can’t foresee what’ll happen then, especially when I have not seen the brute -’

  ‘He is no brute,’shouted my Master from back of the crowd. ‘No more than any of us here.’

  ‘Ah, ah! You are still here. You were ordered to remain out of range, weren’t you? Anyway if you are still here you will see who is a brute when he comes out. However, if you have no business here, get out of this place smartly ... I want two men up here to come up with me and loosen the tiles. If I see clearly inside, I can finish the job in a moment.’

  ‘What about the headmaster, who must be somewhere between your gun and the animal?’

  ‘That’s a problem,’said Alphonse generously,‘but if you have confidence in me, he’ll escape the shot.’

  ‘But the tiger may spring up, you said, and God knows where he will be caught,’said someone.

  Alphonse said,‘Don’t imagine troubles. Have you confidence in me or not?’He paused and waited for an answer. It was Shekar who shouted at the top of his voice,‘Don’t let them stop you, Uncle, go on and shoot the animal. I’d love to see how you shoot.’

  ‘Follow me then and help to remove the tiles. I’ll tell you how to do it ... The grown-ups here are all cowards and ought to wear saris; they are afraid to see a tiger even from a rooftop.’

  ‘I’m not afraid,’said Shekar, and his friend added a confirmation. Alphonse climbed the ladder, followed by the two boys, who were cautioned and admonished by their teachers for their foolhardiness.

  ‘If I had four arms like some of your gods,’said Alphonse from the roof,‘I would not have needed the help of these young people. Two of my hands would have pulled the tiles out, while the other two might have been holding the gun and triggering off the shot. Four arms are a most sensible arrangement.’And then he proceeded to remove a few tiles and asked the boys to follow his example. They tore up the tiles with zest and threw them down recklessly, enjoying the sight of their elders dodging below.

  Soon an opening was made, and a shaft of sunlight entered the room. The headmaster was on the point of collapse, crouching there in the narrow attic, amidst bundles of old papers and files. He looked up and saw the faces of the two boys on the roof and could not make out what they were doing up there. He could not believe his eyes. He tried to stand up, but hit his head on the rafters. Shekar cried,‘It’s me, sir. My friend is also here, Ramu of Four B. Uncle is here to shoot the tiger ...’The headmaster had enough wits about him to understand the situation. ‘Sir, aren’t you hungry? If you come out, I’ll run up to Pankaja Cafe and bring you tiffin, if someone gives me money...’said the boy.

  The headmaster took his finger to his lips to warn the boy not to make a noise and wake up the tiger. He spoke in a hoarse whisper. At the mention of the tiger, Shekar was pushed aside and in his place the headmaster found another head.‘I’m Alphonse,’said the man.‘Headmaster, keep cool; we will get you out soon. Ah! I see him there ... must be eleven-point-five feet ... a full-grown brute. Wish his head were not under the table. I could dispatch him with one shot then and there. You need have no doubt ... I could shoot now, but if he is hit in the hind part, he may go mad and spring up. I’ve seen such beasts go up even fifteen feet in the air under similar circumstances. But first let me get you out of here ... Keep cool ... don’t fall off the attic.’He looked around.‘Boy, you must run and get a hacksaw or an ordinary carpenter’s saw. Run and get it as smartly as you brought the ladder. If you see a carpenter, snatch it from his bag.’

  ‘Yes, you will need more than a carpenter’s saw,’said a voice, and turning round Alphonse exclaimed,‘You, here still!’

  ‘Yes, yes,’said my Master.‘I could come up a ladder as well as anyone.’

  ‘Weren’t you told to keep out?’asked Alphonse angrily.

  ‘Yes, yes,’agreed my Master amiably, and added,‘Who are you to pass such orders?’

  ‘You are a pertinacious pest,’remarked Alphonse in disgust. ‘Now the urgent thing is that you get the saw. You stick like the burr, but at least make yourself useful ... go and get a saw immediately.’

  ‘What for?’

  Alphonse suppressed his irritation, and said,‘I want to saw off a couple of those crossbars, enough to admit the headmaster’s head, and then we could pull him out and tackle the tiger.’

  ‘And you expect the tiger to watch the fun while you are at your carpentry?’Master said with a smile.

  Alphonse said,‘If you do not behave, I’ll push you in through this gap. Shekar, get a saw without delay — instead of listening to this mad fellow. He is persistent ... No way of keeping him off.’

  ‘How can you keep me off? Who are you?’asked my Master, and added,‘I can ask the same question you asked, who are you? I know enough law to realize that I have as good a right to be on a roof as anyone else!’

  ‘I’m only here to help the headmaster ...’

  ‘You won’t be able to work through the rafters so easily. They are old teak beams. You will have to saw for days before you can make a dent...’

  ‘In that case, I’ll shoot. I’ve enough sight now. Let the headmaster stay where he is, and take his chance and pray for his life and pray that the tiger does not spring up vertically ...’He turned to the headmaster, who was peering out like a prisoner behind the bars: ‘Only be careful that you don’t fall off the edge when you hear my gun go off, stick close to the wall so that even if the tiger springs up, you will stay clear of his reach. With the second, I’ll get him, even if he is in mid air ...’

  ‘Oh, here they are,’exclaimed my Master, pointing at the school gate. A jeep had arrived at the gate and a number of persons jumped out of it and hurried across the school compound. They pushed their way through the crowd.

  ‘Come down, please, and keep your finger off the trigger. We are Save Tiger Committee. You must hear us first. We are a statutory body with police powers ...’

  Alphonse came down the ladder, saying,‘The headmaster is about to be saved. Please give me five minutes, I’ll get him out and then we can discuss.’

  The wild-life committee paused to consider it for a moment, and asked,‘Explain how you propose to save the headmaster.’

  Alphonse explained that he proposed to cut through the rafters and bail out the headmaster.

  My Master, who had followed him down, said,‘Rafters are of ancient timber, it’ll take at least three days to make a notch.’

  Alphonse glared at him and exclaimed,‘You again! Why do you dog my steps like this? I’d knock you down with the butt, but for your age. The animal is there already stirring and growling. How long do you think the headmaster will stand the tension? He may faint and roll off the attic straight into the mouth of the tiger. You won’t let me call him a beast. I don’t know why I’m being plagued by you ... you follow me like a shadow ...’

  My Master ignored Alphonse and turned to the visitors:‘I’m grateful that you have responded to my call. If you hadn’t come, he’d have murdered the tiger. His plan was to make enough noise with a saw or anything to stir up the animal, and shoot, leaving it to chance for the headmaster to survive ...’

  Alphonse ground his teeth and remained silent. Meanwhile Shekar plucked at his sleeve.‘Uncle, give me money, I’ll buy idli and vadai at the Pankaja restaurant for the headmaster ...’Alphonse fished out of his pocket a rupee and gave it to the boy, who at once ran off
. Alphonse said, looking after him,‘This fellow is the hope of our country. He is fit to ride on the back of a tiger ...’

  The leader of the wild-life group said,‘Mr Alphonse, as you may be aware, I’m the chairman of the local chapter of Tiger Project, affiliated to the Central Committee under the Ministry of Agriculture at Delhi ...’

  ‘What has agriculture to do with tigers?’asked Alphonse.

  ‘We will go into the question later, but at the moment we wish to emphasize the fact that “Save Tiger Project” as its name indicates, is to prevent the decimation of the tiger population which was at one time in the neighbourhood of fifteen thousand; today it’s less than fifteen hundred.’He went into statistics until Alphonse said,‘Is this the time for a lecture, while the headmaster is half dead inside? You think that only tigers are important and not a headmaster ...’

  ‘And so,’continued the chairman,‘there is a general ordinance issued by the government which prohibits the shooting of any tiger, in any part of India, and we are given powers to enforce the rules and initiate prosecution if and when necessary; with penalty up to two thousand rupees and one year’s rigorous imprisonment and confiscation of the offender’s weapon and licence ...’

  ‘I know all this and more,’said Alphonse.‘You are opening your eyes on this subject probably only now. But I have been in the tiger business for half a century. There’s a provision in the same ordinance, an exemption where a man-eater is concerned ...’

  ‘Yes, yes, we know all that; where a tiger has been established to be a man-eater, we can permit the shooting, provided you apply for it with proof and evidence ...’

  ‘What proof? Remains of a poor villager snatched away from the tiger’s jaw? I’ll also have to file a photograph and write an application in triplicate, I suppose?’he asked, with grim humour.‘You and your government regulations. You have no practical sense ... You’ll see half the population destroyed in your zeal to protect the tiger: perhaps that’s a ruse to keep down the population of our country! Ha! Ha! Ha! Here’s a headmaster struggling to survive and you go on talking rules. You people do not distinguish between what’s important and unimportant.’

  Meanwhile I awoke after a very good stretch of sleep and heard voices outside. I looked up and saw the headmaster cowering in the attic. I stretched myself and roared, for no particular reason except that I felt alive. The poor human being in the loft must have trembled at that moment. I wished to assure him that I was not going to hurt him. If it had been the old jungle days, I’d have gone after him; already a change was coming over me, I think. My Master’s presence in the vicinity, though he had not come near me yet, must have begun to affect me. I tried to assure the headmaster by raising myself and putting up my forelegs on the wall and scratching it, and growling softly, which must have shaken the poor man so much that he seemed to lose control of his bowels and bladder. Thereupon I withdrew from the wall and curled myself under the table once again in order to reassure the poor man ...

  Meanwhile, outside, my Master noticed Alphonse taking the chairman aside under a tree, where they spoke in whispers. When they came back, the chairman was a changed man. He took aside, in his turn, his committee members, and spoke to them. Thereupon they took papers out of a briefcase and signed and gave them to Alphonse. All this concerned me. I was declared a man-eater and Alphonse was given written permission to shoot.‘In the normal course,’explained the chairman,‘I should get the sanction from Delhi, but in an emergency, I am empowered to use my discretion.’ My Master suspected that Alphonse had offered a substantial bribe, as he was known to be engaged in a flourishing business exporting tiger skins.

  Shekar was seen coming down the ladder with a packet of food in hand. He approached Alphonse.‘Uncle, I can’t see the headmaster; I held out the idli, but he didn’t take it. What shall I do now?’

  ‘You and Ramu shall share the idli,’ said Alphonse.

  The boy continued,‘I peeped and couldn’t see him; I called and he wouldn’t answer. I heard the tiger scratching something and growling. I came away ...’He looked sad and anxious, moved aside and gobbled up the tiffin hurriedly.

  The crowd, which watched in silence all along, let out a moan in chorus:‘Aiyo! Never thought our beloved headmaster would come to this end ...’They all looked bitterly at the assistant headmaster, who they somehow held responsible for all the delay. The assistant headmaster probably had confused feelings, happy at the thought that after all he was getting his chance to become the headmaster, but also unhappy at the same time. He wailed the loudest at the thought of the headmaster’s fate.

  The commotion was at its height when Alphonse, properly armed with the permit, gave a final look to his double-barrelled gun, held it this way and that and looked through the barrel, and shouted a command;‘Your attention, everybody! Everyone must retreat at least a hundred yards before the school gate which will give you an initial advantage if the tiger should decide to chase. No one can foresee how the situation will develop. The beast when shot may smash the door and rush out, and God help anyone in its way. I’ll count ten and this area must be cleared; otherwise, I won’t be responsible for any calamity. Now all clear out ... It’s an emergency. The headmaster or whatever is left of him must be saved without delay. Now clear out, everyone.’He jingled the school-key bunch which he had snatched from the assistant headmaster.‘I’m risking my life ... I’ll push the door open and shoot the same second, normally that should be enough ...’After this he let out a shout like a cattle-driver and a stampede started towards the gate, as he started counting:‘One, two, three ...’

  He turned to the chairman and his committee and said, as a special concession,‘You may stay back in that classroom to your left and watch through the window. I’ve reconnoitred that area; it’ll be safe for you to stay there, and you will get a good view through the window, but make sure to bolt the door.’He said to Shekar, ‘Boy, show them the room and stay there yourself with your friend, until I say “all clear”. He may need two shots — the interval between the first one and the second will be crucial. Anything may happen. No once can forecast with a hundred per cent certainty.’

  After all these preliminaries, and before delivering the actual assault, Alphonse sat down on the veranda step and took a flask out of his hip pocket, muttering,‘This has been a big strain, must restore my nerves first ...’He took a long swig out of it, while several pairs of eyes were watching him, smacked his lips, shook his head with satisfaction, picked up his gun and examined it keenly, and conducted a little rehearsal by pressing the butt against his shoulder and aiming at an imaginary tiger. He withdrew the gun and placed it at his side, took out the hip flask again, and took another long swig. He was heard to mutter,‘Hands are shaky, need steadying up.’And then he stood up with gun in hand, and rehearsed again with the butt against his shoulder.‘Still shaky ... Bloody dilute rum, has no strength in it; I’ll deal with that fellow.’ He sat down again and took another drink, and another drink, till the flask was emptied.

  My Master, who had stayed back unobtrusively, came forward to ask him,‘Whom were you talking to?’

  ‘You,’said Alphonse.‘I knew you were here. I knew you’d not go. I saw you — you obstinate devil ... So, I thought, I thought, what did I “thought”? I don’t know. I have forgotten. No, no, if the beast comes out and swallows you, it’ll serve you right ... that’s what I thought. Don’t look at me like that ... I’m not drunk ... It’s only watery rum ... less than ten per cent proof ... I’ll deal with that cheat yet ... that bastard ...’

  ‘Are you relaxing?’my Master asked.

  ‘Yes, sir,’he said heartily.

  And then my Master asked,‘What about the tiger?’

  ‘What about what?’

  ‘The tiger, the tiger in there...’

  ‘Oh, yes, the tiger, he is O.K., I hope?’

  ‘Aren’t you going to shoot?’

  ‘No,’he said emphatically.‘My hands must be steadied. I must have another
drink. But my flask is empty. The son-of-a-bitch didn’t fill it. I’ll deal with him, don’t worry. This sort of a thing...’

  ‘The headmaster, what about him?’

  ‘I don’t know. Don’t ask me. Am I responsible for every son-of-a-bitch?’

  ‘Where did you learn this rare phrase?’

  ‘In America,’he said promptly. ‘I lived there for many years.’

  ‘Would you like to rest?’

  ‘Of course, how did you guess? I got up at four this morning and rode fifty miles. Where is my vehicle?’

  My Master gave him a gentle push, and he fell flat on the ground and passed out.

  My Master must have turned on him his powers of suggestion. Taking the key-bunch from Alphonse, he went up to the headmaster’s room and had just inserted the key into the lock when the chairman, watching through the window, shouted across at the top of his voice,‘What are your trying to do? Stop!’

  ‘I’m only trying to get the tiger out, so that the headmaster may come down confidently.’

  While this was going on Shekar suddenly threw back the bolt of the classroom and rushed out, followed by his friend Ramu. Both of them came and stood over Alphonse, watching him wide-eyed. ‘He is still breathing,’one said to the other.

  Both of them asked my Master,‘Is Uncle dying?’

  My Master said to them,‘No, he will wake up — but rather late — don’t worry. He will be well again ...’

  ‘Why is he like this? A nice uncle ...’the boy asked tearfully.

  ‘Oh, he will be all right,’said my Master.‘Don’t worry about him. He has drunk something that is not good and that has put him to sleep...’

  ‘Is it toddy?’asked the boy.

  ‘Maybe,’said my Master.‘What do you know about it?’

  ‘There is a toddy shop near our house ...’began the boy, and my Master listened patiently, while the boy described the scenes of drunkenness that he witnessed in the evenings. Finally the boys asked,‘How will he shoot the tiger?’

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