A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  ‘No one is going to shoot,’said my Master.‘You will see the tiger come out and walk off with me ...’

  ‘He won’t eat us?’

  ‘No, he will not hurt anyone. I’m going to open the door and bring him out.’

  ‘The headmaster?’the boy asked anxiously.

  ‘He must have also fallen asleep. He will also come out ... don’t worry. Would you like to come in with me and see the tiger?’

  The boy hesitated and, looking back for a safe spot, said,‘No, I’ll stand there and watch.’

  The chairman, who had watched this dialogue, cried from behind the window,‘What are you trying to do? You are mad.’

  ‘Come out and be with me. You will see for yourself what I plan to do.’

  ‘Explain,’the other cried.‘I do not understand you.’

  My Master turned round, walked to the window, and asked, ‘Are you afraid to come out of that room?’

  ‘What a question!’exclaimed the chairman.‘Of course, who wouldn’t be! We are in a hurry. The headmaster must have help without delay. We must act before the gunman wakes up ...’ He spoke through the window.

  ‘Here, I have the key. I’ll unlock the door and bring the tiger out of the room. One of you take a ladder in and help the headmaster come down from the attic. That’s all ...’

  ‘Do you mean to say that you are going in as you are, without arms or protection?’

  ‘Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. We have no time to waste.’

  The chairman said,‘By the powers vested in me in my capacity as the Second Honorary Magistrate in this town, I give you notice that you shall not open or enter that room. My committee members will bear witness to this order. It comes into immediate force, notwithstanding the fact that it’s not yet in written form ...’He looked around at his members, who crowded near the window bars and assented in a chorus.

  My Master asked when it subsided,‘Why’ll you prevent me from going near the tiger?’

  They were at a loss to answer:‘It’s unlawful to commit suicide.’

  ‘Maybe,’said my Master,‘but which law section says that a man should not approach a tiger? Are not circus people doing it all the time?’

  ‘Yes,’replied the chairman weakly.‘But that’s different.’

  ‘I can tame a tiger as well as any circus ringmaster. It’s after all my life that I’m risking.’

  ‘There is no such thing as my life or your life before the eyes of the law: in the eyes of the law all lives are equal. No one can allow you to murder yourself ...’

  ‘Life or death is in no one’s hands: you can’t die by willing or escape death by determination. A great power has determined the number of breaths for each individual, who can neither stop them nor prolong ... That’s why God says in the Gita, “I’m life and death, I’m the killer and the killed ... Those enemies you see before you, O Arjuna, are already dead, whether you aim your arrows at them or not!”’

  The chairman was visibly confused and bewildered.‘In that case you will have to sign an affidavit absolving us from all responsibilities for your life or death ...’

  ‘You ignoramus of an honorary magistrate! After all that I have said, in spite of all that urgency ... All right, give me a paper and tell me what to write.’

  The magistrate took out a sheet of paper from his briefcase and pushed it through the window bar. My Master sat down and wrote to the chairman’s dictation through the window, absolving anyone from any responsibility. He signed the document and returned it with the comment,‘Just to respect your magistracy, although I am convinced it’s uncalled-for and irrelevant, and you are exercising unnecessary authority. The more important thing for you now would be to take in your custody that gun beside Alphonse. When he wakes up, no one can guess his mood, and it’s not safe to leave the gun within his reach.’

  The chairman looked at the document and said,‘Stop, wait. Tell me what is it that you have written here?’

  ‘Only what you have dictated.’

  ‘In a language we don’t know, can’t accept it ...’

  ‘It’s in Sanskrit, in which our scriptures are written, language of the gods. I write only Sanskrit although I know ten other languages including Japanese.’Without further ado, he turned round, paused for a second to satisfy himself that Alphonse was asleep, and put the key into the lock on the headmaster’s room.

  I had felt provoked at the sound of the key turning in the lock. No one had a right to come in and bother me. I was enjoying my freedom, and the happy feeling that the whip along with the hand that held it was banished for ever. No more of it; it was pleasant to brood over this good fortune. It was foolish of me to have let the whip go on so long. Next time anyone displayed the whip ... I would know what to do. Just a pat with my paw, I realized, was sufficient to ward off any pugnacious design. What ignorance so far! Now that I knew what men were made of, I had confidence that I could save myself from them. The chair, ah, that was different. That was more paralysing than other instruments of torture. But here where I’m lying, the headmaster’s room, there are chairs, much bigger and more forbidding than what Captain used to wield, but they have done nothing, they have not moved to menace or hurt me. They have stayed put. Now I’ve learnt much about chairs and men and the world in general. Perhaps these men were planning to trap me, cage me and force me to continue those jumping turns with the suspended lamb, shamelessly standing on my hind legs before the crowd of film-makers. If this was going to be the case, I must show them that I could be vicious and violent too. So far I had shown great concern and self-control. Thus far and no further. The evidence of my intentions should be the headmaster, who I hoped was somewhere above me, unharmed and, as I hoped, peacefully sleeping. I can’t be definite. He makes no sort of sound or movement, hence I guess he must be sound asleep. I don’t want to be disturbed, nor am I going to let anyone bother the headmaster. So I have a double responsibility now. Someone at the door. I held myself ready to spring forward.

  The door opened quietly and my Master entered, shutting the door behind him. I dashed forward to kill the intruder, but I only hurt myself in hurling against the door. I fell back. He was not there, though a moment ago I saw him enter. I just heard him say, ‘Understand that you are not a tiger, don’t hurt yourself. I am your friend ...’How I was beginning to understand his speech is a mystery. He was exercising some strange power over me. His presence sapped all my strength. When I made one more attempt to spring up, I could not raise myself. When he touched me, I tried to hit him, but my forepaw had no strength and collapsed like a rag. When I tried to snap my jaws, again I bit only the air. He merely said,‘Leave that style out. You won’t have use for such violent gestures any more. It all goes into your past.’I had to become subdued, having no alternative, while he went on talking.‘It’s a natural condition of existence. Every creature is born with a potential store of violence. A child, even before learning to walk, with a pat of its chubby hands just crushes the life out of a tiny ant crawling near it. And as he grows all through life he maintains a vast store of aggressiveness, which will be subdued if he is civilized, or expended in some manner that brings retaliation. But violence cannot be everlasting. Sooner or later it has to go, if not through wisdom, definitely through decrepitude, which comes on with years, whether one wants it or not. The demon, the tormentor, or the tyrant in history, if he ever survives to experience senility, becomes helpless and dependent, lacking the strength even to swat a fly. You are now an adult, full-grown tiger, and assuming you are fifteen years old, in human terms you would be over seventy years old, and at seventy and onwards one’s temper gets toned down through normal decay, and let us be grateful for it. You cannot continue your ferocity for ever. You have to change ...’

  At this point someone from the other side of the door called, ‘Sir, Swamiji, are you all right?’

  ‘Yes, I am, don’t you hear me talking?’

  ‘Whom are you talking to, sir?’

  ‘To a friendl
y soul,’he said.

  ‘Do you mean the headmaster? Is he safe?’

  ‘Yes, he is up there, but I’ve not begun to talk to him yet ... he doesn’t seem to be awake yet. I’ll look to him presently. But at the moment I’m discoursing to the tiger ...’

  ‘Oh, oh, does it understand?’

  ‘Why not? If you could follow what I’ve been saying, the tiger should understand me even better since I’m closer to his ear ...’I let out a roar because I was feeling uncomfortable with some change coming inside me. I was beginning to understand. Don’t ask me how. My Master never explained to me the mystery or the process of his influence on me.

  ‘Don’t let him out, sir,’said the voice.‘When you open the door, please warn us first ...’

  ‘Surely, if you are afraid, but let me tell you, you need not fear; he has only the appearance of a tiger, but he is not one - inside he is no different from you and me.’I felt restless and wanted to do something or at least get away from the whole situation, back to my familiar life, back to the jungle, to the bed of long grass — I sighed for the feel of the grass on my belly - to the cool of the stream beside the cave and the shade of the cave with its rugged sandy floor ... I was sick of human beings; they were everywhere, every inch of the earth seemed to be swarming with humanity; ever since the unfortunate day I stepped into that village in the forest to the present moment I was being hemmed in. How grand it’d be to be back in the world of bamboo shade and monkeys and jackals! Even the supercilious leopard and the owl I would not mind; compared to human company, they were pleasant, minding their own business, in spite of occasional moods to taunt and gossip.

  I rose. Master became alert.‘What do you want to do now? You want to go away, I suppose! I understand. But there is no going back to your old life, even if I open the door and let you out. You can’t go far. You will hurt others or you will surely be hurt. A change is coming, you will have to start a new life, a different one ... Now lie down in peace, I will take you out. Let us go out together, it’ll be safer. But first I must get the headmaster down from his perch. He has been there too long. Now you lie still, move away to the corner over there while I help him.’

  I understood and slowly moved off to the side he indicated. Whatever its disadvantage, circus life had accustomed me to understand commands. This room was not too spacious to talk of far side and near side, but I obeyed him. I moved to the other wall and crouched there humbly. I wanted to show that I had no aggressive intentions. Now my Master ordered,‘Turn your face to the wall and do not stir in the least. If the headmaster thinks you are lifeless, so much the better. The situation is delicate, and you must do nothing to worsen it. God knows how long he has been cooped up there ...’

  He called him loudly but there was no answer. Then he went up to the door, opened it slightly and announced,‘I want a ladder and a person to climb to the loft, wake up the headmaster, and help him to come down. Is there anyone among you willing to fetch the ladder and go up?’A subdued discussion arose and a couple of men came forward to ask,‘What about the tiger? Where is he?’

  ‘You have all improved to the extent of not referring to him as “brute” or “beast” but I’m sorry to note that you still have no confidence in him or me. Let me assure you that this tiger will harm no one.’This had no effect on anyone. There was no response. He said,‘All right, I’ll manage ...’He shut the door again, pulled the table into position, and put up a chair on it, then another chair and a stool, and went up step by step and reached the loft, saying to himself,‘How the headmaster reached here will remain a mystery ...’He grasped the edge of the loft and heaved himself up.

  Presently I heard him waking the headmaster and coaxing him to climb down. I could not see his actual coming down as I had to lie facing the wall; I could only hear movements and words. My Master exerted all his power to persuade him to step down. I sensed what was happening and though curious to watch, did not turn round, as I did not want to disobey my Master. The first thing the headmaster did on coming down was to cry,‘Oh, it’s still here!’ and I heard some scurrying of feet, and my Master saying,‘Don’t look at him, but step down; he will not attack.’The headmaster groaned and whimpered and was possibly trying to go back to the loft, at which my Master must have toppled the pile of chairs and pulled him down. I heard a thud and guessed that the poor man had landed on firm ground. I could hear him moaning,‘It is still there, how can I?’My Master kept advising,‘What if it is still there? Don’t look in its direction, turn away your head, come with me ...’He led the headmaster as he kept protesting, a sorry spectacle, in disarray, still in the coat and turban which he had worn in the morning. My Master propelled him to the door and pushed him out saying to those outside,‘Here he is, take care of him. Not a scratch, only shock ...’and shut the door again as a medley of comments, questions, and exclamations poured into the room.

  Now he addressed me.‘Now turn round, get up, and do whatever you like.’I stretched myself, yawned, and rose to my feet. That was all I could do. I felt grateful, but I could not make out his form clearly. There was a haze in which he seemed to exist, a haze that persisted all through our association. At no time could I be certain of his outline or features - except what I could gather from his talk. He said,‘Let us go out now. You must realize that human beings for all their bluster are timid creatures, and are likely to get into a panic when they see you. But don’t look at them. This is one of the rules of yoga to steady one’s mind, to look down one’s nose and at nothing beyond. That’s one way not to be distracted and to maintain one’s peace of mind. I would ask you to keep your head bowed and cast your eyes down and make no sort of sound, whatever may be the reaction of the people we pass. We are bound to meet crowds during our passage through the town. People are likely to get excited at the sight of us, but you must notice nothing.’

  This was a necessary instruction since our emergence from the room created a sensation and a stampede, in spite of the warning cry my Master had given:‘Now I am coming out with the tiger. Those who are afraid, keep away, but I assure you again that Raja will not attack anyone. He will walk past you, and you will be quite safe as if a cat passed by. Believe me. Otherwise keep out of the way. I’ll give you a little time to decide.’When he opened the door, he said, ‘Keep close to me.’As he stepped out of the room, I was at his heels, saw no one, but only heard suppressed, excited comments and whispers from different corners. The veranda was empty, not a soul in sight, with the exception of Alphonse lying on the top step. Without a word my Master walked on briskly. We had to brush past Alphonse. The breeze of our movement seemed to have blown on his face, and he immediately sat up, rubbed his eyes to see clearly, blinked, shook his head and muttered,‘Crazy dream!’and laid himself down and apparently went back to sleep. But he sat up again to watch us go. We had gone past him a little way when he cried,‘Hey, you bearded one, you again! Won’t leave me alone even in a dream! Ah! What is this?’

  ‘Tiger,’answered my Master.

  ‘Is it the same or another one?’asked Alphonse.

  ‘Same and another,’answered my Master cryptically.

  ‘How? Oh, yes, of course,’he muttered, puzzled.

  ‘You may touch the tiger if you like.’

  ‘No, no! Go away.’He waved us off angrily and resumed his sleep.

  At first, when the Master emerged from the school gate with the tiger, the crowds in the street stood petrified. Cycles, automobiles, lorries and bullock-carts hurriedly withdrew to the side; even street dogs slunk away under culverts after whining feebly. As advised by the Master, the tiger never lifted its eyes but followed his steps. The Master passed down quickly, reached the Market Gate, turned to his right, proceeded northward on the highway, and vanished at dusk towards the mountains.

  Gradually lorries and bullock-carts began to move, cyclists resumed their wobbly courses, and crowds reappeared on Market Road; at street corners people stood about in clusters regaling each other with sensational accou
nts of the day’s events, while mischievous urchins continued to run up and down Market Road screaming,‘Tiger! Tiger! It’s here again!’

  At Anand Bhavan, which had already had a visitation, the main door was closed, but guests were admitted through a back door, the proprietor whispering as they entered,‘Finish your business soon and be off ... remember, no talk of tiger any more ... have had enough ...’

  At the Boardless, however, it was different. The din in the hall was deafening, but Mr Varma, the proprietor, who, from the eminence of his cash desk, always enjoyed listening to his clients’ voices, felt especially gratified today with the medley of comments, questions, and arguments falling on his ears while his fingers ceaselessly counted cash.

  ‘That hermit must have come from the Himalayas. I have heard that there are many extraordinary souls residing in the ice caves, capable of travelling any distance at will, and able to control anything by their yogic powers.’

  ‘How could the yogi have known that there was a tiger in the headmaster’s room, and why should he have wanted to protect it?’

  ‘Probably they were family friends!’They laughed at the joke.

  ‘t may be no laughing matter. I was at the school and could overhear his conversation with the tiger as if it were his younger brother.’

  ‘Don’t be too sure. Suppose that tiger makes a meal of his brother and turns round for more. We must be watchful - where are the police? Why can’t they come out of their hiding and patrol the streets?’

  ‘I tried to see the headmaster in Vinayak Street; after all he had kept longer company with the tiger than anyone else. But he was incoherent and still nervous lest the tiger should spring out of the next room. He had to be carried home in Gaffur’s taxi, you know.’

  ‘he question remains, who is this tiger-tamer - the terrible animal trots behind him, while the circus-wallah for all his expert control could not save himself in the end.’

  ‘Whenever we questioned “Who are you?” he quipped and dodged, you know,’said a pedagogue.

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