A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  Jayaraj, who framed pictures sitting in a cubicle at the Market Arch, observed the goings-on in the town from his position of vantage, and had spent a lifetime commenting and gossiping while his hands were busy nailing picture frames. He was now explaining to a company at the centre table, ‘At first I didn’t close my shop. I was not going to be frightened into thinking that the tiger would come to eat me or the glass sheets in my shop. But when I saw the crowd flooding past, I too caught the frenzy, and went there rather late but just in time to see that man come out of the school with his pet. The crowd pressed me against the gate post, I could not back away farther when the tiger almost brushed past my legs and I shivered, wedged as I was between the animal and the wall. When he noticed my fright that man just said, “Don’t fear” and passed on, but in that instant I recognized him - the shape of those eyes, the voice, and those features were familiar, and through all that shrunken frame and sunburnt, hairy face, I could see who he was. After all I had started life as a photographer, and when one has looked at faces through a lens, one can never forget a face.

  ‘At one time I used to see him cycling up the Market Road every morning to his college. He lived in Ellamman Street in one of those solid houses built by an earlier generation. I can’t remember that man’s name now, Govind, Gopal, or Gund? I don’t know. He was arrested during the Independence Movement for climbing the Collector’s office roof and tearing down the Union Jack, and then again for inscribing on the walls, with brush and tar, “Quit India”, aimed at the British. I was told that he drove his mother mad by his ways. She would cry her heart out every time he was sent to prison. He didn’t pass his B.A. - too busy, mixed up as he was in every kind of demonstration in those days. When things quietened down after Independence, he came to me one day to have his passport photo taken, but never collected it, though he had paid for it in advance. His photo must still be there somewhere in those piles of stuff unclaimed by my customers for reasons best known to them. I must put them all to the fire some day before all that junk drives me out of my own shop ...

  ‘Later on, I used to see him occasionally coming to the market with his family, driving a motor car. At this stage, he was completely changed, looked like a fop with his tie and suit and polished shoes. One day I had the hardihood to hail him and to say that he should take away his passport photograph, since he had paid for it. I’m not the sort to keep other people’s property. He halted his steps but before I could pick up his stuff and pack it, he muttered “I will come again” and hurried out. He was perhaps a busy man, as he was said to be holding a big job in a foreign insurance firm which had its office in New Extension.

  ’I never thought of him again until I heard one day that he had vanished, abandoning his wife and children. The police came seeking his photograph but I didn’t give it. If that man chose to disappear, that was his business, why should I be involved?’

  ‘Any reason why he went away?’

  ‘I know as much as you do. Why ask me? Enough ... talk of something else ... Let us forget him and his tiger. Something uncanny about him ... unsafe to talk about such men, who may be saints or sorcerers. Who knows what will happen? Remember the ancient saying, “Don’t probe too far into the origin of a river or a saint! You will never reach the end.” ‘With that Jayaraj abruptly got up, paid for his coffee, and went away.

  ‘Extraordinary how that animal could not be shot at all,’mused someone after Jayaraj left.‘Alphonse, who had hunted tigers all his life, fell into a stupor when he lifted his gun today.’

  ‘Oh! Oh! Stupor indeed,’someone said, laughing.

  Late in the evening Alphonse woke up on the school steps, looked around, and muttered,‘Not a soul in sight. Where is everybody gone? They have bluffed me.’He got up, went over to his motor cycle, and kicked the starter viciously. Entering the Market Junction, he noticed people standing in knots and slowed down to shout,‘Why don’t you keep out of the way?’

  ‘The tiger is gone,’someone ventured to inform him over the roar of his motor cycle. He replied,‘Oh, shut up, all that nonsense about the tiger! It is over a year since I saw one. Those bastards have April-Fooled us. They would not even let me peep through the keyhole to see for myself. I will deal with them yet.’

  ‘But it seems you did see the tiger from the rooftop?’ventured his listener.

  ‘You don’t have to tell me what I see or don’t see, understand? None of your business. If ever you see a real tiger with a tail at the right end, call me; otherwise it is a waste of time.’With that Alphonse was off.

  We passed through many villages, big and small, towards I don’t know where, as I followed my Master; everywhere people made way for us, retreated hurriedly, staring in wonder and disbelief, afraid even to breathe. Crowds which would normally be noisy and jostle looked intimidated by the spectacle, which made my Master remark,‘What our country needs most is a tiger for every village and town to keep people disciplined ...’In some places someone would call out from afar,‘Tiger-man, put a collar and chain around your pet - we are terrified ...’

  ‘Come and do it yourself,’my Master said.‘I will have no objection and I can tell this tiger to remain still while you collar it ...’

  We passed on while I stuck close to his heels and moved along without lifting my head or looking at anyone too long. My Master told me,‘The eye is the starting point of all evil and mischief. The eye can travel far and pick out objects indiscriminately, mind follows the eye, and rest of the body is conditioned by the mind. Thus starts a chain of activity which may lead to trouble and complication, or waste of time, if nothing else; and so don’t look at anything except the path.’Sometimes I could not resist looking at cattle or other creatures, which I would normally view as my rightful prize. But I’d immediately avert my eyes when I realized what I was doing.

  We were about to descend the slope of a hillock when we noticed in the valley below a procession passing. People were dragging a flower-decorated chariot with pipes and drums. The chariot carried the image of God, and there was much rejoicing and dancing and singing, and scattering of flowers. Vendors of fruits or sweets were doing a brisk business with the children swarming around. But the moment we were seen, everyone ran for safety. God’s chariot was abandoned in the middle of the road; the drummers and pipers abruptly stopped their music and, clutching their instruments, ran madly. My Master said to me,‘Stay here, and don’t move even if people come near or touch you.’He left me there and ran forward and said to those on the run, ‘Come, come back, don’t abandon your God. Draw the chariot along. Come on, come on. My tiger is godly, and loves a procession.’He went after the piper and the drummer, and brought them back forcibly, saying,‘That tiger of ours is musically inclined, and won’t like to be cheated out of it. Go on, play your pipes. This tiger is no real tiger at all. He just looks like one, that’s all. He loves you all. Go on ...’With their gaze fixed in my direction they played nervously. The chariot wheels moved again and the crowd followed, although in a subdued spirit. The children did not laugh or dance; the sweet-sellers did not cry their wares.‘This pains me very much, how can I prove you are a friend?’said my Master, falling back. We took a detour and went forward.

  At another place we went into a rioting mob - groups of people were engaged in a bloody strife, attacking each other with stone, knife, and iron rod, and screaming murderous challenges. In their frenzy they had not noticed us, but when they did, they dispersed swiftly. My Master cried to them,‘If I find you fighting again, I’ll be back to stop it. Take care. You should not need a tiger to keep the peace.’

  When we reached the foot of Mempi range, he looked up with joy at a towering peak in front of us and said,‘That ought to be our home, but it is inaccessible, so we will stop here ... I was here before, and once saw a flash of light on the very tip of that peak and felt overwhelmed by its mystery since no human being has ever set foot there. Although I realize now that it might be no more than a touch of the moon rising behind it, I wil
l still watch for it: I have a great desire to see that flash again ...’

  He searched and found his spot. A rock jutting over a ledge seemed to him adequate shelter. He said,‘Here we will stay.’He broke some twigs and swept the floor. Farther off there was a spring bubbling up from a cavity in the rock.‘You can have a drink of water here, but I cannot tell you where you should seek your food. I don’t know and I do not wish to think of it, as I cannot give you any help. I know I cannot persuade you to eat grass or live on roots and greens. God has decided for you a difficult diet. I can help your mind and soul, but I cannot affect your body or its functions. Now I should leave you free to go where you like, but don’t go too far away from here or too long ...’

  I accepted his advice. All day long I lay across the entrance of his shelter. It was enough for me that I was near him, while he sat with his eyes shut in prayer. I cannot say how long he would sit thus. In the evenings he would open his eyes, and then talk to me on life and existence and death, and help my understanding. More than once he mentioned God. The word ‘God’had been unheard of by me. We who live in the jungle have never known the word. He explained God; most of it was beyond my understanding, but he said,‘You may not understand the word. But let it sink in your mind and ring on your ears, and then tell me later how you feel.’ He described God in his own terms as the Creator, the Great Spirit pervading every creature, every rock and tree and the sky and the stars; a source of power and strength. Later when my Master questioned me about it, I said that God must be an enormous tiger, spanning the earth and the sky, with a tail capable of encircling the globe, claws that could hook on the clouds, and teeth that could grind the mountain, and possessing, of course, immeasurable strength to match. On hearing my notion of God, my Master burst into a laugh and said,‘It’s often said that God made man in His own image, it’s also true that man makes God in his own image. Both may be right; and you are perfectly right in thinking of your God as a super tiger. Also it may be true. What we must not forget is that He may be everything we imagine and more. In Bhagavad Gita He reveals Himself in a mighty terrifying form which pervades the whole universe in every form of life and action. Remember also He is within every one of us and we derive our strength from Him ...’He did not treat me as an animal which sat before him in respectful silence trying to understand his words; I only felt grateful that he was trying to transform me in so many ways. How he could do it was his own secret.

  At dawn, it was his habit to go to the spring and bathe, wash his single piece of cloth, and wear it, allowing it to dry on his body. He would then pray and meditate, and break off to go into the forest and return with an armful of roots, herbs, and leaves which provided him nourishment. Except those moments when he discoursed to me, he remained silent and often went into deep meditation. Nowadays the keenness of my hunger was also gone, and I slipped away into the jungle, not too often, only when I felt I could not stand hunger any more. When I returned from my hunt, I kept myself away until he summoned me. I would be oppressed with a sense of guilt in spite of the fact that when I hunted and killed, I was lost in the thrill of the moment and relished the taste of warm flesh and blood, a luxury I had missed at the circus, where stale meat was thrown out of buckets at feeding time, by butchers on contract. It might be any meat, no way of knowing, might be a dog’s or a donkey’s, dull-tasting since the contractor soaked the meat in water to give it weight. So all along I could not help craving for fresh kill. But nowadays, the moment I had eaten my fill I’d be seized with remorse. And so, when I returned from the jungle I’d lie low, out of sight of my Master.

  Even for drinking water, I chose another stream within the forest, since I did not want to sully the spring in which my Master performed his morning ablutions. Nor would my Master shame me by referring to my night expeditions. I tried to attain some kind of purification by reducing the frequency of seeking food. Nor did I kill recklessly as I used to in my jungle days - any game of any size or bulk, I used to slaughter, consume it partly, and return to the fly-covered remnant again the next day. I could not bear to recollect this habit: it nauseated. Nowadays, I went into the jungle and stalked the littlest game, just sufficient enough to satisfy my hunger of the moment and not my gluttony. And then I didn’t go into the forest again for several days, prolonging the intervals as much as possible. I suffered hunger for consecutive days before seeking food again, but felt nobler for it. I felt I had attained merit through penance, making myself worthy of my Master’s grace. How I wished I had learnt the art of living on sugar cane and rice, like the elephant and the hippo of the circus; the chimp would explain how they ate nothing else, which lesson I should have taken from them. How mighty the hippo and the elephant looked, although they ate no meat.

  At night I quietly returned to a spot beyond a screen of vegetation not far from my Master, ready to reach his side in a few bounds if summoned. This phase of life I found elevating: the change churning internally was still felt by me, but did not bother me now as it did at the beginning. I was getting accustomed to many changes. If I could have shed the frightening physical encasement God has chosen for me, I could have lived on air, or dry leaves, and I’d have felt more blessed. Understanding the turmoil in me, my Master said,‘Do not crave for the unattainable. It’s enough you have realization. All in good time. We cannot understand God’s intentions. All growth takes place in its own time. If you brood on your improvements rather than your shortcomings, you will be happier.’

  While I learnt a great deal from my Master, enough to know myself, understand the world in which I lived, feel and express my thoughts (although understood only by my Master), one thing he would not teach me was the art of reckoning. Numbers and figures were still beyond my grasp. To my questioning, he said,‘Why do you want to know how long ago or before or how much later or earlier? Not necessary for you. A sense of time may be required for human beings engaged in worldly activities. But why for you and me? I shun all activities and you have none. You have freed yourself from all duties which had been forced on you. And so you need not know what time of the day or what time of the week, or numbers, reckoning of before and after, when and how far; in short you don’t have to know the business of counting, which habit has made us human beings miserable in many ways. We have lost the faculty of appreciating the present living moment. We are always looking forward or backward and waiting for one or sighing for the other, and lose the pleasure of awareness of the moment in which we actually exist. Time is not for you or for that matter me, although at some stage of my life ...’Here was some hint of his past life and I pricked up my ears. He understood that I wished to know more about him.‘Why do you want to know what I was or how or where? It’d be unnecessary knowledge. Knowledge, like food, must be taken within limits. You must know only as much as you need, and not more. All the thousands of human beings you have encountered since leaving the shelter of your forest life suffer from minds overburdened with knowledge, facts, and information - fetters and shackles for the rising soul.

  ‘I was a man of the world, busy and active and living by the clock, scrutinizing my bank book, greeting and smiling at all and sundry because I was anxious to be treated as a respectable man in society. One day it seemed all wrong, a senseless repetition of activities, where one’s head always throbbed with the next plan, counting time or money or prospects - and I abruptly shed everything including (but for a bare minimum) clothes, and fled away from wife, children, home, possessions, all of which seemed intolerable. At midnight, I softly drew the bolt of our back door, opening on the sands of Sarayu behind our house at Ellamman Street, while others slept and left very much in the manner of Siddhartha ... They searched but gave up eventually, concluding that I was washed off in the Sarayu, which was in flood at that time ... I trudged and tramped and wandered through jungles and mountains and valleys not caring where I went. I achieved complete anonymity, and shed purpose of every kind, never having to ask what next. And so here I am, that’s all you need to know.

  Although my Master had taken the trouble to choose a remote part of the jungle to live in, people seemed to have got scent of us, of the novelty of our life - a man living in the company of a tiger - and began to visit us. The news must have spread from village to village. One morning, watching from his ashram, a sort of table at an elevation, which could give one a view of the surrounding country, we saw a file of peasants approaching at a distance. My Master remarked,‘No escape from humanity! They’ll pursue you even if you hide yourself in the bowels of the earth. Anyway, you keep yourself out of view so that they may approach without fear.’ I had been lying on the ground while he sat on the slab of stone. I got up in obedience to his command and moved off to my cave behind the screen of creepers and lantana shrubs. Presently I noticed from my spot some men arrive, carrying baskets of flowers and fruits. They stood away at a distance and hallooed: ’Swamiji, are you there?’

  ‘Yes, I’m here, but I am no Swamiji.’

  ‘May we approach you?’

  ‘Why not? Anyone is welcome.’

  ‘But you have the tiger with you still?’

  ‘Yes, naturally, but he is not a tiger.’

  ‘He looks like one, we are afraid.’

  ‘Then why do you want to come?’

  ‘For your darshan, sir.’This kind of talk went on for a while.

  ‘Don’t use the word darshan,’ he shouted back.

  ‘Why not, master?’

  ‘Because the word is not appropriate ...’

  ‘What does darshan actually mean, sir? We do not wish to offend you.’

  ‘Why don’t you come up and ask, so that I may not have to shout through my answer.’

  ‘Of course, sir, we are naturally here to sit at your feet ...’

  Master uttered an exclamation of impatience.‘Oh, at my feet! Where have you picked up these phrases of mental slavery? Come up if you are not afraid. What makes you think you are safe there if it’s the tiger that frightens you? He can easily come there too - nothing to hold him back.’

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