A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  ‘Have you not tied him up, sir?’

  ‘Certainly not, I live freely too ... so there is no place in my system for any rope or chain or bond of any kind. If you don’t muster enough courage and confidence, turn back and go.’

  ‘We have come a long way, sir, for your dar -’They were about to say ‘darshan’ again but restrained themselves.

  ‘I leave you to your discretion. Go back if you like ...’

  But they hesitated uncertainly, and consulted among themselves. Having taken the trouble to come so far, they didn’t want to waste the visit, and perhaps feeling that they might encounter the tiger in any case even while retreating, in a short while they came up and placed their offerings before my Master. When he noticed their preparations to prostrate before him, he said emphatically.‘I won’t allow you to prostrate.’They would not listen to his objection. In spite of it, they threw themselves full-length on the ground and tried to touch his feet. He shrank back from them and threw himself on the ground as a counter-measure and tried to take the dust off their feet. They scrambled up in great confusion.‘Oh, Swamiji, you could not do it. We are small men, but you are great.’

  ‘How? Because I’m unshaven and shirtless? I don’t shave because I find it easier not to. I don’t wear a shirt because I don’t have one.

  But for these, I go about with the tiger because it’s God’s will. I am not different from you, we are equals and no need to pay homage to me. It has no meaning. You must prostrate only before God. You should seek only God’s darshan, we must not misappropriate the word that belongs to him, in a temple. Even that I doubt, since the same God resides within all of us. When you address a prayer to God, you are only praying to yourself ... or at least you are entitled to half that prayer; and if you are offering a flower, again half is yours, as a famous mystic poet sung ...’At this point he suddenly lifted his head and delivered a full-throated song, his voice rebounding from the rocks.‘When I bring my palms together and raise my arm in prayer, I’m only half-praying to you. Is it right to pray thus?’

  His visitors were overwhelmed, but suddenly remembered the tiger and asked timidly,‘Where is the tiger?’

  ‘Don’t think of him. Sit down with an easy mind and tell me your purpose. Why do you spoil your mind with thoughts of the tiger? Having come all this distance ...’

  They placed the basket of flowers and fruits before him and appealed,‘Please accept these.’

  He took just a single flower and a small banana.‘Yes, these will do. Take them back to the children in your village, and the flowers to the womenfolk.’

  They sat down again on the ground in front of my Master and began to explain.‘We are from both the sides you found fighting the other day. We have come to assure you that we will not fight again. When your honour passed through our village that day, you saw us in a shameful state ... We are here to beg your forgiveness.’

  ‘Ask God’s forgiveness rather than mine.’

  ‘The cause of our fight that day -’

  ‘Don’t tell me what - all causes of rivalry and clash are senseless and so need no defining or explanation ... Don’t ever fight. No cause is worth a clash.’

  ‘We pledge never to fight again. Your gracious presence helped us the other day ...’

  ‘That’s good. You should not depend upon a tiger or a bearded man again to help you settle your differences. If you are ready to hate and want to destroy each other, you may find a hundred reasons - a diversion of canal water in your field, two urchins of opposite camps slapping each other, rumours of molestation of some woman, even the right to worship in a temple, anything may spark off a fight if you are inclined to nurture hatred - only the foolish waste their lives in fighting ...’

  One morning I was lying at the feet of my Master; he was sitting in meditation. Nowadays he encouraged me to remain close by when he meditated as it might help me too. At such moments a profound silence prevailed, and the sublime state to which he had raised his mind carried mine also along. At such moments I felt lighter at heart and my physical self also became secondary. My sight became clearer; if I lifted my gaze to the horizon, the sun shining on the land filled me with joy: the leaves of the mighty banyan trees sparkling like gems, the bamboos swaying their golden stems with their filigreed leaves - I felt I could ask for nothing more in life. When he read the state of my mind, my Master explained.‘No one would credit a tiger with so much poetic joy, it is inconceivable. Looking back, I would say that in one of your previous births you might have been a poet, and your deeper personality retains that vasana still. Whatever one had thought or felt is never lost, but is buried in one’s personality and carried from birth to birth. You must have been a poet, perhaps many centuries ago in the court of a king, your shoulder wrapped in a resplendent shawl, a diamond bracelet on your arm, seated beside the throne stirring royal hearts with songs of nightingale, moon, roses or of an aching heart pining away for the lost love ... Oh, Raja, I see a visitor coming up, of all things a woman, go, hide yourself before she sees you, she may faint in my arms ...’I rose and went behind the screen of lantana bush and the rock.

  Presently the visitor arrived, panting. I could see her through the foliage. I couldn’t describe a human being. My Master never taught me how to distinguish one from another. All humans look alike in my eyes, and my Master has confirmed that it is the right view. I could, in a rough manner, identify some special personalities like Captain or the clowns or Rita by prolonged association, and especially by their functions. If I needed to know the looks of any person, I would know it only through my Master’s description. When he understood my curiosity about this woman, he explained that she was over fifty years old, medium height, dark, round cheeks, with grey hair tied up at the back.

  The lady advanced towards my Master, seated on his slab of stone, and prostrated.

  ‘Madam, you should not prostrate before me, please get up. I never like anyone to touch my feet.’

  She got up, saying,‘One has the right to show one’s veneration for a sublime soul, a saint perhaps.’

  ‘Please sit down, madam. I am unhappy that I can offer you only the bare ground to sit on, no carpet or mat.’

  ‘They’re immaterial, the great thing is to be blessed with your darshan.’

  ‘Calm yourself, rest for a while, you don’t have to say anything. Feel completely free to remain silent. You don’t have to utter a single word.’

  The lady smiled.‘I’ve not come all the way to observe a vow of silence.’

  ‘Perhaps I may be under a vow not to hear a word ...’

  ‘Quite likely ... even then I will speak since I have come all the way.’

  ‘By all means. Go ahead. I have not shut off my ears yet. First let me ask what brought you here?’

  ‘I heard of a remarkable person who went out with a tiger, as if he had taken a dog out, and I told myself I must see this Swamiji, it’s only this remarkable man who can help me in my search ...’

  ‘Don’t you see what risk you face by going after a sadhu you have only heard about? He might be a fake.’

  ‘Yes, I fear that too,’she said.

  ‘You might be endangering your virtue, too ...’

  ‘At my age and condition, my virtue is quite safe. No one will be tempted to molest a grey-haired fat hag. Only they robbed me of the money I had, and also a chain and bangles; while crossing a lonely forest path, three men accosted me, and relieved me of my jewellery and a bundle of clothes, too, and went their way quietly. Good men, they only robbed, which seems to me less heinous than deserting one’s family and home for no reason.’

  ‘How can you say “no reason”? An inner compulsion is enough to make one take fateful decisions.’

  How I wished I could join their conversation. Not only could I not speak, but I had to keep my cursed form concealed behind the lantana bush in order not to scare the visitor. If permitted, I would have asked,‘How did you come to know about my Master?’

  As if in answer t
o my question, she was saying,‘On that day when a tiger was at school, I went there with a neighbour who was searching for her son. The crowd was pressing and suffocating, pushing us about. Everybody was terrified, and yet wanted to get a glimpse of the tiger, with the result no one could ever go in. My companion broke down and wept helplessly. Some mischievous persons were enjoying the situation by suddenly crying out, “Run, run, the tiger has come, the tiger is coming,” and kept the crowd running back and forth. I and my friend got separated in the mêlée. Later when we met, she told me how she was comforted and helped by a bare-bodied sadhu who was calmly sitting on a culvert outside the school gate.’

  ‘In what manner did the sadhu help her?’

  ‘He told her that the tiger was locked in and would not harm anyone, and also that her son must be with the other children safely sheltered in the school hall. Was that sadhu you?’

  ‘Could be, or might be any other bare-bodied, bearded person. There must be hundreds of them everywhere.’

  ‘But there was only one in that place and he was offering to lead away the tiger.’

  ‘Oh, did he?’

  ‘And something that she had noticed about him which she mentioned made me think.’

  ‘What could it be?’

  ‘He was in the habit of rubbing his finger across his brow while thinking, as you are doing now ...’

  It was true, when my Master was listening or thinking he always drew his finger across his brow as if writing something there. The mention of this mannerism seemed to disturb my Master’s equanimity, but only for a moment; he laughed and said,‘This is my habit, surely I know it. I do it and a hundred others may also be doing it, just to probe what’s written there by fate, like a blind man’s running his finger over an etching, and are we not all blind where our fates are concerned?’

  ‘By the time I learnt about the sadhu, he was gone with his tiger. I went back home and kept thinking. The picture came up before me as to how I had not seen anyone else do it. How when he sat in the veranda, reclining in his easy chair, reading a newspaper, he’d hold it in one hand so as to leave the other free to trace his forehead; or before going out to his office, if I asked for cash for some domestic shopping, he would always say, “If I could conjure up the money,” and while uttering the word “conjure” he’d send his fingers dancing across his forehead - whether joking or serious, he always took his fingers to his forehead. I have also felt sometimes irritated by it and told him, “Oh, keep off your fingers from your head, it’s very distracting!” When our son had a problem in his college, you could not listen to him without these fingers almost skinning your forehead.’

  ‘Did he help his son at all?’

  ‘The boy was in constant trouble with a particular master who was rather vindictive, but you went up to their principal and spoke to him and from that day -’

  ‘You are beginning, I now notice, to use the word “you” which is not proper; keep to “he”.’

  ‘Even now I notice your fingers going to your brow ...’

  ‘Many people have that habit, you see of all organs, it is the hand that’s most active and independent. The hand acts by itself when you are not watchful - it can tease you by hiding the keys ... It’s the hand that goes forward first to strangle a throat, fondle a lover, or bless or thieve ... If God had devised the hand differently, the world and human actions and attitudes would have been different.’

  She was listening with adoration. At this moment I sneezed, some insect having settled on my nostril. She asked in alarm,‘What is that?’

  ‘Oh, some jungle noise, don’t worry about it.’

  ‘Oh, husband, how can you forget the years we have spent together, twenty years, twenty-five, thirty - I have lost count ...’

  ‘Don’t say “husband” it is a wrong word ...’

  ‘Husband, husband, husband, I’ll repeat it a thousand times and won’t be stopped. I know to whom I’m talking. Don’t deceive me or cheat me. Others may take you for a hermit, but I know you intimately. I have borne your vagaries patiently for a lifetime: your inordinate demands of food and my perpetual anxiety to see you satisfied, and my total surrender night or day when passion seized you and you displayed the indifference of a savage, never caring for my health or inclination, and with your crude jocularities even before the children, I shudder!’

  ‘You should have felt happy to lose such a husband. Why have you gone after him? No reason, especially when he has left for you and your children a comfortable home, all the money he had, and every kind of security in life. If you think over it, you will realize that the surrender has been rather on his part: it was total, he took nothing for himself except a piece of loin-cloth for all the wealth he had accumulated! However, please know that he left home not out of wrath, there was no cause for it, but out of an inner transformation.’

  ‘You have a strange way of talking now.’

  He said with a touch of firmness,‘Time for you to start back if you must reach the nearest village before nightfall. I’ll take you down and from the village you can go on.’

  ‘I can’t go without you — or let me stay with you ...’

  ‘Impossible. What you see is my old shell; inside it’s all changed. You can’t share my life.’

  ‘Come home with me, I’ll accept you as you are, keep your beard and loin-cloth, only let me have my husband at home ...’

  ‘Listen attentively: my past does not exist for me, nor a future. I live for the moment, and that awareness is enough for me. To attain this state, I have gone through much hardship. I don’t have to explain all that now. I have erased from my mind my name and identity and all that it implies. It would be unthinkable to slide back. You must live your own life and leave me to live mine and end it my own way.’

  She broke down and wailed aloud. He calmly watched her.‘I wish I could help you, as I managed to help Raja and calm his turbulent soul. I can only pray for your well-being.’

  ‘Let me stay in that village, so that I’ll at least be near you.’

  ‘Why should you? You can’t. You have your own home and family.’

  ‘Have you no feeling or even an ordinary sense of duty?’

  ‘I do not understand these phrases. I have forgotten the meaning of many words. Please do not force me to talk so much about myself. Because of my sympathies and a real desire to help you, I have spoken. Otherwise I never revive the identity of the past in thought or word; it’s dead and buried.’

  ‘You are callous; you talk of sympathy just with the tip of your tongue. You have no real feeling, you are selfish, you are ...’She went on until sheer exhaustion overcame her.

  He listened to her in stony silence. At some point he even failed to look at her; closed his eyes and went into meditation. He just said,‘I’ll take you down to the village. Let’s get there before sunset.’

  ‘Why should you take the trouble?’

  ‘You will have to pass through the jungle all alone.’

  ‘I can go alone, as I came ...’

  ‘Yes, we come into the world alone, and are alone while leaving. Your understanding is becoming deeper.’

  She repeated,‘I didn’t need your help while coming. Why should you bother about a stranger? You and your tiger - if he is there in the jungle and meets me, I shall be grateful if he ends my misery then and there, or couldn’t you tell him?’

  ‘You will reach home safely.’

  She sprang to her feet.‘Finally, is there no way I can persuade you?’

  ‘I need no persuasion ... God be with you.’

  She wiped her eyes with the end of her sari, turned round, hurried down the hill, and disappeared into the jungle. He sat motionless in his seat and closed his eyes in meditation.

  I did not wish to disturb him; I kept away until he should call me. I didn’t go out to hunt that night, preferring to go without food. I didn’t want to go prowling in the forest for fear that if that lady happened to be there and saw me, she might die of shock.

/>   My Master never mentioned her visit again. He sat continuously in meditation for a few days, and then our normal life was resumed. He bathed in the pool, went into the forest to gather roots and leaves for his nourishment, meditated and discoursed to me in the evenings seated on his slab of stone.

  Thus life went on. As I have said I have no reckoning of time. I could only measure it by my own condition. Gradually I realized that I was becoming less inclined to get up and move, preferring to spend long hours in my own corner hidden behind the shrub. I preferred to go without food rather than undergo the strain of chasing game. I could not run fast enough to catch anything. Many creatures eluded me with ease. Most of my old associates, the langur, the jackal, and others who used to watch me and annoy, were missing, perhaps dead or not frequenting this particular part of the forest. My claws sometimes stuck and most of my teeth had fallen. It was difficult for me to tear or chew. My movements were becoming so slow and clumsy that I was often outwitted; and when I succeeded in cornering some animal, I could not kill it successfully. I took a long time to consume it. The result was that in due course, I was underfeeding myself and my skin fell in folds.

  My hearing was also impaired. Nowadays I could not hear when my Master summoned me. And his discourses were much reduced as he understood that I could not hear him properly. He told me, ‘Raja, old age has come on you. Beautiful old age, when faculties are dimmed one by one, so that we may be restful, very much like extinguishing lights in a home, one by one, before one goes to sleep. Listen attentively. You may live a maximum of five years; I don’t think we should risk your suffering starvation or attack from other creatures or hunters. Once they know you are old and weak, they will come for you and you are going to be alone because we are about to part. Last night I realized that the time for my attaining samadhi is near at hand. I must prepare for it by releasing myself from all bondage ... As a first step, I’m releasing you. Tomorrow a man will come to take charge of you. He is the head of a zoo in the town. You will spend the rest of your years in the company of animals. You will be safe in a cage, food will be brought to you, and they will open the door and let you out to move freely in an open-air enclosure, and look after you.’Never having been in the habit of questioning my Master, I accepted his plans, though with a heavy heart. He explained his philosophy:‘No relationship, human or other, or association of any kind could last for ever. Separation is the law of life right from the mother’s womb. One has to accept it if one has to live in God’s plans.’

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