A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  He followed them a little distance, and threw out a general question in order to attract their attention, ‘Are you the headman of the village?’At which they turned round and stopped.

  ‘How did you know us, sir?’

  He introduced himself. ‘You see that circus there - that’s mine and I often come to this office on business. Not bad fellows at this office but they delay. That poor fellow, he can’t help it. Only his master has to do things...’

  ‘Every time we come, we bring him some offering - cucumbers or sugar cane, pumpkin, melon, or anything. Never see him bare-handed, and yet he is unhelpful.’

  Captain made himself agreeable by listening to them patiently. All that they seemed to want was a hearing. They did not know who he was, but his dress - trousers, bush shirt and the sun-hat - impressed them, and he spoke to them in Tamil, which endeared him to them. He treated them to coloured drinks from a wayside stall, while eliciting information about the tiger. He invited them to come up and see his circus. ‘I have work to do, next two days, and then I’ll come to your village. If you help me I’ll catch the tiger. You will have to show me where he lives.’

  ‘We don’t know, sir. We can’t say. He is here, there and everywhere. We think he is a devil and has wings and not an ordinary creature. We saw him only once ... We would have burnt him with the torches and cooked him alive but he escaped. He slips in and out, and can never be caught or killed ... He is no ordinary creature. Before we can notice, he snatches away even the biggest buffalo, and vanishes.’

  ‘He is an ordinary tiger, black and yellow, with four legs and only one tail and no extraordinary creature. I’ll deal with him, don’t worry. I’ll see you on Thursday next ...’

  He took directions from them to reach the village, and was with them on the appointed day. The village was set far into the jungle, a single street and about thirty homes of bricks or just thatched huts, and a lot of cattle and sheep - mostly a pastoral community. He had gone in a small car, but he had to leave it on the main highway and walk down to the village, which was full of excitement. Women and children stood around him. Most of the men were out working in the fields. Seeing Captain’s grey uniform, the boys cried, ‘The police have come,’and ran around to fetch the men, who recognized him and cried, ‘Oh, it’s our hunter, who is going to kill the tiger.’

  Captain corrected them. ‘I’m not going to kill, but take him away ...’Some rushed into their homes and brought out ancient stools and benches and offered him seats. Some brought him tender coconut and chipped off the top and offered him a drink. Others brought him papaya and banana. Captain felt overwhelmed by their hospitality and promised, ‘I will see that you are not bothered by the tiger. But you must all help me. I must know where he is and how he comes and goes and where he keeps himself during the day.’

  ‘Oh, that’s difficult, sir. If we follow him, he may turn round and attack.’

  ‘If you don’t tell me where the tiger is, how can I catch him? I may also begin to think, like those officials, that you are all fancying the tiger.’

  At this they protested. ‘Even two days ago, two fellows who were out to cut wood were mutilated - one fellow lost an arm.’

  ‘Will you take me to him?’

  ‘Not in our village, but there on the other side of the hillock...’

  ‘Will you come with me and show me the man and where he was attacked, so that I may find out the tiger’s movements?’Strangely they seemed to be averse to this procedure. The victims of the tiger seemed as elusive as the tiger itself. They would complain and pour forth their grievances, but somehow at the same time show reluctance to help him directly. They would not be explicit about the attacks. But Captain would not give up. He changed his tactics. He contacted the forest guards, offered a fee for information about the tiger, followed their tips. Leaving much of his circus work to his chief executive, he unrelentingly pursued the tiger, and finally arrived at the rivulet beyond which was the cave at the tail end of the Mempi range. Captain had taken special precautions to camouflage himself with certain types of foliage. He hoisted himself onto the branch of a tree and stayed there all night in the company of the forest guards, and finally had a glimpse of the tiger returning to his cave.

  Although I was cautious and avoided all the traps laid for me, ultimately I yielded to a temptation, and that proved to be the end. After trying many hideouts, I had come back to my original home.

  As I emerged from my lair late one evening, passing through the long grass, I heard a bleating and, following the sound, saw a well-fed goat in front of me. I hesitated only for a moment, looked about, took a leap and landed on its back. At the same time I heard a strange, unfamiliar clattering noise - an iron door came down and shut me in. I was trapped. I was at once surrounded by unfamiliar figures and heard strange voices. A flashlight was pointed at me and a man was saying, ‘Just what I was looking for. A magnificent fellow.“

  ‘Mr Captain, isn’t he rather big for our purpose?’

  ‘No, he is just right. Only we may have to starve him for a while.’

  ‘Will you be able to make him obedient?’

  ‘Of course,’said the other. ‘You will see, I’ll make him a star.’

  ‘It seems to me he is too heavy for our purpose.’

  ‘He is all right. He’ll become slim and agile. Leave it to me.’ Then he turned round and said to someone, ‘Pay off all the men who have helped us in trapping. Give them an extra tip, but make sure that their services are terminated. Keep the six men from our own staff, and they will take care of the business of wheeling this cage to the town. It may take four days, if drawn by bullocks. All along the way crowds will watch and follow; that will be an excellent advertisement for our circus.’

  My Master, later in my life, has mentioned hell, describing the conditions that would give one a feel of it. Now, recollecting the day of my trapping and the journey onward, I realize its meaning. The trap was narrow and I felt cribbed and cramped. I, who had lived a full and free life - stretching myself as I pleased, or burying myself in the jungle grass - now had to keep standing as the trap on wheels was drawn along. A pair of bullocks was yoked to it and the driver kept yelling and whipping them; the wheels rolled on rough ground, and I was jolted from side to side. I felt strangely uncomfortable to be moving without the use of my legs! First time experiencing locomotion. They had screened the trap with a lot of foliage, so that I might not see the bullocks or the driver; they had some irrational fear that if I saw them, I might want to eat them up. They forgot that the goat which was the bait was still in my company - although not alive.

  Through many villages and towns they took me. My captors walked along behind the cage. Now and then they stopped under a wayside tree and unyoked the bullocks to give them rest. At such times the front portion of the carriage rested on the ground, and the floor sloped forward and I kept sliding down, with the remains of the goat flowing over me. It was uncomfortable, and I had to roar out my displeasure. The noise I made scared the spectators surrounding my cage and sent them running. My guards broke into laughter and shouted at the crowd, ‘If you are so scared of the tiger locked up in the cage, what’ll you do if we open the door and let it out?’This was their way of joking. And then much talk, inevitable wherever human beings are gathered. For one used to the grand silence of the jungle, the noisy nature of humanity was distressing. In due course, I got used to it. When I imbibed my Master’s lessons, I realized that deep within I was not different from human beings, and I got into their habit myself and never had a moment’s silence or stillness of mind - I was either talking (in my own way, inaudibly) or listening, and thus became fully qualified to enter human society.

  After days, how many I didn’t know and could not reckon, we came to a stop. The sides of the cage were still screened with brambles and foliage and I had no idea where we were. I only heard, as usual, a lot of talk and shouting and counter-shouting, and much movement outside. Suddenly all the twigs and foliage screen
ing the cage were torn away and I saw through the bars a new world such as I could never have imagined in my life - a stretch of land with no trees or rocks or long grass or bamboo clusters or lantana bushes or other undergrowth, but bare and clean ground as far as I could see, ending in what I learnt was a big tent surrounded by smaller tents and shacks, the whole ground swarming with bipeds. I had no notion that the earth contained so many human creatures. Naturally they stared and gaped and talked. I tried to head my way out by pushing, and hurt myself in the attempt.

  Now I saw a man with a long staff in hand standing close by, saying, ‘Want to get out? All right, come on ...’and he poked with the staff and laughed when I protested. ‘Ah, what a beautiful voice. If you were a singer, you could enchant an audience of thousands without a mike,’and laughed at his own joke. Others laughed with him too. I learnt later that they were obliged to laugh at his jokes, being his subordinates. As I went along I learnt that he was the owner of the circus. He was the one who met me when I was trapped, and he was to be my commander for years to come. He now poked the staff through the bars and was greatly amused when I jumped about in pain and confusion. He said with a guffaw, ‘Ah, you are a promising dancer too!’He turned to his assistant and said, ‘Let us advertise - a tiger Bharatnatyam, something that no circus has ever attempted.’

  ‘Yes, sir, that’s an excellent idea, sir,’said Captain’s ‘yes-man’ who was always by his side agreeing with everything he said, his second-in-command.

  ‘We will teach this fellow every accomplishment in due course,’ said Captain. ‘But our immediate job is to drive him into the other cage, which is going to be his new home.’He prodded me with his staff and hit me to the accompaniment of stentorian commands; I was to hear the voice again and again in the years to come. Also he drew the staff along the cage’s bars, creating a rat-tat noise which confused me. When I tried to understand what it meant, he withdrew the staff and jabbed my side with it. I was miserable and did not know where to keep myself. He gave me no rest, but drove me round and round with that staff in the narrow space till in sheer desperation, edging away from the probing stick, I dashed on and found myself in another cage, where the door immediately came down. This was my first act of obedience. Captain now withdrew his staff and said, ‘Ah, good. Stay there.’He said to his yes-man, ‘Take the other cage for cleaning - awful mess, stinks to the high heavens.’

  As night fell, I could see more clearly. I heard a lion roar, and the voices of other jungle fellows; and over all that, of course, human talk in different keys. I saw only empty grounds before me and a glow of lights somewhere. I was bewildered and did not know why I was brought here, or what they were planning to do with me. Captain and his yes-man would come off and on, stand looking at me, say something between themselves, and then leave. It was irksome to stay in that cramped space all day and night - my only activity being lying down and getting up, and again lying down and getting up, stretching myself to the extent possible, and turning round and round, grumbling and whining. But no one cared. Being used to the vastness and freedom of jungle life, I found this an impossible condition of living. I could do nothing more than pace up and down in despair.

  For three days I did not feel hungry. On the fourth day I felt a stab of hunger and did not know what to do about it: how was my hunger going to be appeased? This was hell, as defined by my Master, an endless state of torment with no promise of relief or escape. I still had no conception that food could come one’s way without a chase. These were the stages of knowing attained through suffering. I can hardly describe that kind of suffering, an emptiness, a helplessness, and a hopelessness behind the bars. Now, of course, I have got used to it, after years of circus life and then the zoo. But at that time I just had no conception of that kind of life. Bars of iron, unbending and perpetually pressing against one’s face. I had had no contact with any sort of metal in my life; now this combination of man and metal subdued me - metal which in various forms served the evil ends of man as prison bars, traps, and weapons. I desperately tried to smash the bars again and again and only made my head bloody. When Captain viewed me in this state, he only laughed and remarked to his aide, ‘All these stupid creatures are alike! They all expect the bars of the cage to be made of butter. No harm if he learns the facts of life in his own way!’ And they left me alone.

  I began to despair when they left. When Captain showed himself outside my cage, a hope always rose in me, however slight, that some improvement was likely in my lot. That was probably the way he worked, driving me on to look on him ultimately as my Saviour. He was considered to be an expert in animal training and deeply versed in their psychology. I began to look forward to his company. Pacing around that cage, I’d pause to press my nose close to the bars to watch the direction of his coming. He’d look at me and ask, ‘How are you, sir? Learn to be a good boy and I’ll make you happy ...’I had no idea how to become a good boy and attain happiness. He continued to make me suffer loneliness, immobility, and above all hunger. For the last, I was hoping that he’d let me out now and then to hunt for food. He didn’t seem to think that way.

  Later, when I explained this stage of my life to my Master, he said, ‘You probably in a previous life enjoyed putting your fellow-beings behind bars. One has to face the reaction of every act, if not in the same life, at least in another life or series of lives. There can be no escape from it. Now you have a chance to realize how your prisoners must have felt in those days, when you locked them in and watched them day by day to measure how far you had succeeded in breaking their spirits.’

  ‘Why should I have done that?’

  ‘I can’t answer it; people only follow their inclinations, and sooner or later find their reward or retribution. That’s the natural law of life, as inevitable as the ripening of a mango in its season or the fall of a withered leaf.’

  For days they kept me without food and water. Only Captain with his companion would come to observe me, and then comment, and leave. I lost all my strength and could hardly stand up, much less pace around my cage. Even that little movement was lost; I might be a carcass for all it mattered. In this state my cage was moved one day and the door opened. I was let into a larger enclosure. I jumped out gratefully, but I found that my legs could not support me. But Captain was there at the centre of the enclosure and would not let me lie down. He was uttering a command in a voice which could be audible in the next jungle. He held a long whip in one hand and a chair in the other. He lashed my face several times. My face smarted. I had never experienced such pain before. When I tried to ward off his attack, he wielded the chair as a shield. With my paws I could only hit the chair, and he constantly poked my face with it. He commanded, ‘Run, run,’and kept repeating it with every lashing.

  To my shame and dismay, this was being watched by other animals, beyond the enclosure. First time I was setting eyes on those odd, unfamiliar creatures. I could not understand what species they belonged to. Some of them were tethered to a post, some were free, some in different types of cages. Among the birds I could recognize a parrot, but not some of the long-legged ones. A grotesque one was the camel. I was aghast at its height and humps. A majestic animal, to my surprise a grass-eater, I was told was a horse - there were many of them; a meaner version of the horse, not so handsome either, was also there, a donkey. Another one that took my breath away was a hippopotamus, which I mistook for a piece of ill-shaped mountain. Of course I could recognize the ape, which moved about freely - shaggy one with awkward swinging arms, which seemed to be well integrated in human society, able to move with humans on equal terms ... I had a glimpse of a bear, but no deer, which did not seem to have come to the notice of Captain. So far so good for them; only cursed creatures, weighed down with the karma of their previous lives, seemed to have come to his notice, who wielded his chair and whip like a maniac. I now understand that he had held me up as a lesson to other creatures, of what awaited them if they did not obey. At least they were fortunate in knowing how to s
how their obedience. They were all excellent performers; I was to become a colleague of theirs.

  I was ignorant, bewildered, and in pain. It’d have been a relief to be able to pounce on that man and leave it to chance for one of us to survive. But that chair which he held made it impossible for me to approach him, while his whip could reach me all over. He was crying out like a frenzied creature, ‘Run, run, come on!’While I stood paralysed and in great suffering, I heard one of those watching animals suggest to me in our language, which no tyrant could suspect or suppress as it would sound like merely a grunt or a sigh, ‘He wants you to run round and round as if stung by bees at your backside. Do it and he will stop beating you. Otherwise you have no chance.’I couldn’t guess where the message came from — could be the elephant placidly munching sugar cane, giving no suspicion of ever noticing my predicament, except through a corner of his eye. Ah, that was a great help.

  I said to my well-wisher, ‘But I feel faint, can’t stand on my feet, starving, not even a drink of water.’

  ‘Never mind. You will get everything - only run round as he commands. He is a madcap and we must learn to live with him. We are in his hands.’

  ‘Why do you tolerate him? Any one of us can stamp him out.’

  ‘Not so easily, he is really stronger than ten of us. Once all of us tried and were sorry for it ...’Mutual communication was one privilege left for us animals: human beings could not interfere with our freedom of speech because they never suspect that we have our own codes, signals, and idioms. Fortunately they usually did not notice when we grunted, hissed or sighed, but when they did, they would talk among themselves anxiously: ‘Poor thing is making peculiar noises, I hope it is not going to be sick. Must tell the veterinarian to look over the beast: it must be in perfect form for the show tomorrow, for the specially advertised item, otherwise the public will smash the chairs and the gallery...’

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