A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan


  The ape was the most light-hearted of all. He was the happiest animal in the circus, walking about freely in human company, fondly clinging to the finger of one or the other — even holding hands with Captain sometimes. He must be conceited, fancying himself to be a human being; smoking cigarettes, sitting in chairs and drinking tea from cups, wearing trousers and coat and cap and spectacles, and chattering merrily all the time. His acts in the ring were not different from what he did outside the ring — except a cycle ride combined with trapeze acts. He continuously chattered, grinned and grimaced - a happy soul. In my first glimpse of him, he also added a word of his own: ‘Hey tiger, run round and round as our boss demands. Let us hope and pray we’ll see the day when he’ll do the running and we shall hold the whip ... Anyway, till that good day arrives, obey him and that simpleton will protect and feed us - we are at least spared the trouble of seeking food and preserving ourselves from enemies. He is doing all that for us. He is a damned fool, but doesn’t know it; thinks that he is the Lord of the Universe.’

  ‘At one time, I had also thought so of myself,’I said.

  I ran round and round in circles in pursuit of nothing - and that seemed a very foolish senseless act. At least a hare running ahead would have provided a show of reason for running. But that’s how Captain seemed to want it; I held my breath, and though my eyes were darkening with faintness, I ran and kept running as long as he kept the whip cracking in the air without touching my back - and that was some improvement indeed. He went gyrating round and round following my movement. It seemed as much hard work for him as for me. When the cracking of his whip ceased, I too stopped. It was not possible to run any more. I was ready to fall into a faint and probably breathe my last; breath coming and going so fast. When I came near my cage I found the door open and leaped in and lay down - expecting to be killed outright for my disobedience. But when I opened my eyes, I saw Captain outside looking at me more kindly than ever. ‘Well, that was a fine performance. I now have confidence that we can use him.’The whip and the chair were put away and he was unarmed, and that itself seemed to me a good sign. My cage was wheeled away to its original place, away from other animals. I was sorry because I felt better watching others and being in communion with them. Just as I was closing my eyes, some warders poled and prodded me to move to another cage. I was happy to find there pieces of meat and a trough of water. My first piece of education.

  I understood the business now and the routine to be followed. Every day at the same hour they would drive me into a wheeled cage and draw it to the larger enclosure and let me out, where Captain waited with chair and whip. The moment the door was raised and the whip was flourished, I started running round and round. Then back to the cage, to be wheeled off to my home, which I found cleaned and washed and with food kept for me. That was very welcome. I’d have nothing more to do for the rest of the day. Life was not so bad after all. Captain was not such a monster after all. I began to respect him for his capabilities. I began to admire him - a sort of worshipful attitude was developing in me. I had thought in the jungle that I was supreme. Now that was gone. I was a defeated king, and Captain was the unquestioned suzerain. After all, what he expected of me seemed so simple - instead of understanding it, I allowed myself to be beaten, and suffered through ignorance. And running around the enclosure was quite beneficial for one cooped up in a cage all day.

  But soon I was to realize that that was not all. It was only a preparation. When I became an adept at running, I was ready for the next stage of education. The more difficult part was still to come.

  I was let out into the enclosure as usual one day, Captain alert as ever with his chair and whip. At the crack of the whip, I started running as usual, but I found my passage obstructed by a strange object which I later knew as a stand, placed across my path. I checked my pace, at which he let out a cry, ‘Jump! Go on, jump!’ and the whip came lashing on me. All the good name I had earned and the good feeling I had developed for Captain seemed to be lost. I felt infuriated at the lashing and felt like jumping on him; but he held that terrible chair. Now I know a chair is a worthless, harmless piece of furniture but at that time I dreaded the sight of it. It appeared to me a mighty engine of destruction. How Captain and men like him could ever have realized how a chair would look to a tiger is really a wonder. Now I have enough understanding of life to smash a chair if it is flourished before my eyes. But then a chair looked terrible. When I was lashed, once again all the old terror of not knowing what I should do came back to me. My friends who had advised me on the first day were not there. They had been taken away to some other part of the camp by their trainers; it was a vast world where many activities took place according to Captain’s plans.

  I stumbled on the obstacle and kicked it away and ran on my usual round. This enraged Captain, and he came dashing behind me shouting in a frenzy, ‘Jump! Jump!’and applying the whip liberally. I thought that this man was unsteady, alternating between occasional sanity and general madness. At the moment he was in the latter phase. What did he mean by bothering me like this, forcing me to do some obscure act? I ran hither and thither and tried to run back into the cage. That made him more angry. He came after me in a delirium and hit me as I crouched trembling in the cage. He shouted and ordered me out; I jumped out and started running round and came against the hurdle once again, knocked it down and ran hither and thither and went back into the cage. Red in the face and panting like an engine, Captain ordered, ‘Take the devil away. Off rations for three days, not even water, and he will come round, you will see ...’He kept glaring at me.

  Now I follow human speech, by the grace of my Master, but in those days I was dense and did not know what the word ‘jump’ meant, and suffered untold misery. Today I would have immediately understood that Captain wished me to cross the hurdle in a jump and proceed to go round, come back to the hurdle and jump over it again and again until he was satisfied that I had mastered the art. Absolutely a pointless accomplishment, but Captain had set his heart on it. On the day I understood and performed it, he was beside himself with joy. He stroked my back with the whip handle as I gratefully rushed back to my cage and said, ‘Good. Keep it up; now you have earned your dinner ...’

  Every day I was put through this exercise. After a course of this, the next was only an elaboration of it. A few more obstacles were placed along the course of my run and they had to be cleared with the same smartness. My only aim now was to please Captain, and when I did that I got the reward, pieces of meat and water and undisturbed sleep in my cage. The hurdles were of different kinds, some labyrinth-like, some so twisted that I feared I might get permanently crooked. Into some I had to crawl on my belly and then out; some hurdles would lead me back to my starting point, and I had to clear them at the same speed, while he went gyrating like a spring doll, cracking his whip and commanding: ‘Come on, come on, don’t waste your time.’ He held a watch in his hand and timed my run and movements, so that whatever perverse design he might have, I had to come through to the starting point at the same time. During the actual performance, he would announce: ‘Raja is now running at a speed of sixty miles an hour, the pace he generally maintains while chasing game in the jungle. From his starting point in the ring back to the same spot in two minutes five seconds. Whether he goes one round or several rounds he will maintain the same speed. After that you will see him go through several kinds of obstacles, hurdles and mazes ... You will see, ladies and gentlemen, that whatever the hurdle, he clears it and finishes his round within the same time, adjusting his pace appropriately. He is uncanny in his timing. Anyone who wants to prove that he takes more time and I am wrong, is welcome to step in here and hold this stop-watch I have in hand. Anyone who can prove that he takes even one more second than what I have claimed will get a reward of five hundred rupees ...’ And he flourished five fresh one-hundred-rupee notes in the air. Quite a few in the audience came down but, finding that they were expected to stand within the enclosure to try their luck
, withdrew.

  Captain had a vast army working for him - trapeze artistes, clowns, trainers of monkeys and parrots and so on, horse riders, elephant and camel men. Each one handled a particular animal and had influence over it; there was one who could even make the hippo climb some height and occupy a stool. Every one of them had his peculiarities and problems and had to be kept in good humour as well as discipline. Captain’s wife, Rita, was at the head of the trapeze team. He had many workers, who pulled, pushed, unrolled carpets and set up fences, furniture, and various other properties, and changed them quickly for the next item. As I became an established member of that circus, I was not isolated any more, but was allowed to stay around Captain in my cage. Thus I was able to watch him all day. And I also picked up a lot of information from other gossiping animals when we were kept near each other. The chimp was always bursting with news. Whenever we gathered together our main topic was the boss. He had other animals including a lion, which remained aloof but kept roaring incessantly, stimulating all other animals to make a noise. When Captain wanted quiet, he would go round cracking his whip and shout ‘Shut up!’in a thundering voice, overwhelming the lion’s roar. At that time, I only knew that he had some concern for me, but I was not ripe enough to grasp the meaning of what was happening. Only in recollection now can I appreciate Captain’s energy and power and the variety of tasks he was able to perform: to be successful and provide all that variety and quantity of food for us, also appear on stage, and do a great deal of off-stage work too, such as checking accounts, making payments, handling his men and so forth, activities that would go on far into the night. In the midst of all this he would also be thinking of new turns and tricks and novelties to announce to the public.

  He called his a Creative Circus. After getting an idea he would shut himself in his tent, do some paper work, call up his chief executive, and say, ‘Here is a new idea, see how it can be worked out.’It was not his habit to consult but only to issue orders. He would just state what he wanted done and then tell his staff to achieve it in practical terms. They were not to say yes or no but only proceed with it. Now Captain called his chief executive and said, ‘It’s time to give a new twist to the trapeze items. It will be a sensation if the trapeze act also includes two somersaults in the air and then a passage through a ring of fire - I’ve thought out the details to some extent. I realize that a fireproof undervest for the artistes, which doesn’t show, will be the first requisite ... Here’s a sketch I have made of the position of the ring in relation to the swings and the net below - you work out the mechanical details and modalities. Bring your report tomorrow morning.’

  The executive came up next day with the report, after working on it all night, but said, ‘Madam is not for any change.’Captain brooded over it for a moment and said, ‘Put Lyla in Madam’s place ... the rehearsals must begin soon.’Lyla was number two in the team.

  This issue precipitated a domestic crisis. That night much shouting could be heard in their home tent. Madam threatened to quit the show once and for all. She said, ‘I’m not prepared to spare any of my girls or set fire to myself just to please your fancy. I’m not an orthodox wife preparing for sati.’

  He retorted, ‘Look, don’t talk like that. I’m not planning to set fire to you, you know that; I’m only thinking how we could give the public something new, some new thrills. Public must find it rather stale to see you and your girls in your satin tights swing up and down.’

  Here his speech was cut short by the lady saying, ‘You think our items are cheap and that easy? Have you any idea how every second one’s life is being risked? You think whipping and bullying dumb beasts the only great act? Why don’t you come up on the swing at least once and try, instead of talking theories?’

  ‘You forget, my dear, that I did trapeze at one time, that’s how I started, but I outgrew it ...’

  ‘Naturally, you had to give it up, otherwise the swings might have snapped or the roof itself might have come down.’

  ‘Since you fancy your figure has remained unchanged, I am suggesting you try and put it to some use so as to make people say “This lady is capable of more than jumps and twists in the air, she can pass through fire rings so easily, being slim!”’

  ‘Why don’t you put your head down your lion’s throat and sing a popular song?’

  ‘You are not suggesting anything original ... I’m planning it, maybe for the Jubilee Show.’

  ‘You are constantly talking of Jubilee. What sort of a Jubilee are you celebrating? May I know?’she asked cynically.

  He ignored her remark and continued, ‘If you are not interested in the new trapeze act, keep off, that’s all. The show will go on ...’

  Such a determined man that he planned, prepared, rehearsed this fiery act and presented it to the public later at what he called the Jubilee Show. Rita went through the act, unwilling to let Lyla take her place. The accuracy and timing with which the artistes performed their trapeze acts, somersaulted and shot through a flaming ring before coming to rest on the safety net below, was exciting and repeatedly applauded by the audience. But this happened at a later phase of my story. Let me go back to my training period.

  After I had become an adept in racing over and through a variety of obstacles, I expected to be left alone. I was ignorant of the fact that it was only a preparation for another stage. What Captain had in mind could not be guessed by anyone. He always allowed an interval between stages of training so that I’d live in an illusion of having nothing more to do. But just as I was resting, my cage would be drawn to the training enclosure and there I’d find Captain waiting, whip in hand. When I saw him thus, I would wish we could talk it over and come to an understanding instead of going through the hard way to get a pat on my back for understanding his wishes.

  Today he held a new terror for me. It was not enough that I ran around fast and also through the hurdles. At one point, while rounding a bend, I saw fire and shrank back. I thought, ‘Kill me now, but I won’t go near the fire.’I was reminded of the village fire when flaming torches nearly roasted me. I shrank back and naturally the whip came down and bruised me more than ever. He would not allow me to retreat from the fire, nor go round it or away from it. He blocked all my movement with his person, shielded only with the chair, while his whip could reach me from quite a distance: the state I was in, I could have easily destroyed him without a trace. Driven by desperation, panic and fury, I had to content myself with roaring out, ‘Leave me alone, you monster.’ But he overshouted me: ‘Raja, come on through that ring, in there, come on, come on ...’The uproar and pandemonium we both created must have been heard all over the town. I snarled, showed my teeth, wrinkled my nose, opened my mouth and shut it, and growled as if the earth were rumbling. But he was unaffected and warded me off with his chair, and pushed me closer and closer to that fire. All my movement was restricted in such a way as to leave no room for me to move or turn except through the fire. First time my belly was singed but in course of time I could pass without touching the flames. And when I performed diligently I became Captain’s favourite again; with meat and water back in my cage, I was once again left to laze and live in the delusion that my trials had ended and I was going to live a happy and free life hereafter.

  The next piece of training was surprisingly mild. I was driven on round and round and then stopped where a stool had been placed. I had to sit on it dangling my tail on the floor. A saucer of milk was placed on a table. I was again and again forced to sit up in front of the saucer with Captain howling ‘Drink, drink, drink!’and holding his chair up; he bent down and put out his tongue over the saucer to indicate what I was expected to do. I watched completely baffled, but he was untiring in imitating the act of drinking off a saucer. ‘Lower, lower,’he was howling. ‘Put head down and tongue out, tongue out,’and he cracked the whip. When he did that I knew that the next would be on my back. I was quite desperate to understand him. Surely he was not expecting me to drink that white stuff in the saucer. It l
ooked like poison to me. But there was no escape from it. He hit me so hard while I had my head down that I had to bend further down with my tongue out. No sooner had my tongue touched the saucer than I was seized with nausea and a fit of sneezing. What stuff was it, tasting so awful?

  Later that day the chimp strolled along near my cage. How I envied his freedom! I wished I could also go about like him. But a tiger seemed to have a curse on it - no one can tolerate the sight of a tiger walking freely about, being burdened with size, might, and the fierce make-up that nature has given us. What a blessing to be the stature of an ape! Human beings approve of him because he approximates to their idea of what a creature should be in appearance and size. The ape was grinning as he clutched the bars of my cage and asked, ‘How did you like it?’

  ‘What?’I asked.

  ‘The milk in the saucer which you had to lick up.’

  ‘Terrible,’I said. ‘Why should I drink it?’

  ‘You will see for yourself soon. Why, don’t you like it?’

  ‘How can anyone like that terrible stuff?’

  ‘Human kids are brought up on it right from birth. Men think no end of it.’

  ‘Do you drink it?’

  ‘Yes, of course, I don’t mind it, but I prefer banana and what they aptly call monkey-nuts.’

  ‘Why do you have to drink it?’

  ‘Can’t help it, when Captain thinks it is good for us, we have to take it.’

  vWhat is it made of?’

  He answered, ‘It is made by the cow inside, and is squeezed out by men every day.’

  ‘Every day? But don’t they have to kill it to get it?’

 
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