My Days by R. K. Narayan


  “Someone seems to have broken his neck,” they said. He lay lifeless in the mud, with his broomlike tail stretching away.

  My grandmother became hysterical at the sight of it and cried, “Oh, take it away.”

  They said, “We thought you might want its tail—fan-makers will pay a good price for it.”

  She averted her head and went in without a word, dragging me along. When she calmed down, she said to me, “I always knew it would happen. They will eat it now. We should not have let it out.”

  “If I didn’t have to go to school, I might have guarded it,” I said.

  A little mynah was my next pet. It had a brown body and yellow beak, and my uncle bargained it off a bird-seller in the street. I gave it pieces of bread soaked in coffee every evening when I came back from school. It was an easygoing bird, never inclined to fly away but moving within the house freely, fluttering around the rafters and coming down to perch on my shoulder when I returned from school. This particular species was supposed to be able to learn speech if properly taught, and I assailed its ear with a variety of sentences in Tamil for hours on end. It had remained safe in the living-room downstairs, but one evening I made the mistake of transporting it to the terrace upstairs. I placed it on the floor of the terrace, sat beside it, and enjoyed its pecking off of the bread crumbs from my hand. I had not noticed the cat on the roof a few yards away. At the appropriate moment, the cat swooped down and, clutching the bird in its jaws, went back to the roof-top. I cried, shouted, screamed, and swore at the cat. My uncle tried to comfort me with another pet in a few days—a green parrot in a cage which he suspended from the ceiling. My leisure hours were spent in standing on a stool and feeding it, through the bars, with banana, red chillies, or cooked rice, and attempting at the same time to make him repeat after me, “Ranga, Ranga,” or “Who’s that?” I was hoarse repeating these, but the parrot never produced any speech—only nerve-shattering shrieking noises. Although we took every care to protect him, somehow a prowling cat seemed to have sprung to the flat roof of his cage, thrust his paws in through the bars, and dismantled his feathers. By dawn, mauled, disfigured, and bald, the parrot lay on the floor of the cage, unable to move, though still breathing. Someone came along who said he knew where damaged parrots could be repaired and rehabilitated, and carried it off with the cage, and that was the last we saw of the parrot, cage, and the helper.

  My uncle somehow liked to have a pet in the house, to provide me company, perhaps, but he must have realized soon that we were not lucky with pets. He presently brought a kitten with a bushy tail (so different from that fierce mynah-snatching feline), who mewed when called— “Nagu!”—sat with us at dinnertime, and enjoyed a small ball of rice mixed with ghee in our company. I could forget all my previous losses now. A cat proves less bothersome than any other animal. In a few weeks, when it ventured out, a neighbour chased it down the street and it stumbled into the street drain, running in full flood, and was drowned.

  Next was a little hairy puppy which was bought for one rupee from a butler serving in a European house beyond the tavern, who had assured us that it was a cocker-spaniel. It had enough of a coat to warrant this claim, but alas that creature too was presently lost. The puppy trotted about the house all day—as it seemed to me, in a state of perpetual hunger, snapping up and gobbling all kinds of articles; paper, rags, and cotton wicks which my grandmother lit for the gods, and also dry fallen leaves in the garden, manure, and sand, and lay on his back with a bloated stomach, struggling for breath, when I returned from school one evening. That was the end of the spaniel. My uncle made a resolve never to have a pet in the house again.

  CHAPTER THREE

  When summer came, the sun hit Madras with a ferocity that made people flee the city. Rich people went away to the hill stations like Kodaikanal and Ootacamund. For me the retreat would be where my parents lived. My father was the headmaster of a government high school at Chennapatna in Mysore State which could be reached by a night’s journey on one train to Bangalore, and then on by another one, a slow puffing train which passed through a rocky landscape. My grandmother generally escorted me to Chennapatna when my school closed for summer, but she wasted nearly three weeks of my vacation in preparation for the trip. Her particular preoccupation at this time was the making of various sun-dried edibles out of rice and pulses, which would be fried and used as a side dish all through the year. She would also soak certain green legumes in salt water and sun-dry them for use out of season all through the year. All this was an elaborate ceremony, planned weeks ahead from February, when the air was a little damp. “In about ten days after the Shiva Rathri festival, there will be no mist and I must get things ready,” she would say cataloguing several items of preparation. First, shopping for the spices and pulses. Fortunately we had a co-operative consumer store occupying a whole wing of our home, which we could reach by a side door beyond the bathroom. Actually our house was one big unit which my grandmother had partitioned and rented out to different offices and stores and families, keeping only a kitchen, living-room, and my uncle’s upstairs room, for our own use. I did not realize at that time how much she depended on the rents for our survival.

  My grandmother would select a quiet afternoon for visiting the store with her indent. When I returned home from school the floor would be strewn with gunny sacks and paper parcels. Somehow the sight of it filled me with delight. But when my uncle came home from college and noticed this activity, he frowned and made unpleasant comments, which upset my grandmother. She would retort hotly, and my uncle would say something more pointed in reply. I never made out what they said or argued about, although I watched and studied their faces keenly by turns, and tried to read a meaning. I only understood when she mentioned “Gnana,” which was my mother’s name. My grandmother would say, “Can’t go barehanded, I have to give Gnana something. She can’t prepare anything herself; she is so sick and weak.” My uncle was a devoted brother to my mother and would not carry his objections further but, murmuring something vaguely, would disappear up the staircase.

  My grandmother would soon have a battalion of helpers around the house, pounding and sifting and grinding and mixing and kneading on a large scale—her helpers were her friends, admirers, tenants, and paid servants. The house resounded with a variety of orchestration—the iron-clad pounder crushing, the swish of winnows, the ceaseless roar of the grinding stone, and the chatter of people over it all. Grandmother would have pulled out great rolls of palmyra mats and spread them out on the terrace. Differently shaped edibles would issue from little brass hand-pressers, and be set on the mats, and left there to dry in the blazing sun; she allotted the task by turns to the younger members of her following to watch with stick in hand for crows and to drive them off. When my turn came, I sat in a strip of shade all afternoon and scared away the crows by screaming at them, and was rewarded with an anna at the end of the day. Apart from the money, I rewarded myself, in the course of my watch, by peeling the half-dry stuff off the mat and eating it raw till I felt ill. My uncle ignored the turmoil in the house, averted his head, and preferred to make no comment whenever he passed the terrace; but my grandmother fried some of her product for him at the end of the day, and he relished it when I carried a plate to his room.

  Eventually jars and containers would be filled and stored away for distribution at the appropriate time to various members of the family living far and near. My mother’s share would be particularly heavy. “Poor thing, so many child-births, so sickly, can’t do a thing for herself,” my grandmother would keep saying to her friends. “She needs more help than anyone else. She’s helpless if I don’t help.”

  My grandmother’s preoccupations were several and concerned a great many others. She was a key figure in the lives of many. She was versatile and helpful. She was also a match-maker; she pored over horoscopes and gave advice and used her influence to get marriages settled. I always picture her with a little spade or pruning shears in hand, for all her spare mom
ents were spent in the garden. She could carry on discussions on vital matters with her friends while her hands were busy trimming off unwanted branches. Some days, mostly in the evening, someone would be brought in howling with pain from a scorpion bite. Granny would first tell the person to remain quiet; then she would go to the back yard and pluck the leaves of a weed growing on an untended wall, crush it between her fingers, squeeze its juice on the spot where the scorpion had stung, and then make the sufferer also chew the bitter leaves. If the victim made a wry face, she would remark, “This leaf is sanjeevini, mentioned in the Ramayana. It can save you even from the venom of the darkest cobra. Don’t make that face. Go on, swallow it.” Sometimes she consulted an exercise book in which she would have noted some special prescription for whooping cough or paralysis. When a neighbour came in a panic over a child having convulsions, she would drop whatever she was doing and hurry away, assuring the visitor again and again, “Nothing to fear. Apply cold pack on the head and hot water at the feet; there will be no trouble unless you reverse the process.”

  She had so much to do morning till night that it was difficult for her to disentangle herself from her activities and escort me to Chennapatna for my vacation. Hence my trip was constantly getting postponed, my grandmother always hoping that she would find some other traveller to escort me. But Chennapatna was a place which normally no one visited. No one had ever heard of it, although for my grandmother it was the most important place on earth, with her daughter and grandchildren living in it.

  With my school closed, I had nothing much to do. All afternoon I wandered about the side streets with a gang of friends also at a loose end. I possessed an iron hoop which I rolled about the streets, followed by my gang, my route being up Vellala Street, turn left on Audiappa Mudali Street and then along Gangadeswarar and High Road—a large perimeter, which we travelled round and round, God knows how many miles in all, with the sun beating down full blast on our heads, barefoot, with dhotis tucked to the knee and loose shirts covering our backs. In our gang, one boy had a cycle rim, another one just a barrel band, and two more had nothing but just kept running with the group with their imaginary hoops rolling ahead. We were safe as long as we took care not to bump into cyclists, cows, or jutkas; we were the fastest objects on the road, and no one minded us. Most times we imagined ourselves to be a train (the automobile notion not having become quite so pervasive, and the aeroplane not being known), and ran blindly, aware only of the road in front and the sound of the running hoop in gravel. When darkness descended and the lamps in the streets and shops were lit, we dispersed to our homes—feeling tired, hungry, and ready to drop. It started all over again the next day. I practically lived in the streets in those days, and no one seemed to have noticed it until a postcard arrived from Chennapatna written by my mother, suggesting that I had better be packed off to Chennapatna at once as she was hearing reports from someone in Madras that I was endangering my health under the summer sun all day—the sort of sun which would “shrivel up a serpent left on the ground.” My grandmother read the letter out to me and said, “Play in the evenings, don’t go out in the sun.” Of course she had no means of enforcing her rule, and the moment her back was turned, I ran out to the street, wondering why my mother was so ignorant as to think there could be snakes in our street.

  Eventually, one night, we did find ourselves in the train to Bangalore, travelling in a crowded third-class carriage, surrounded by all the tins and baskets in which Grandmother carried the gifts for her daughter. We arrived in Chennapatna at noon next day, and immediately I was seized with a desire to return to Madras. The whole world looked so different now, new faces, new language, new voices. My parents’ house was big, with a hall and courtyard, and my father had many servants wearing coats and turbans. The city itself looked mean and tiny. I missed my friends, the bare-bodied, rugged Madras boys. I missed my hoop. (My last-minute effort to include it in my travel baggage had been frustrated.) I clung to my grandmother, she being the only identifiable object in the strange land. The Chennapatna home had my parents, two sisters, and two brothers (the older one was Pattabhi, the younger one Seenu), and a baby; they eagerly received me and yet I found it an agony to be in their midst. I felt shy and uncomfortable when my mother tried to converse with me, and nervous at the sight of my father—he looked forbidding and I was cowed by his tone, and by the spectacles through which he glared. In order to leave my mother free to nurse my younger sister, my grandmother, it seems, had taken me away to Madras when I was only two years old, and I could not think of any other place as my home.

  All the children kept crowding around me, and everyone plied me with sweets and edibles. As evening came depression and homesickness became unbearable (the very shape of the brass lamps in Chennapatna made me sick); I wept unashamedly and demanded to be sent back to Madras.

  It took me time to get adjusted to these surroundings, but gradually I began to enjoy the general pampering and the special food that my mother made for me. The servant carrying my younger brother in arms would escort us in the evening to the high-school compound, where we played; my elder brother would have his own engagement with his friends, and not mix with the children. He had a separate room in the house, where he kept all kinds of pets, and always locked up his room when he went out. Some days he took me with him and showed me various spots and introduced me to his acquaintances and favourite shopkeepers, who readily gave him whatever he asked for—a handful of sweets, fried nuts, puffed rice, and bananas, which he grandly passed on to me with a comment to the shopkeeper in Kannada which I did not yet understand. He would perhaps be saying that I was the fellow from Madras who had had a monkey of his own or that he would pay for the eatables later on. Another stop would be a cycle shop, where four bicycles were kept leaning against the wall, over a gutter. My brother declared to me, “I can freely take any cycle here.”

  “Do you know how to ride one?” I asked. In answer to my query, he just took out one of the cycles and sounded the bell, and the shop-owner said something that again I did not understand, and my brother brought the cycle to the road, pushed it along a few yards, and then put it back in its place. We passed on to the school playground, where he joined a team of players and kicked a ball around, ordering me to stay behind the goalpost to admire his performance from a distance.

  Some days later his cycle-shop friend got him into trouble with my father. One afternoon my brother had come home, gone directly into his room, and locked himself in. Shortly came the cycle-shop keeper, who had been all smiles the other day, now looking grim, propelling along with difficulty a cycle with damaged handle bars and awry wheels. He gesticulated and shouted wildly, and the commotion he created brought the entire family out, including my father, who came downstairs. My brother had taken a cycle on hire, had fallen off, damaged the machine, quietly put it back in its stand over the gutter, and come away without even paying the hire-charges. My father mollified the shopkeeper and sent him away, then knocked fiercely on my brother’s door and got him out. His nose was blood-covered and full of scratches, his elbows were bleeding, and his clothes had blood marks and mud stains. My father glared angrily at him and demanded an explanation. He gave him a slap but before he could do further damage to him, the women screamed and rushed to his protection. My grandmother was particularly vociferous, and my father retreated to his sanctum upstairs, unwilling to have a confrontation with his mother-in-law.

  This incident, which I watched from behind a pillar, frightened me out of my wits. I felt afraid of my father and decided to avoid his presence. As a person he had a commanding personality (“He has the personality of a commander-in-chief rather than a headmaster,” people used to remark), a stentorian voice, a sharp nose, and a lionlike posture—a man who didn’t fuss about children openly, and never sat around and chatted with the members of the family as was the habit with others. He moved in fixed orbits at home. He had a well-worn route from his room to the dining or bathroom, set hours during which he could
be seen at different points, and if one kept out of his way, as I thought then, one was safe for the rest of the day. He left for school on a bicycle, impeccably dressed in a tweed suit and tie and crowned with a snow-white turban, at about nine-thirty every morning, and he returned home at nine at night, having spent his time at the officers’ club on the way, playing tennis and meeting his friends, who were mostly local government officials. At night a servant would go out with a lantern in order to light my father’s path back home and to carry his tennis racquet, leaving him to walk back swinging his cane to keep off growling street dogs all along the path, which lay sunk in the dust.

  When my father came home we stopped playing and shouting and became restrained. Having finished our dinner, we lay on a row of beds in the living-room carrying on some quiet game—such as enumerating, without looking, all the pictures on the wall. The enumeration started with “God Vishnu on His Eagle” and ended with the sixteenth picture, entitled “Vanity”—a woman decked in brocade sari and scintillating jewellery, the only non-god in the series. My mother’s hobby was to decorate litho prints of gods and goddesses with gold lace and sequins and hang them on the walls. We conducted our sport in whispers and suppressed giggles as long as Father’s voice was heard in the dining-hall. Mother always kept him company at dinner. He would describe to her his day at school, or criticize the food, or argue some point with considerable heat. Eventually, when we were sure that he was back in his room upstairs, we became riotous and flung about blankets and pillows. Mother, after putting the youngest one to sleep upstairs and after seeing Father settled in his chair with his reading lamp and books (he read until after midnight), came down to give us each a tumbler of milk, and then sat down in the corridor for a while to converse with my grandmother (who would already be planning to leave me behind and return to Madras). From time to time Mother warned us, “You must all sleep now, Father is reading. You will disturb him if you talk.”

 
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