The Guide by R. K. Narayan


  Other signs too were presently to be noticed. At the Harvest Festival, the usual jubilation was absent. “Sugar canes have completely wilted; with difficulty we have brought in this bit. Please accept it.”

  “Give it to the children,” Raju said. Their gifts were shrinking in size and volume.

  “The astrologer says that we shall have very early rains in the coming year,” someone said. The talk was always about the rains. People listened to discourses and philosophy with only half-interest. They sat around, expressing their fears and hopes. “Is it true, Swami, that the movement of airplanes disturbs the clouds and so the rains don’t fall? Too many airplanes in the sky.” “Is it true, Swami, that the atom bombs are responsible for the drying up of the clouds?” Science, mythology, weather reports, good and evil, and all kinds of possibilities were connected with the rain. Raju gave an explanation for each in the best manner he could manage, but he found his answers never diverted their minds.

  He decreed, “You must not think too much of it. The rain god sometimes teases those who are obsessed with thoughts of him. How would you feel if someone went on mentioning and repeating your name all hours of the day and night for days and days on end?” They enjoyed the humor of the analogy, and went their ways. But a situation was developing which no comforting word or discipline of thinking could help. Something was happening on a different plane over which one had no control or choice, and where a philosophical attitude made no difference. Cattle were unable to yield milk; they lacked the energy to drag the plow through the furrows; flocks of sheep were beginning to look scurvy and piebald, with their pelvic bones sticking out.

  The wells in the villages were drying up. Huge concourses of women with pitchers arrived at the river, which was fast narrowing. From morning to night they came in waves and took the water. Raju watched their arrival and departure as they passed in files on the high ground opposite, looking picturesque, but without the tranquillity inherent in a picture. They quarreled at the water-hole for priorities, and there were fear, desperation, and lamentation in their voices.

  The earth was fast drying up. A buffalo was found dead on a foot-track. The news was brought to the Swami early one morning by Velan. He stood above him as he slept and said, “Swami, I want you to come with us.”

  “Why?”

  “Cattle have begun to die,” he said with quiet resignation.

  “What can I do about it?” Raju felt like asking, sitting up in his bed. But he could not say such a thing. He said soothingly, “Oh, no; it can’t be.”

  “A buffalo was found dead on the forest path beyond our village.”

  “Did you see it yourself?”

  “Yes, Swami, I come from there.”

  “Can’t be as bad as that, Velan. It must have died of some other disease.”

  “Please come along and see it, and if you can tell us why it is dead, it will relieve our minds. A learned man like you should see and tell.”

  They were clearly losing their heads. They were entering a nightmare phase. The Swami knew so little of cattle, dead or alive, that it was of no practical use his going to see this one, but since they wanted it, he asked Velan to be seated for a few moments, and went down with him. The village street looked deserted. Children played about in the road dust, because the master had gone to town with a petition for relief addressed to the revenue authorities, and so the day school was closed. Women were moving about with water pots on their heads. In passing, “Could hardly get half a pot today,” said some. “What’s the world coming to? You must show us the way, Swami.”

  Raju merely raised a hand and waved it as if to say, “Be peaceful; everything will be all right; I will fix it with the gods.” A small crowd followed him and Velan to the forest path, saying the same thing over and over again. Someone reported worse happenings in the next village; cholera was breaking out and thousands were dying, and so forth; he was snubbed by the rest as a scaremonger. Raju paid little attention to the jabber around him.

  There it was outside the village, on a rough foot-track that led into the forest, a buffalo with bones sticking out. Crows and kites, already hovering about, flew off at the approach of men. There was a sickening odor, and henceforth Raju began to associate the season with it. It could not be mitigated with soothsaying. He held his upper cloth to his nostrils and gazed at the carcass for a while. “Whose was this?” he asked.

  They looked at one another. “Not ours,” someone said. “It belonged to the next village.” There was some relief at this thought. If it was one from the next village, it was far removed. Anything, any explanation, any excuse served to console people now.

  “It belonged to no one,” said another. “It looks like a wild buffalo.”

  This was even better. Raju felt relieved at the possibility of there being other solutions and explanations. He added, peering at it again, “It must have been bitten by a poisonous insect.” This was a comforting explanation, and he turned back without letting his eye dwell on the barren branches of trees, and the ground covered with bleached mud without a sign of green.

  This piece of interpretation by the Swamiji pleased the public. It brought them untold comfort. The air of tension suddenly relaxed. When the cattle were penned for the night, they looked on them without anxiety. “There is enough about for the cattle to feed on,” they said. “Swami says that the buffalo died of a poisonous bite. He knows.” In support of it, many anecdotes were told of the death of animals from mysterious causes. “There are snakes which bite into their hoofs.” “There are certain kinds of ants whose bite is fatal to animals.”

  More cattle were found dead here and there. When the earth was scratched it produced only a cloud of fine dust. The granary of the previous year, in most of the houses, remained unreplenished and the level was going down. The village shopman was holding out for bigger prices. When people asked for a measure of rice he demanded fourteen annas for it. The man who wanted the rice lost his temper and slapped his face. The shopman came out with a chopper and attacked the customer; and those who sympathized with the man gathered in front of the shop and invaded it. The shopman’s relatives and sympathizers came at night with crowbars and knives and started attacking the other group.

  Velan and his men also picked up axes and knives and started out for the battle. Shrieks and cries and imprecations filled the air. The little hay that was left was set on fire, and the dark night was ablaze. Raju heard the cries, coming on the night air, and then he saw the blaze lighting up the landscape beyond the mound. Only a few hours before, everything had seemed peaceful and quiet. He shook his head, saying to himself, “The village people do not know how to remain peaceful. They are becoming more and more agitated. At this rate, I think I’ll look for a new place.” He went back to sleep, unable to take any further interest in their activities.

  But news was brought to him early in the morning. Velan’s brother told him while he was still half asleep that Velan was down with an injured skull and burns, and he gave a list of women and children hurt in the fight. They were mustering themselves to attack the other group tonight.

  Raju was amazed at the way things were moving. He did not know what he was expected to do now, whether to bless their expedition or prevent it. Personally, he felt that the best thing for them would be to blow one another’s brains out. That’d keep them from bothering too much about the drought. He felt a pity for Velan’s condition. “Is he seriously hurt?” he asked.

  Velan’s brother said, “Oh, no. Just cut up here and there,” as though he wasn’t satisfied with the marks.

  Raju wondered for a while whether he should visit Velan, but he felt a tremendous reluctance to move. If Velan was hurt, he’d get healed; that was all. And now the brother’s description of the injuries, whether false or true, suited his program. There was no urgency to go and see Velan. He feared that if they made it a habit he would not be left in peace, as the villagers would always have a reason to call him out. He asked Velan’s brother, “How
did you yourself manage to remain intact?”

  “Oh, I was also there, but they didn’t hit me. If they had I would have laid ten of them low. But my brother, he was careless.”

  “Thin as a broomstick, but talks like a giant,” thought Raju, and advised, “Tell your brother to apply turmeric to his wounds.” From the casual tone with which this man was speaking, Raju wondered if it was possible that he himself had dealt a blow to Velan from behind; anything seemed possible in this village. All the brothers in the place were involved in litigation against one another; and anyone might do anything in the present sensational developments. Velan’s brother rose to go. Raju said, “Tell Velan to rest in bed completely.”

  “Oh, no, master. How can he rest? He is joining the party tonight and he will not rest till he burns their houses.”

  “It is not right,” Raju said, somewhat irritated by all this pugnacity.

  Velan’s brother was one of the lesser intelligences of the village. He was about twenty-one, a semi-moron, who had grown up as a dependent in Velan’s house, yet another of Velan’s trials in life. He spent his days taking the village cattle out to the mountains for grazing: he collected them from various houses early in the day, and drove them to the mountainside, watched over them, and brought them back in the evening. All day he lounged under a tree shade, eating a ball of boiled millet when the sun came overhead, and watching for the sun to slant westward to drive the cattle homeward. He had hardly anyone to speak to except his cattle the whole day and he spoke to them on equal terms and abused them and their genealogy unreservedly. Any afternoon in the stillness of the forest, if one had the occasion to observe, one could hear the hills echoing to the choice, abusive words that he hurled at the animals as he followed them with his stick. He was considered well equipped for this single task, and from each house was given four annas a month. They did not trust him with any more responsible tasks. He was one of those rare men in the village who never visited the Swamiji, but preferred to sleep at home at the end of the day. But now he had come, almost for the first time. The others were preoccupied and busy with their preparations for the coming fight, and he was one of those whose employment was affected by the drought; no one saw any sense in sending the cattle out to nose about the dry sand and paying the idiot four annas a month.

  He had come here this morning, not because anyone had sent him to carry a message for the Swamiji, but because he was at a loose end and had suddenly felt that he might as well pay a visit to the temple and receive the Swami’s blessing. The fight was the last thing the villagers would have liked to bring to the Swami’s attention, although after finishing it they might have given him a mild version. But this boy brought the news on his own initiative and defended their action. “But, Swami, why did they cut my brother’s face?” He added sullenly, “Should they be left free to do all this?”

  Raju argued with him patiently. “You beat the shopman first, didn’t you?”

  The boy took it literally and said, “I didn’t beat the shopman. The man who beat him was . . .” He gave a number of local names.

  Raju felt too weary to correct him and improve his understanding. He simply said, “It is no good; nobody should fight.” He felt it impossible to lecture him on the ethics of peace, and so merely said, “No one should fight.”

  “But they fight!” the boy argued. “They come and beat us.” He paused, ruminating upon the words, and added, “And they will kill us soon.”

  Raju felt bothered. He did not like the idea of so much commotion. It might affect the isolation of the place and bring the police on the scene. He did not want anyone to come to the village. Raju suddenly began to think positively on these matters. He gripped the other’s arm above his elbow and said, “Go and tell Velan and the rest that I don’t want them to fight like this. I’ll tell them what to do later.” The boy prepared himself to repeat his usual arguments. But Raju said impatiently, “Don’t talk. Listen to what I say.”

  “Yes, master,” the boy said, rather frightened at this sudden vehemence.

  “Tell your brother, immediately, wherever he may be, that unless they are good I’ll never eat.”

  “Eat what?” asked the boy, rather puzzled.

  “Say that I’ll not eat. Don’t ask what. I’ll not eat till they are good.”

  “Good? Where?”

  This was frankly beyond the comprehension of the boy. He wanted to ask again, “Eat what?” but refrained out of fear. His eyes opened wide. He could not connect the fight and this man’s food. He wanted only to be released from the terrific grip over his left elbow. He felt he had made a mistake in coming to this man all alone—the bearded face, pushed so close to him, frightened him. This man might perhaps eat him up. He became desperately anxious to get out of the place. He said, “All right, sir. I’ll do it,” and the moment Raju let his hold go he shot out of the place, was across the sands and out of sight in a moment.

  He was panting when he ran into the assembly of his village elders. They were sitting solemnly around a platform in the center of the village, discussing the rains. There was a brick platform built around an ancient peepul tree, at whose root a number of stone figures were embedded, which were often anointed with oil and worshiped. This was a sort of town-hall platform for Mangala. It was shady and cool and spacious; there was always a gathering of men on one side conferring on local problems, and on the other women who carried loaded baskets on their heads and rested; children chased each other; and the village dogs slumbered.

  Here were sitting the elders of the village, discussing the rain, the fight tonight, and all the strategies connected with it. They had still many misgivings about the expedition. How the Swami would view the whole thing was a thing that could be understood only later. He might not approve. It would be best not to go to him until they themselves were clear in their heads about what to do. That the other group deserved punishment was beyond question. Among those talking were quite a number with bruises and cuts. But they had a fear of the police; they remembered a former occasion when there had been a faction fight, and the government posted a police force almost permanently and made the villagers feed them and pay for their keep.

  Into this council of war burst Velan’s brother. The atmosphere became tense. “What is it, brother?” asked Velan.

  The boy stopped to recover breath before speaking. They took him by the shoulder and shook him, at which he became more confused and blabbered and finally said, “The Swami, the Swami, doesn’t want food any more. Don’t take any food to him.”

  “Why? Why?”

  “Because, because—it doesn’t rain.” He added also, suddenly, recollecting the fight, “No fight, he says.”

  “Who asked you to go there?” asked his brother authoritatively.

  “I—I didn’t, but when I—found myself there he asked me and I told him—”

  “What did you tell him?”

  The boy became suddenly wary. He knew he would be thrashed if he said he had mentioned the fight. He didn’t like to be gripped by the shoulder—in fact, he was averse to being gripped in any manner at all; but there the Swami squeezed his elbow and brushed his beard on his face, and here these men were tearing at his shoulder. He felt sorry he had ever got involved. It was best not to have anything to do with them. They would wrench his shoulder off if they knew he’d been telling the master about the fight. So he covered up the entire business in the best manner he could think of. He blinked. They demanded of him again, “What did you tell him?”

  “That there is no rain,” he said, mentioning the easiest subject that occurred to him.

  They patted him on the head and said contemptuously, “Big prophet to carry the news! He didn’t know about it till then, I suppose.” A laugh followed. The boy also simpered and tried to get over it.

  Then he remembered the message he had been entrusted with, and thought it safer to say something about it, otherwise the great man might come to know of it and lay a curse on him. And so he said, c
oming back to the original starting point, “He wants no food until it is all right.”

  He uttered it with such solemnity and emphasis that they asked, “What did he say? Tell us exactly.”

  The boy deliberated for a moment and said, “ ‘Tell your brother not to bring me any more food. I won’t eat. If I don’t eat, it’ll be all right; and then everything will be all right.’ ” They stared at him, puzzled. He smiled, rather pleased at the importance he was receiving. They remained in thought for a moment.

  And then one of them said, “This Mangala is a blessed country to have a man like the Swami in our midst. No bad thing will come to us as long as he is with us. He is like Mahatma. When Mahatma Gandhi went without food, how many things happened in India! This is a man like that. If he fasts there will be rain. Out of his love for us he is undertaking it. This will surely bring rain and help us. Once upon a time a man fasted for twenty-one days and brought down the deluge. Only great souls that take upon themselves tasks such as this—” The atmosphere became electrified. They forgot the fight and all their troubles and bickerings.

  The village was astir. Everything else seemed inconsequential now. Someone brought the news that upstream a crocodile had been found dead on the sand, having no watery shelter and being scorched by the sun. Someone else came with the news that the fast-drying lake bed in a nearby village was showing up an old temple which had been submerged a century ago, when the lake was formed. The image of God was still intact in the inner shrine, none the worse for having lain under water so long; the four coconut trees around the temple were still there. . . . And so on and so forth. More and more details were coming in every hour. Hundreds of people were now walking across the lake bed to visit the temple, and some careless ones lost their lives, sucked in by loose mud. All this now produced a lot of public interest, but no fear. They were now even able to take a more lenient view of the shopman who had assaulted his customer. “After all, so and so should not have called him a whoreson; not a proper word.”

 
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