The Guide by R. K. Narayan

  I usually told her, “I should certainly know how to manage these things. Don’t think I’m so careless.” And she left me alone. And then I went over to the shop, assumed a tone of great aggressiveness, and checked the accounts. The boy produced some accounts, some cash, a statement of stock, something else that he needed for running the show, and some of his problems. I was in no mood to listen to his problems. I was busy and preoccupied, so I told him not to bother me with petty details and gave an impression (just an impression and nothing more) of being a devil for accounts.

  He always said, “Two passengers came asking for you, sir.”

  Oh, bores, who wanted them, anyway? “What did they want?” I asked with semi-interest.

  “Three days’ sightseeing, sir. They went away disappointed.”

  They were always there. My reputation had survived my interest in the job. Railway Raju was an established name, and still pilgrims and travelers sought his help. The boy persisted. “They wanted to know where you were.” This gave me food for thought. I didn’t want this fool of a fellow to send them up to my Room 28 at the hotel. Fortunately, he did not know. Otherwise he might have done so. “What shall I tell them, Raju-sir?” He always called me “Raju-sir.” It was his idea of combining deference with familiarity.

  I merely replied, “Tell them I’m busy; that is all. I have no time. I’m very busy.”

  “May I act as their guide, sir?” he asked eagerly. This fellow was acting as a successor in my jobs one by one. Next, probably, he would ask permission to keep the girl company! I felt annoyed with his question and asked him, “Who will look after the shop?”

  “I have a cousin. He can watch the shop for an hour or two, while I am away.”

  I could not think of a reply. I could not decide. The whole thing was too bothersome. My old life, in which I was not in the least interested, was dogging my steps; my mother facing me with numerous problems: municipal tax, the kitchen tiles needing attention, the shop, accounts, letters from the village, my health, and so on and so forth; to me she was a figure out of a dream, mumbling vague sounds; and this boy had his own way of cornering and attacking me. Then Gaffur with his sly remarks and looks, ever on the brink of gossip—Oh, I was tired of it all. I was in no mood for anything. My mind was on other matters. Even my finances were unreal to me, although if I cared to look at my savings book I could know at a glance how the level of the reservoir was going down. But I did not want to examine it too closely as long as the man at the counter was able to give me the cash I wanted. Thanks to my father’s parsimonious habits, I had a bank account. The only reality in my life and consciousness was Rosie. All my mental powers were now turned to keep her within my reach, and keep her smiling all the time, neither of which was at all easy. I would willingly have kept at her side all the time, as a sort of parasite; but in that hotel it was not easy. I was always racked with the thought that the man at the desk and the boys at the hotel were keeping an eye on me and were commenting behind my back.

  I did not want to be observed going to Room 28. I was becoming self-conscious about it. I very much wished that the architecture of the place could be altered so that I might go up without having the desk-man watch me. I was sure he was noting down the hour of my arrival with Rosie, and of my departure. His morbid, inquisitive mind, I was sure, must have been working on all the details of my life behind the closed doors of Room 28. I didn’t like the way he looked at me whenever I passed: I didn’t like the curve of his lip—I knew he was smiling at an inward joke at my expense. I wished I could ignore him, but he was an early associate of mine, and I owed him a general remark or two. While passing him, I tried to look casual, and stopped to say, “Did you see that Nehru is going to London?” or “The new taxes will kill all initiative,” and he agreed with me and explained something, and that was enough. Or we discussed the Government of India’s tourist plans or hotel arrangements, and I had to let him talk—the poor fellow never suspected how little I cared for tourism or taxes or anything now. I sometimes toyed with the thought of changing the hotel. But it was not easy. Both Rosie and her husband seemed to be deeply devoted to this hotel. He was somehow averse to changing, although he never came down from his heights, and the girl seemed to have got used to this room with its view of a coconut grove outside, and people irrigating it from a well. It was a fascination that I could not easily understand or explain.

  In other ways too I found it difficult to understand the girl. I found as I went on that she was gradually losing the free and easy manner of her former days. She allowed me to make love to her, of course, but she was also beginning to show excessive consideration for her husband on the hill. In the midst of my caresses, she would suddenly free herself and say, “Tell Gaffur to bring the car. I want to go and see him.”

  I had not yet reached the stage of losing my temper or speaking sharply to her. So I calmly answered, “Gaffur will not come till this time tomorrow. You were up only yesterday. Why do you want to go again? He expects you there only tomorrow.”

  “Yes,” she would say and remain thoughtful. I didn’t like to see her sit up like that on her bed and brood, her hair unattended, her dress all crinkled. She clasped her knees with her hands.

  “What is troubling you?” I had to ask her. “Won’t you tell me? I will always help you.”

  She would shake her head and say, “After all, he is my husband. I have to respect him. I cannot leave him there.”

  My knowledge of women being poor and restricted to one, I could not decide how to view her statements. I could not understand whether she was pretending, whether her present pose was pretense or whether her account of all her husband’s shortcomings was false, just to entice me. It was complex and obscure. I had to tell her, “Rosie, you know very well that even if Gaffur came, he couldn’t drive uphill at this hour.”

  “Yes, yes, I understand,” she would reply and lapse into a mysterious silence again.

  “What is troubling you?”

  She started crying. “After all . . . After all . . . Is this right what I am doing? After all, he has been so good to me, given me comfort and freedom. What husband in the world would let his wife go and live in a hotel room by herself, a hundred miles away?”

  “It is not a hundred miles, but fifty-eight only,” I corrected. “Shall I order you coffee or anything to eat?”

  “No,” she would say point-blank, but continue the train of her own thoughts. “As a good man he may not mind, but is it not a wife’s duty to guard and help her husband, whatever the way in which he deals with her?” This last phrase was to offset in advance any reminder I might make about his indifference to her.

  It was a confusing situation. Naturally, I could take no part in this subject: there was nothing I could add to or subtract from what she was saying. Distance seemed to lend enchantment to her view now. But I knew that she would have to spend only a few hours with him to come downhill raging against him, saying the worst possible things. Sometimes I heartily wished that the man would descend from his heights, take her, and clear out of the place. That would at least end this whole uncertain business once for all and help me to return to my platform duties. I could possibly try to do that even now. What prevented me from leaving the girl alone? The longer Marco went on with his work, the longer this agony was stretched. But he seemed to flourish in his solitude; that’s probably what he had looked for all his life. But why could he not do something about his wife? A blind fellow. Sometimes I felt angry at the thought of him. He had placed me in a hopeless predicament. I was compelled to ask her, “Why don’t you stay up with him, then?”

  She merely replied, “He sits up all night writing, and—”

  “If he sits up all night writing, during the day you should talk to him,” I would say with a look of innocence.

  “But all day he is in the cave!”

  “Well, you may go and see it too. Why not? It ought to interest you.”

  “While he is copying, no one may talk to him

  “Don’t talk to him, but study the objects yourself. A good wife ought to be interested in all her husband’s activities.”

  “True,” she said, and merely sighed. This was a thoroughly inexperienced and wrong line for me to take; it led us nowhere, but only made her morose.

  “In what way?”

  “Do you also hate to see me dance?”

  “Not at all. What makes you think so?”

  “At one time you spoke like a big lover of art, but now you never give it a thought.”

  It was true. I said something in excuse, clasped her hands in mine, and swore earnestly, “I will do anything for you. I will give my life to see you dance. Tell me what to do. I will do it for you.”

  She brightened up. Her eyes lit up with a new fervor at the mention of dancing. So I sat up with her, helping her to day-dream. I found out the clue to her affection and utilized it to the utmost. Her art and her husband could not find a place in her thoughts at the same time; one drove the other out.

  She was full of plans. At five in the morning she’d start her practice and continue for three hours. She would have a separate hall, long enough and wide enough for her to move in. It must have a heavy carpet, which would be neither too smooth under the feet nor too rough, and which would not fold while she practiced her steps on it. At one corner of the room she’d have a bronze figure of Nataraja, the god of dancers, the god whose primal dance created the vibrations that set the worlds in motion. She would have a long incense-holder, in which at all times she would have incense sticks burning. After her morning practice, she would call up the chauffeur.

  “Are you going to have a car?” I asked.

  “Naturally, otherwise how can I move about? When I have so many engagements, it will be necessary for me to have a car. It’ll be indispensable, don’t you think?”

  “Surely. I’ll remember it.”

  She would then spend an hour or two in the forenoon studying the ancient works on the art, Natya Shastra of Bharat Muni, a thousand years old, and various other books, because without a proper study of the ancient methods it would be impossible to keep the purity of the classical forms. All the books were in her uncle’s house, and she would write to him to send them on to her by and by. She would also want a pundit to come to her to help her to understand the texts, as they were all written in an old, terse style. “Can you get me a Sanskrit pundit?” she asked.

  “Of course I can. There are dozens of them.”

  “I shall also want him to read for me episodes from Ramayana and Mahabarata, because they are a treasure house, and we can pick up so many ideas for new compositions from them.”

  A little rest after lunch; and at three o’clock she would go out and do shopping, and a drive and return home in the evening or see a picture, unless, of course, there was a performance in the evening. If there was a performance, she would like to rest till three in the afternoon and reach the hall only half an hour before the show. “That would be enough, because I shall do all the makeup and dressing before I leave the house.”

  She thought of every detail, and dreamed of it night and day. Her immediate need would be a party of drummers and musicians to assist her morning practice. When she was ready to appear before the public, she would tell me and then I could fix her public engagements. I felt rather baffled by her fervor. I wished I could keep pace at least with her idiom. I felt that I ought immediately to pick up and cultivate the necessary jargon. I felt silly to be watching her and listening to her, absolutely tongue-tied. There were, of course, two ways open: to bluff one’s way through and trust to luck, or to make a clean breast of it all. I listened to her talk for two days and finally confessed to her, “I am a layman, not knowing much of the technicalities of the dance; I’d like you to teach me something of it.”

  I didn’t want her to interpret it as an aversion on my part to the art. That might drive her back into the arms of her husband, and so I took care to maintain the emphasis on my passion for the art. It gave us a fresh intimacy. This common interest brought us close together. Wherever we were she kept talking to me on the various subtleties of the art, its technicalities, and explaining as to a child its idioms. She seemed to notice our surroundings less and less. In Gaffur’s car as we sat she said, “You know what a pallavi is? The time scheme is all-important in it. It does not always run in the simple style of one-two, one-two; it gets various odds thrown in, and at a different tempo.” She uttered its syllables, “Ta-ka-ta-ki-ta, Ta-ka.” It amused me. “You know, to get the footwork right within those five or seven beats requires real practice, and when the tempo is varied . . .” This was something that Gaffur could safely overhear, as we went up the hill, as we came out of a shop, as we sat in a cinema. While seeing a picture, she would suddenly exclaim, “My uncle has with him a very old song written on a palm leaf. No one has seen it. My mother was the only person in the whole country who knew the song and could dance to it. I’ll get that song too from my uncle. I’ll show you how it goes. Shall we go back to our room? I don’t want to see more of this picture. It looks silly.”

  We immediately adjourned to Room 28, where she asked me to remain seated, and went into the anteroom and came back with her dress tucked in and tightened up for the performance. She said, “I’ll show you how it goes. Of course, I’m not doing it under the best of conditions. I need at least a drummer. . . . Move off that chair, and sit on the bed. I want some space here.”

  She stood at one end of the hall and sang the song lightly, in a soft undertone, a song from an ancient Sanskrit composition of a lover and lass on the banks of Jamuna; and it began with such a verve, when she lightly raised her foot and let it down, allowing her anklets to jingle, I felt thrilled. Though I was an ignoramus, I felt moved by the movements, rhythm, and time, although I did not quite follow the meaning of the words. She stopped now and then to explain: “Nari means girl—and mani is a jewel. . . . The whole line means: ‘It is impossible for me to bear this burden of love you have cast on me.’ ” She panted while she explained. There were beads of perspiration on her forehead and lip. She danced a few steps, paused for a moment, and explained, “Lover means always God,” and she took the trouble to explain further to me the intricacies of its rhythm. The floor resounded with the stamping of her feet. I felt nervous that those on the floor below might ask us to stop, but she never cared, never bothered about anything. I could see, through her effort, the magnificence of the composition, its symbolism, the boyhood of a very young god, and his fulfillment in marriage, the passage of years from youth to decay, but the heart remaining ever fresh like a lotus on a pond. When she indicated the lotus with her fingers, you could almost hear the ripple of water around it. She held the performance for nearly an hour; it filled me with the greatest pleasure on earth. I could honestly declare that, while I watched her perform, my mind was free, for once, from all carnal thoughts; I viewed her as a pure abstraction. She could make me forget my surroundings. I sat with open-mouthed wonder watching her. Suddenly she stopped and flung her whole weight on me with “What a darling. You are giving me a new lease on life.”

  He was in an unbelievably cheerful mood. He greeted his wife with greater warmth than ever before. “Do you know there is a third cave; a sort of vault leads into it. I scraped the lime, and there you have a complete fresco of musical notations, in symbolic figures. The style is of the fifth century. I am puzzled how such a wide period-difference has come about,” he said, greeting us on the veranda itself. He had pulled up a chair and was watching the valley, with papers on his lap. He held up his latest discovery. His wife looked at it with due ecstasy and cried, “Musical notations! What wonderful things! Do take me to see them, will you?”

  “Yes; come with me tomorrow morning. I’ll explain it to you.”

  “Oh, wonderful!” And she cried, in a highly affected voice, “I’ll try and sing them to you.”

  “I doubt if you can. It’s more difficult than you imagine.”

looked fevered and anxious about pleasing him. It seemed to bode no good. This all-round cheeriness somehow did not please me. He turned and asked, “What about you, Raju? Would you like to see my discovery?”

  “Of course, but I have to get back to town as soon as possible. I just came to leave the lady here, because she was so anxious; and to know if you want anything and if things are quite satisfactory.”

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