The Guide by R. K. Narayan


  “An empty vessel. Have you not heard the saying ‘An empty vessel makes much noise’?”

  Velan permitted himself a polite laugh and declared with admiration, “How many good sentiments and philosophies you have gathered in that head of yours, sir!”

  Raju almost glared at him. This single man was responsible for his present plight. Why would he not go away and leave him alone? What a wise plan it would have been if the crocodile had got him while he crossed the river! But that poor old thing, which had remained almost a myth, had become dehydrated. When its belly was ripped open they found in it ten thousand rupees’ worth of jewelry. Did this mean that the crocodile had been in the habit of eating only women? No, a few snuffboxes and earrings of men were also found. The question of the day was: Who was entitled to all this treasure? The villagers hushed up the affair. They did not want the government to get scent of it and come round and claim it, as it did all buried treasure. They gave out that only a couple of worthless trinkets had been found inside the crocodile, although in actual fact the man who cut it open acquired a fortune. He had no problems for the rest of his life. Who permitted him to cut open the crocodile? Who could say? People didn’t wait for permission under such circumstances. Thus had gone on the talk among the people about the crocodile when it was found dead.

  Velan, fanning him, had fallen asleep—he had just doubled up in his seat with the fan in his hand. Raju, who lay awake, had let his mind roam and touch the depths of morbid and fantastic thought. He was now touched by the sight of this man hunched in his seat. The poor fellow was tremendously excited and straining himself in order to make this penance a success, providing the great man concerned with every comfort—except, of course, food. Why not give the poor devil a chance? Raju said to himself, instead of hankering after food which one could not get anyway. He felt enraged at the persistence of food-thoughts. With a sort of vindictive resolution he told himself, “I’ll chase away all thought of food. For the next ten days I shall eradicate all thoughts of tongue and stomach from my mind.”

  This resolution gave him a peculiar strength. He developed on those lines: “If by avoiding food I should help the trees bloom, and the grass grow, why not do it thoroughly?” For the first time in his life he was making an earnest effort; for the first time he was learning the thrill of full application, outside money and love; for the first time he was doing a thing in which he was not personally interested. He felt suddenly so enthusiastic that it gave him a new strength to go through with the ordeal. The fourth day of his fast found him quite sprightly. He went down to the river, stood facing upstream with his eyes shut, and repeated the litany. It was no more than a supplication to the heavens to send down rain and save humanity. It was set in a certain rhythmic chant, which lulled his senses and awareness, so that as he went on saying it over and over again the world around became blank. He nearly lost all sensation, except the numbness at his knees, through constant contact with cold water. Lack of food gave him a peculiar floating feeling, which he rather enjoyed, with the thought in the background, “This enjoyment is something Velan cannot take away from me.”

  The hum of humanity around was increasing. His awareness of his surroundings was gradually lessening in a sort of inverse proportion. He was not aware of it, but the world was beginning to press around. The pen of the wandering journalist had done the trick. Its repercussions were far and wide. The railways were the first to feel the pressure. They had to run special trains for the crowds that were going to Malgudi. People traveled on footboards and on the roofs of coaches. The little Malgudi Station was choked with passengers. Outside the station buses stood, the conductors crying, “Special for Mangala leaving. Hurry up. Hurry up.” People rushed up from the station into the buses and almost sat on top of one another. Gaffur’s taxi drove up and down a dozen times a day. And the crowd congregated around the river at Mangala. People sat in groups along its sand bank, down its stones and steps, all the way up the opposite bank, wherever they could squeeze themselves in.

  Never had this part of the country seen such a crowd. Shops sprang up overnight, as if by magic, on bamboo poles roofed with thatch, displaying colored soda bottles and bunches of bananas and coconut toffees. The Tea Propaganda Board opened a big tea stall, and its posters, green tea plantations along the slopes of blue mountains, were pasted all round the temple wall. (People drank too much coffee and too little tea in these parts.) It had put up a tea bar and served free tea in porcelain cups all day. The public swarmed around it like flies, and the flies swarmed on all the cups and sugar bowls. The presence of the fly brought in the Health Department, which feared an outbreak of some epidemic in that crowded place without water. The khaki-clad health inspectors sprayed every inch of space with DDT and, with needle in hand, coaxed people to inoculate themselves against cholera, malaria, and whatnot. A few youngsters just for fun bared their biceps, while a big crowd stood about and watched. There was a blank space on the rear wall of the temple where they cleaned up the ground and made a space for people to sit around and watch a film show when it grew dark. They attracted people to it by playing popular hits on the gramophone with its loudspeakers mounted on the withering treetops. Men, women, and children crowded in to watch the film shows, which were all about mosquitoes, malaria, plague, and tuberculosis, and BCG vaccination. When a huge close-up of a mosquito was shown as the cause of malaria, a peasant was overheard saying, “Such huge mosquitoes! No wonder the people get malaria in those countries. Our own mosquitoes are so tiny that they are harmless,” which depressed the lecturer on malaria so much that he remained silent for ten minutes. When he had done with health, he showed a few Government of India films about dams, river valleys, and various projects, with ministers delivering speeches. Far off, outside the periphery, a man had opened a gambling booth with a dart board on a pole, and he had also erected a crude merry-go-round, which whined all day. Peddlers of various kinds were also threading in and out, selling balloons, reed whistles, and sweets.

  A large crowd always stood round and watched the saint with profound awe. They touched the water at his feet and sprinkled it over their heads. They stood indefinitely round, until the master of ceremonies, Velan, begged them to move. “Please go away. The Swami must have fresh air. If you have had your darshan, move on and let others have theirs. Don’t be selfish.” And then the people moved on and enjoyed themselves in various ways.

  When the Swami went in to lie on his mat in the hall, they came in again to look at him and stood about until Velan once again told them to keep moving. A few were specially privileged to sit on the edge of the mat very close to the great man. One of them was the schoolmaster, who took charge of all the telegrams and letters that were pouring in from all over the country wishing the Swami success. The post office at Mangala normally had a visiting postman who came once a week, and when a telegram came it was received at Aruna, a slightly bigger village seven miles down the river course, and was kept there until someone could be found going to Mangala. But now the little telegraph office had no rest—day and night messages poured in, just addressed, “Swamiji,” that was all. They were piling up every hour and had to be sent down by special messengers. In addition to the arriving telegrams, there were many going out. The place was swarming with press reporters, who were rushing their hour-to-hour stories to their papers all over the world. They were an aggressive lot and the little telegraph master was scared of them. They banged on his window and cried, “Urgent!” They held out packets and packed-up films and photographs, and ordered him to dispatch them at once. They cried, “Urgent, urgent! If this packet does not reach my office today . . .” and they threatened terrifying prospects and said all sorts of frightening things.

  “Press. Urgent!” “Press. Urgent!” They went on shouting till they reduced the man to a nervous wreck. He had promised his children that he would take them to see the Swamiji. The children cried, “They are also showing an Ali Baba film, a friend told me.” But the man was given no
time to fulfill his promise to his children. When the press men gave him respite, the keys rattled with incoming messages. He had spent a fairly peaceful life until then, and the present strain tore at his nerves. He sent off an SOS to all his official superiors whenever he found breathing space: “Handling two hundred messages today. Want relief.”

  The roads were choked with traffic, country carts, buses and cycles, jeeps and automobiles of all kinds and ages. Pedestrians in files with hampers and baskets crossed the fields like swarms of ants converging on a lump of sugar. The air rang with the music of a few who had chosen to help the Swami by sitting near him, singing devotional songs to the accompaniment of a harmonium and tabala.

  The busiest man here was an American, wearing a thin bush shirt over corduroys. He arrived in a jeep with a trailer, dusty, rugged, with a mop of tousled hair, at about one in the afternoon on the tenth day of the fast and set himself to work immediately. He had picked up an interpreter at Madras and had driven straight through, three hundred and seventy-five miles. He pushed everything aside and took charge of the scene. He looked about for only a moment, driving his jeep down to the hibiscus bush behind the temple. He jumped off and strode past everyone to the pillared hall. He went up to the recumbent Swami and brought his palms together, muttering, “Namasté”—the Indian salute, which he had learned the moment he landed in India. He had briefed himself on all the local manners. Raju looked on him with interest—the large, pink-faced arrival was a novel change in the routine.

  The pink visitor stooped low to ask the schoolmaster, sitting beside the Swami, “Can I speak to him in English?”

  “Yes. He knows English.”

  The man lowered himself onto the edge of the mat and with difficulty sat down on the floor, Indian fashion, crossing his legs. He bent close to the Swami to say, “I’m James J. Malone. I’m from California. My business is production of films and TV shows. I have come to shoot this subject, take it back to our country, and show it to our people there. I have in my pocket the sanction from New Delhi for this project. May I have yours?”

  Raju thought over it and serenely nodded.

  “Okay. Thanks a lot. I won’t disturb you—but will you let me shoot pictures of you? I wouldn’t disturb you. Will it bother you if I move a few things up and fix the cable and lights?”

  “No; you may do your work,” said the sage.

  The man became extremely busy. He sprang to his feet, pulled the trailer into position, and started his generator. Its throbbing filled the place, overwhelming all other noises. It brought in a huge crowd of men, women, and children to watch the fun. All the other attractions in the camp became secondary. As Malone drew the cables about, a big crowd followed him. He grinned at them affably and went about his business. Velan and one or two others ran through the crowd, crying, “Is this a fish market? Get away, all of you who have no work here!” But nobody was affected by his orders. They climbed pillars and pedestals and clung to all sorts of places to reach positions of vantage. Malone went on with his job without noticing anything. Finally, when he had the lights ready, he brought in his camera and took pictures of the people and the temple, and of the Swami from various angles and distances.

  “I’m sorry, Swami, if the light is too strong.” When he had finished with the pictures, he brought in a microphone, put it near the Swami’s face, and said, “Let us chat. Okay? Tell me, how do you like it here?”

  “I am only doing what I have to do; that’s all. My likes and dislikes do not count.”

  “How long have you been without food now?”

  “Ten days.”

  “Do you feel weak?”

  “Yes.”

  “When will you break your fast?”

  “Twelfth day.”

  “Do you expect to have the rains by then?”

  “Why not?”

  “Can fasting abolish all wars and bring world peace?”

  “Yes.”

  “Do you champion fasting for everyone?”

  “Yes.”

  “What about the caste system? Is it going?”

  “Yes.”

  “Will you tell us something about your early life?”

  “What do you want me to say?”

  “Er—for instance, have you always been a yogi?”

  “Yes; more or less.”

  It was very hard for the Swami to keep up a continuous flow of talk. He felt exhausted and lay back. Velan and others looked on with concern. The schoolmaster said, “He is fatigued.”

  “Well, I guess we will let him rest for a while. I’m sorry to bother you.”

  The Swami lay back with his eyes closed. A couple of doctors, deputed by the government to watch and report, went to the Swami, felt his pulse and heart. They helped him to stretch himself on the mat. A big hush fell upon the crowd. Velan plied his fan more vigorously than ever. He looked distraught and unhappy. In fact, keeping a sympathetic fast, he was now eating on alternate days, confining his diet to saltless boiled greens. He looked worn out. He said to the master, “One more day. I don’t know how he is going to bear it. I dread to think how he can pull through another day.”

  Malone resigned himself to waiting. He looked at the doctor and asked, “How do you find him?”

  “Not very satisfactory; blood pressure is two hundred systolic. We suspect one of the kidneys is affected. Uremia is setting in. We are trying to give him small doses of saline and glucose. His life is valuable to the country.”

  “Would you say a few words about his health?” Malone asked, thrusting his microphone forward. He was sitting on the head of a carved elephant decorating the steps to the pillared hall.

  The doctors looked at each other in panic and said, “Sorry, We are government servants—we cannot do it without permission. Our reports are released only from headquarters. We cannot give them direct. Sorry.”

  “Okay. I wouldn’t hurt your customs.” He looked at his watch and said, “I guess that’s all for the day.” He approached the schoolmaster and said, “Tell me, what time does he step into the river tomorrow?”

  “Six a.m.”

  “Could you come over and show me the location?” The schoolmaster got up and took him along. The man said, “Wait, wait. You’ll not mind understudying for him for a minute. Show me where he starts from, how he goes up, and where he stops and stands.”

  The teacher hesitated, feeling too shy to understudy the sage. The man urged him on. “Come on; be cooperative. I’ll take care of it, if there is any trouble.”

  The teacher started from the pedestal. “He starts here. Now follow me.” He showed the whole route down to the river, and the spot where the Swami would stop and pray, standing in water for two hours. The crowd followed keenly every inch of this movement, and someone in the crowd was joking, “Oh! The master is also going to do penance and starve!” And they all laughed.

  Malone threw a smile at them from time to time, although he did not know what they were saying. He surveyed the place from various angles, measured the distance from the generator, shook the schoolmaster’s hand, and went back to his jeep. “See you tomorrow morning.” He drove off amidst a great roar and puffing of his engine as his jeep rattled over the pits and ditches beyond the hibiscus, until he reached the road.

  The eleventh day, morning. The crowd, pouring in all night, had nearly trebled itself because it was the last day of the fast. All night one could hear voices of people and the sound of vehicles rattling over the roads and pathways. Velan and a band of his assistants formed a cordon and kept the crowd out of the pillared hall. They said, “The Swami must have fresh air to breathe. It’s the only thing he takes now. Don’t choke the air. Everyone can have his darshan at the river. I promise. Go away now. He is resting.” It was an all-night vigil. The numerous lanterns and lamps created a crisscross of bewildering shadows on all hedges, trees, and walls.

  At five-thirty in the morning the doctors examined the Swami. They wrote and signed a bulletin saying: “Swami’s condition
grave. Declines glucose and saline. Should break the fast immediately. Advise procedure.” They sent a man running to send off this telegram to their headquarters.

  It was a top-priority government telegram, and it fetched a reply within an hour: “Imperative that Swami should be saved. Persuade best to cooperate. Should not risk life. Try give glucose and saline. Persuade Swami resume fast later.”

  They set beside the Swami and read the message to him. He smiled at it. He beckoned Velan to come nearer.

  The doctors appealed, “Tell him he should save himself. Please, do your best. He is very weak.”

  Velan bent close to the Swami and said, “The doctors say—”

  In answer Raju asked the man to bend nearer, and whispered, “Help me to my feet,” and clung to his arm and lifted himself. He got up to his feet. He had to be held by Velan and another on each side. In the profoundest silence the crowd followed him down. Everyone followed at a solemn, silent pace. The eastern sky was red. Many in the camp were still sleeping. Raju could not walk, but he insisted upon pulling himself along all the same. He panted with the effort. He went down the steps of the river, halting for breath on each step, and finally reached his basin of water. He stepped into it, shut his eyes, and turned toward the mountain, his lips muttering the prayer. Velan and another held him each by an arm. The morning sun was out by now; a great shaft of light illuminated the surroundings. It was difficult to hold Raju on his feet, as he had a tendency to flop down. They held him as if he were a baby. Raju opened his eyes, looked about, and said, “Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs—” He sagged down.

 
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