The Guide by R. K. Narayan

  “Don’t you attend to the inmates?”

  “Not until they come out. It is my brother’s son who is on duty there. I don’t want to compete with him and I don’t want to enter the jail gates every day.”

  “Not a bad place,” said Raju through the soap.

  “Go back then,” said the barber and asked, “What was it? What did the police say?”

  “Don’t talk of it,” snapped Raju and tried to maintain a sullen, forbidding silence for the rest of the shave.

  But the barber was not to be cowed so easily. His lifelong contact with tough men had hardened him. He said, “Eighteen months or twenty-four? I can bet it’s one or the other.”

  Raju felt admiration for the man. He was a master. It was no use losing one’s temper. “You are so wise and knowing. Why do you ask questions?”

  The barber was pleased with the compliment. His fingers paused in their operations; he bent round to face Raju and say, “Just to get it out of you, that is all. It’s written on your face that you are a two-year sort, which means you are not a murderer.”

  “How can you tell?” Raju said.

  “You would look different if you had been in for seven years, which is what one gets for murder only half-proved.”

  “What else have I not done?” Raju asked.

  “You have not cheated in any big way; but perhaps only in a small, petty manner.”

  “Go on. What next?”

  “You have not abducted or raped anyone, or set fire to a house.”

  “Why don’t you say exactly why I was sent to jail for two years? I’ll give you four annas for a guess.”

  “No time now for a game,” said the barber and went on, “What do you do next?”

  “I don’t know. Must go somewhere, I suppose,” said Raju thoughtfully.

  “In case you like to go back to your old company, why don’t you put your hand in someone’s pocket at the market, or walk through an open door and pick out some trash and let the people howl for the police? They’ll see you back where you want to be.”

  “Not a bad place,” Raju repeated, slightly nodding in the direction of the jail wall. “Friendly people there—but I hate to be awakened every morning at five.”

  “An hour at which a night-prowler likes to return home to bed, I suppose,” said the barber with heavy insinuation. “Well, that’s all. You may get up,” he said, putting away the razor. “You look like a maharaja now”—surveying Raju at a distance from his chair.

  The man replied, “I don’t know. I don’t mean to offend you, sir.” Raju wanted to blurt out, “I am here because I have nowhere else to go. I want to be away from people who may recognize me.” But he hesitated, wondering how he should say it. It looked as though he would be hurting the other’s deepest sentiment if he so much as whispered the word “jail.” He tried at least to say, “I am not so great as you imagine. I am just ordinary.” Before he could fumble and reach the words, the other said, “I have a problem, sir.”

  “Tell me about it,” Raju said, the old, old habit of affording guidance to others asserting itself. Tourists who recommended him to one another would say at one time, “If you are lucky enough to be guided by Raju, you will know everything. He will not only show you all the worth-while places, but also help you in every way.” It was in his nature to get involved in other people’s interests and activities. “Otherwise,” Raju often reflected, “I should have grown up like a thousand other normal persons, without worries in life.”

  Thousands of persons must have said the same thing to her since, but I happened to be the first in the line. Anyone likes to hear flattering sentiments, and more than others, I suppose, dancers. They like to be told every hour of the day how well they keep their steps. I praised her art whenever I could snatch a moment alone with her and whisper in her ear, out of range of that husband of hers. Oh, what a man! I have not met a more grotesque creature in my life. Instead of calling herself Rosie, she could more logically have called him Marco Polo. He dressed like a man about to undertake an expedition—with his thick colored glasses, thick jacket, and a thick helmet over which was perpetually stretched a green, shiny waterproof cover, giving him the appearance of a space traveler. I have, of course, no idea of the original Marco Polo’s appearance, but I wanted to call this man Marco at first sight, and I have not bothered to associate him with any other name since.

  The moment I set eyes on him, on that memorable day at our railway station, I knew that here was a lifelong customer for me. A man who preferred to dress like a permanent tourist was just what a guide passionately looked for all his life.

  You may want to ask why I became a guide or when. I was a guide for the same reason as someone else is a signaler, porter, or guard. It is fated thus. Don’t laugh at my railway associations. The railways got into my blood very early in life. Engines with their tremendous clanging and smoke ensnared my senses. I felt at home on the railway platform, and considered the stationmaster and porter the best company for man, and their railway talk the most enlightened. I grew up in their midst. Ours was a small house opposite the Malgudi station. The house had been built by my father with his own hands long before trains were thought of. He chose this spot because it was outside the town and he could have it cheap. He had dug the earth, kneaded the mud with water from the well, and built the walls, and roofed them with coconut thatch. He planted papaya trees around, which yielded fruit, which he cut up and sold in slices—a single fruit brought him eight annas if he carved it with dexterity. My father had a small shop built of dealwood planks and gunny sack; and all day he sat there selling peppermint, fruit, tobacco, betel leaf, parched gram (which he measured out of tiny bamboo cylinders), and whatever else the wayfarers on the Trunk Road demanded. It was known as the “hut shop.” A crowd of peasants and drivers of bullock wagons were always gathered in front of his shop. A very busy man indeed. At midday he called me when he went in for his lunch and made a routine statement at the same hour. “Raju, take my seat. Be sure to receive the money for whatever you give. Don’t eat off all that eating stuff, it’s kept for sale; call me if you have doubts.”

  And I kept calling aloud, “Father, green peppermints, how many for half an anna?” while the customer waited patiently.

  “Three,” he shouted from the house, with his mouth stuffed with food. “But if he is buying for three-quarters of an anna, give him . . .” He mentioned some complicated concession, which I could never apply.

  I appealed to the customer, “Give me only half an anna,” and gave him three peppermints in return. If by chance I had happened to take four greens out of the big bottle, I swallowed the fourth in order to minimize complications.

  An eccentric cockerel in the neighborhood announced the daybreak when it probably felt that we had slept long enough. It let out a shattering cry which made my father jump from his bed and wake me up.

  I washed myself at the wall, smeared holy ash on my forehead, stood before the framed pictures of gods hanging high up on the wall, and recited all kinds of sacred verse in a loud, ringing tone. After watching my performance for a while, my father slipped away to the backyard to milk the buffalo. Later, coming in with the pail, he always remarked, “Something really wrong with that animal this time. She wouldn’t yield even half a measure today.”

  My mother invariably answered, “I know, I know. She is getting wrong-headed, that is all. I know what she will respond to,” she said in a mysterious, sinister manner, receiving the pail and carrying it into the kitchen. She came out in a moment with a tumblerful of hot milk for me.

  The sugar was kept in an old tin can, which looked rusty but contained excellent sugar. It was kept on a wooden ledge on the smoke-stained wall of the kitchen, out of my reach. I fear that its position was shifted up and up as I grew older, because I remember that I could never get at that rusty can at any time except with the cooperation of my elders.

  When the sky lightened, my father was ready for me on the pyol. There he sat with a
thin broken twig at his side. The modern notions of child psychology were unknown then; the stick was an educator’s indispensable equipment. “The unbeaten brat will remain unlearned,” said my father, quoting an old proverb. He taught me the Tamil alphabet. He wrote the first two letters on each side of my slate at a time. I had to go over the contours of the letters with my pencil endlessly until they became bloated and distorted beyond recognition. From time to time my father snatched the slate from my hand, looked at it, glared at me, and said, “What a mess! You will never prosper in life if you disfigure the sacred letters of the alphabet.” Then he cleaned the slate with his damp towel, wrote the letters again, and gave it to me with the injunction, “If you spoil this, you will make me wild. Trace them exactly as I have written. Don’t try any of your tricks on them,” and he flourished his twig menacingly.

  I said meekly, “Yes, Father,” and started to write again. I can well picture myself, sticking my tongue out, screwing my head to one side, and putting my entire body-weight on the pencil—the slate pencil screeched as I tried to drive it through and my father ordered, “Don’t make all that noise with that horrible pencil of yours. What has come over you?”

  Then followed arithmetic. Two and two, four; four and three, something else. Something into something, more; some more into less. Oh, God numbers did give me a headache. While the birds were out chirping and flying in the cool air, I cursed the fate that confined me to my father’s company. His temper was rising every second. As if in answer to my silent prayer, an early customer was noticed at the door of the hut shop and my lessons came to an abrupt end. My father left me with the remark, “I have better things to do of a morning than make a genius out of a clay-head.”

  Although the lessons had seemed interminable to me, my mother said the moment she saw me, “So you have been let off! I wonder what you can learn in half an hour!”

  I told her, “I’ll go out and play and won’t trouble you. But no more lessons for the day, please.” With that I was off to the shade of a tamarind tree across the road. It was an ancient, spreading tree, dense with leaves, amidst which monkeys and birds lived, bred, and chattered incessantly, feeding on the tender leaves and fruits. Pigs and piglets came from somewhere and nosed about the ground thick with fallen leaves, and I played there all day. I think I involved the pigs in some imaginary game and even fancied myself carried on their backs. My father’s customers greeted me as they passed that way. I had marbles, an iron hoop to roll, and a rubber ball, with which I occupied myself. I hardly knew what time of the day it was or what was happening around me.

  Sometimes my father took me along to the town when he went shopping. He stopped a passing bullock cart for the trip. I hung about anxiously with an appealing look in my eyes (I had been taught not to ask to be taken along) until my father said, “Climb in, little man.” I clambered in before his sentence was completed. The bells around the bull’s neck jingled, the wooden wheels grated and ground the dust off the rough road; I clung to the staves on the sides and felt my bones shaken. Still, I enjoyed the smell of the straw in the cart and all the scenes we passed. Men and vehicles, hogs and boys—the panorama of life enchanted me.

  At the market my father made me sit on a wooden platform within sight of a shopman known to him, and went about to do his shopping. My pockets would be filled with fried nuts and sweets; munching, I watched the activities of the market—people buying and selling, arguing and laughing, swearing and shouting. While my father was gone on his shopping expedition, I remember, a question kept drumming in my head: “Father, you are a shopkeeper yourself. Why do you go about buying in other shops?” I never got an answer. As I sat gazing on the afternoon haze, the continuous din of the marketplace lulled my senses, the dusty glare suddenly made me drowsy, and I fell asleep, leaning on the wall of that unknown place where my father had chosen to put me.

  Raju nodded his head and added, “So has everyone,” in a sudden access of pontificality. Ever since the moment this man had come and sat before him, gazing on his face, he had experienced a feeling of importance. He felt like an actor who was always expected to utter the right sentence. Now the appropriate sentence was, “If you show me a person without a problem, then I’ll show you the perfect world. Do you know what the great Buddha said?” The other edged nearer. “A woman once went wailing to the great Buddha, clasping her dead baby to her bosom. The Buddha said, ‘Go into every home in this city and find one where death is unknown; if you find such a place, fetch me a handful of mustard from there, and then I’ll teach you how to conquer death.’ ”

  The man clicked his tongue in appreciation and asked, “And what happened to the dead baby, sir?”

  “She had to bury it, of course,” said Raju. “So also,” he concluded, while doubting in his mind the relevance of the comparison, “if you show me a single home without a problem, I shall show you the way to attain a universal solution to all problems.”

  The man was overwhelmed by the weightiness of this statement. He performed a deep obeisance and said, “I have not told you my name, sir. I am Velan. My father in his lifetime married thrice. I am the first son of his first wife. The youngest daughter of his last wife is also with us. As the head of the family, I have given her every comfort at home, provided her with all the jewelry and clothes a girl needs, but . . .” He paused slightly before bringing out the big surprise. But Raju completed the sentence for him, “The girl shows no gratitude.”

  “Absolutely, sir!” said the man.

  “And she will not accept your plans for her marriage?”

  “Oh, too true, sir,” Velan said, wonderstruck. “My cousin’s son is a fine boy. Even the date of the wedding was fixed, but do you know, sir, what the girl did?”

  “Ran away from the whole thing,” said Raju, and asked, “How did you bring her back?”

  “I searched for her three days and nights and spotted her in a festival crowd in a distant village. They were pulling the temple chariot around the streets and the population of fifty villages was crowded into one. I searched every face in the crowd and at last caught her while she was watching a puppet show. Now, do you know what she does?” Raju decided to let the other have the satisfaction of saying things himself, and Velan ended his story with, “She sulks in a room all day. I do not know what to do. It is possible that she is possessed. If I could know what to do with her, it’d be such a help, sir.”

  Raju said with a philosophic weariness, “Such things are common in life. One should not let oneself be bothered unduly by anything.”

  “What am I to do with her, sir?”

  “Bring her over; let me speak to her,” Raju said grandly.

  Velan rose, bowed low, and tried to touch Raju’s feet. Raju recoiled at the attempt. “I’ll not permit anyone to do this. God alone is entitled to such a prostration. He will destroy us if we attempt to usurp His rights.” He felt he was attaining the stature of a saint. Velan went down the steps meekly, crossed the river, climbed the opposite bank, and was soon out of sight. Raju ruminated. “I wish I had asked him what the age of the girl was. Hope she is uninteresting. I have had enough trouble in life.”

  He sat there for a long time, watching the river flow into the night; the rustle of the peepul and banyan trees around was sometimes loud and frightening. The sky was clear. Having nothing else to do, he started counting the stars. He said to himself, “I shall be rewarded for this profound service to humanity. People will say, ‘Here is the man who knows the exact number of stars in the sky. If you have any trouble on that account, you had better consult him. He will be your night guide for the skies.’ ” He told himself, “The thing to do is to start from a corner and go on patch by patch. Never work from the top to the horizon, but always the other way.” He was evolving a theory. He started the count from above a fringe of Palmyra trees on his left-hand side, up the course of the river, over to the other side. “One . . . two . . . fifty-five . . .” He suddenly realized that if he looked deeper a new cluster of s
tars came into view; by the time he assimilated it into his reckoning, he realized he had lost sight of his starting point and found himself entangled in hopeless figures. He felt exhausted. He stretched himself on the stone slab and fell asleep under the open sky.

  Raju sat up, rubbing his eyes. He was as yet unprepared to take charge of the world’s affairs. His immediate need was privacy for his morning ablutions. He said to them, “You may go in there and wait for me.”

  He found them waiting for him in the ancient pillared hall. Raju sat himself down on a slightly elevated platform in the middle of the hall. Velan placed before him a basket filled with bananas, cucumbers, pieces of sugar cane, fried nuts, and a copper vessel brimming with milk.

  Raju asked, “What is all this for?”

  “It will please us very much if you will accept them, sir.”

  Raju sat looking at the hamper. It was not unwelcome. He could eat anything and digest it now. He had learned not to be fussy. Formerly he would have said, “Who will eat this? Give me coffee and idli, please, first thing in the day. These are good enough for munching later.” But prison life had trained him to swallow anything at any time. Sometimes a colleague in the cell, managing to smuggle in, through the kindness of a warder, something unpalatable like mutton-puff made six days ago, with its oil going rancid, shared it with Raju, and Raju remembered how he ate it with gusto at three in the morning—a time chosen before the others could wake up and claim a share. Anything was welcome now. He asked, “Why do you do all this for me?”

  “They are grown in our fields and we are proud to offer them to you.”

  Raju did not have to ask further questions. He had gradually come to view himself as a master of these occasions. He had already begun to feel that the adulation directed to him was inevitable. He sat in silence, eying the gift for a while. Suddenly he picked up the basket and went into an inner sanctum. The others followed. Raju stopped before a stone image in the dark recess. It was a tall god with four hands, bearing a mace and wheel, with a beautifully chiseled head, but abandoned a century ago. Raju ceremoniously placed the basket of edibles at the feet of the image and said, “It’s His first. Let the offering go to Him, first; and we will eat the remnant. By giving to God, do you know how it multiplies, rather than divides? Do you know the story?” He began narrating the story of Devaka, a man of ancient times who begged for alms at the temple gate every day and would not use any of his collections without first putting them at the feet of the god. Halfway through the story he realized that he could not remember either its course or its purport. He lapsed into silence. Velan patiently waited for the continuation. He was of the stuff disciples are made of; an unfinished story or an incomplete moral never bothered him; it was all in the scheme of life. When Raju turned and strode majestically back to the river step, Velan and his sister followed him mutely.

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