The Guide by R. K. Narayan

  My father ignored food and sleep when he had company. My mother sent me out several times to see if he could be made to turn in. He was a man of uncertain temper and one could not really guess how he would react to interruptions, and so my mother coached me to go up, watch his mood, and gently remind him of food and home. I stood under the shop awning, coughing and clearing my throat, hoping to catch his eye. But the talk was all-absorbing and he would not glance in my direction, and I got absorbed in their talk, although I did not understand a word of it.

  After a while my mother’s voice came gently on the night air, calling, “Raju, Raju,” and my father interrupted his activities to look at me and say, “Tell your mother not to wait for me. Tell her to place a handful of rice and buttermilk in a bowl, with just one piece of lime pickle, and keep it in the oven for me. I’ll come in later.” It was almost a formula with him five days in a week. He always added, “Not that I’m really hungry tonight.” And then I believe he went on to discuss health problems with his cronies.

  But I didn’t stop to hear further. I made a swift dash back home. There was a dark patch between the light from the shop and the dim lantern shedding its light on our threshold, a matter of about ten yards, I suppose, but the passage through it gave me a cold sweat. I expected wild animals and supernatural creatures to emerge and grab me. My mother waited on the doorstep to receive me and said, “Not hungry, I suppose! That’ll give him an excuse to talk to the village folk all night, and then come in for an hour’s sleep and get up with the crowing of that foolish cock somewhere. He will spoil his health.”

  I followed her into the kitchen. She placed my plate and hers side by side on the floor, drew the rice-pot within reach, and served me and herself simultaneously, and we finished our dinner by the sooty tin lamp stuck on a nail in the wall. She unrolled a mat for me in the front room, and I lay down to sleep. She sat at my side, awaiting Father’s return. Her presence gave me a feeling of inexplicable coziness. I felt I ought to put her proximity to good use, and complained, “Something is bothering my hair,” and she ran her fingers through my hair and scratched the nape of my neck. And then I commanded, “A story.”

  Immediately she began, “Once upon a time there was a man called Devaka . . .” I heard his name mentioned almost every night. He was a hero, saint, or something of the kind. I never learned fully what he did or why, sleep overcoming me before my mother was through even the preamble.

  “May I know why?” he asked humbly.

  “It is so,” Raju said with an air of finality.

  “When may I trouble you, sir?” he asked.

  Raju replied grandly, “When the time is ripe for it.” This took the matter from the realms of time into eternity. Velan accepted his answer with resignation and rose to go. It was rather touching. Raju felt indebted to him for the edibles he had brought, so he said pacifyingly, “Is this the sister you told me about?”

  “Yes, sir; it is.”

  “I know what your problem is, but I wish to give the matter some thought. We cannot force vital solutions. Every question must bide its time. Do you understand?”

  “Yes, sir,” Velan said. He drew his fingers across his brow and said, “Whatever is written here will happen. How can we ever help it?”

  “We may not change it, but we may understand it,” Raju replied grandly. “And to arrive at a proper understanding, time is needed.” Raju felt he was growing wings. Shortly, he felt, he might float in the air and perch himself on the tower of the ancient temple. Nothing was going to surprise him. He suddenly found himself asking, “Have I been in a prison or in some sort of transmigration?”

  Velan looked relieved and proud to hear so much from his master. He looked significantly at his difficult sister, and she bowed her head in shame. Raju declared, fixedly looking at the girl, “What must happen must happen; no power on earth or in heaven can change its course, just as no one can change the course of that river.” They gazed on the river, as if the clue to their problems lay there, and turned to go. Raju watched them cross the river and climb the opposite bank. Soon they were out of sight.


  We noticed much activity in the field in front of our house. A set of men arrived from the town every morning and were busy in the field all day. We learned that they were building a railway track. They came to my father’s shop for refreshments. My father inquired anxiously, “When shall we have the trains coming in here?”

  If they were in a good mood, they answered, “About six or eight months, who can say?” Or if they were in a black mood, “Don’t ask us. Next you will tell us to drive a locomotive to your shop!” and they laughed grimly.

  Work was going on briskly. I lost to some extent my freedom under the tamarind tree, because trucks were parked there. I climbed into them and played. No one minded me. All day I was climbing in and out of the trucks, and my clothes became red with mud. Most of the trucks brought red earth, which was banked up on the field. In a short while a small mountain was raised in front of our house. It was enchanting. When I stood on the top of this mound I could see far-off places, the hazy outlines of Mempi Hills. I became as busy as the men. I spent all my time in the company of those working on the track, listening to their talk and sharing their jokes. More trucks came, bringing timber and iron. A variety of goods was piling up on every side. Presently I began to collect sawn-off metal bits, nuts, and bolts, and I treasured them in my mother’s big trunk, where a space was allotted to me amidst her ancient silk saris, which she never wore.

  “Why?” he asked. “My cows are here, I’m watching them.”

  “Begone with your cows,” I said. “Otherwise they will be run over by the train, which will be here shortly.”

  “Let them be. What do you care?” he said, which irritated me so much that I let out a yell and pounced on him with “You son of a . . .” and a variety of other expressions recently picked up. The boy, instead of knocking me down, ran screaming to my father. “Your son is using bad language.”

  My father sprang up on hearing this. Just my misfortune. He came rushing toward me as I was resuming my game and asked, “What did you call this boy?” I had the good sense not to repeat it. I blinked, wordlessly, at which the boy repeated exactly what I had said. This produced an unexpectedly violent effect on my father. He grabbed my neck within the hollow of his hand, and asked, “Where did you pick that up?” I pointed at the men working on the track. He looked up, remained silent for a second, and said, “Oh, that is so, is it? You will not idle about picking up bad words any more. I will see to it. You will go to a school tomorrow and every day.”

  “Father!” I cried. He was passing a harsh sentence on me. To be removed from a place I loved to a place I loathed!

  I walked endlessly to reach my school. No other boy went in my direction. I talked to myself on the way, paused to observe the passers-by or a country cart lumbering along, or a grasshopper going under a culvert. My progress was so halting and slow that when I turned into the Market Street I could hear my class-mates shouting their lessons in unison, for the old man, our master, who taught us, believed in getting the maximum noise out of his pupils.

  I don’t know on whose advice my father chose to send me here for my education, while the fashionable Albert Mission School was quite close by. I’d have felt proud to call myself an Albert Mission boy. But I often heard my father declare, “I don’t want to send my boy there; it seems they try to convert our boys into Christians and are all the time insulting our gods.” I don’t know how he got the notion; anyway, he was firmly convinced that the school where I was sent was the best under the sun. He was known to boast, “Many students who have passed through the hands of this ancient master are now big officials at Madras, collectors and men like that. . . .” It was purely his own imagining or the invention of the old man who taught me. No one could dream that this was in any sense a school, let alone an outstanding school. It was what was called a pyol school, because the classes were held on the p
yol of the gentleman’s house. He lived in Kabir Lane, in a narrow old house with a cement pyol in front, with the street drain running right below it. He gathered a score of young boys of my age every morning on the pyol, reclined on a cushion in a corner, and shouted at the little fellows, flourishing a rattan cane all the time. All the classes were held there at the same time, and he bestowed attention on each group in turn. I belonged to the youngest and most elementary set, just learning the alphabet and numbers. He made us read aloud from our books and copy down the letters on our slates, and looked through each and gave corrections and flicks from the cane for those who repeated their follies. He was a very abusive man. My father, who wanted to save me from the language of the railway trackmen, had certainly not made a safer choice in sending me to this old man, who habitually addressed his pupils as donkeys and traced their genealogies on either side with thoroughness.

  The thing that irritated him was not merely the mistakes that we made but our very presence. Seeing us, such short, clumsy youngsters, always fumbling and shuffling, I think got on his nerves. Of course, we made a lot of noise on his pyol. When he went into his house for a moment’s nap or for his food or for any of a dozen domestic calls, we rolled over each other, fought, scratched, bleated, and yelled. Or we tried to invade his privacy and peep in. Once we slipped in and passed from room to room until we came to the kitchen and saw him sitting before the oven, baking something. We stood at the doorway and said, “Oh, master, you know how to cook also!” and giggled, and a lady who was standing nearby also giggled at our remark.

  He turned on us fiercely and ordered, “Get out, boys; don’t come here; this is not your classroom,” and we scampered back to our place, where he found us later and twisted our ears until we screamed. He said, “I am admitting you devils here because I want you to become civilized, but what you do is . . .” and he catalogued our sins and misdeeds.

  We were contrite, and he softened and said, “Hereafter let me not catch you anywhere beyond that threshold. I will hand you over to the police if you come in.” That settled it. We never peeped in again, but when his back was turned confined our attention to the drain that flowed beneath the pyol. We tore off loose leaves from our notebooks, made boats, and floated them down the drain, and in a short while it became an established practice, and a kind of boat-racing developed out of it; we lay on our bellies and watched the boats float away on the drainwater. He warned us, “If you fall off into the gutter, you will find yourselves in the Sarayu River, remember, and I shall have to tell your father to go out and look for you there, I suppose!” and he laughed at the grim prospect.

  His interest in us was one rupee a month and anything else in kind we cared to carry. My father sent him every month two cubes of jaggery, others brought in rice and vegetables and anything else he might demand from time to time. Whenever his store at home ran out, he called one or another to his side and said, “Now if you are a good boy, you will run to your house and fetch me just a little, only so much, mind you, of sugar. Come, let me see if you are smart!” He adopted a kindly, canvassing tone on such occasions, and we felt honored to be able to serve him, and pestered our parents to give us the gifts and fought for the honor of serving him. Our parents showed an excessive readiness to oblige this master, grateful probably because he kept us in his charge for the major part of the day, from morning till four in the afternoon, when he dismissed us and we sprinted homeward.

  In spite of all the apparent violence and purposelessness, I suppose we did make good under our master, for within a year I proved good enough for the first standard in Board High School; I could read heavier books, and do multiplication up to twenty in my head. The old master himself escorted me to the Board School, which had just established itself, and admitted me there; he saw me off in my new class, seated me and two others, and blessed us before taking leave of us. It was a pleasant surprise for us that he could be so kind.

  “I’m so happy—how?”

  “My sister came before our family gathering and admitted her follies. She has agreed . . .” He went on to explain. The girl had all of a sudden appeared before the assembled family that morning. She faced everyone straight and said, “I have behaved foolishly all these days. I will do what my brother and the other elders at home tell me to do. They know what is best for us.”

  “I could hardly believe my ears,” explained Velan. “I pinched myself to see whether I was dreaming or awake. This girl’s affair had cast a gloom on our home. If you left out our partition suit and all the complications arising from it, we had no worry to equal this. You see, we are fond of the girl, and it pained us to watch her sulk in a dark room, without minding her appearance or dress or caring for food. We did our best to make her cheerful and then had to leave her alone. We had all been very miserable on account of her, and so we were surprised this morning when she came before us with her hair oiled and braided, with flowers in it. Looking bright, she said, ‘I have been a bother to you all these days. Forgive me, all of you. I shall do whatever my elders order me to do.’ Naturally, after we got over the surprise, we asked, ‘Are you prepared to marry your cousin?’ She did not answer at once, but stood with bowed head. My wife took her aside and asked whether we might send word to the other family, and she agreed. We have sent the happy message around, and there will soon be a marriage in our house. I have money, jewelry, and everything ready. I will call the pipers and drummers tomorrow morning and get through it all quickly. I have consulted the astrologer already, and he says that this is an auspicious time. I do not want to delay even for a second the happy event.”

  “For fear that she may change her mind once again?” Raju asked. He knew why Velan was rushing it through at this pace. It was easy to guess why. But the remark threw the other into a fit of admiration, and he asked, “How did you know what I had in mind, sir?”

  Raju remained silent. He could not open his lips without provoking admiration. This was a dangerous state of affairs. He was in a mood to debunk himself a little. He told Velan sharply, “There is nothing extraordinary in my guess,” and promptly came the reply, “Not for you to say that, sir. Things may look easy enough for a giant, but ordinary poor mortals like us can never know what goes on in other people’s minds.”

  To divert his attention, Raju simply asked, “Have you any idea of the views of the bridegroom? Is he ready for you? What does he think of her refusal?”

  “After the girl came round, I sent our priest to discuss it with him, and he has come back to say that the boy is willing. He prefers not to think of what is gone. What is gone is gone.”

  “True, true,” Raju said, having nothing else to say and not wishing to utter anything that might seem too brilliant. He was beginning to dread his own smartness nowadays. He was afraid to open his lips. A vow of silence was indicated, but there was greater danger in silence.

  All this prudence did not save him. Velan’s affairs were satisfactorily ended. One day he came to invite Raju to his sister’s marriage, and Raju had to plead long and hard before he could make him leave him alone. However, Velan brought him fruit on huge trays covered with silk cloth, the sort of offering which Raju would conjure up for the edification of his tourists when he took them through an ancient palace or hall. He accepted the gift gracefully.

  He avoided the girl’s marriage. He did not want to be seen in a crowd, and he did not want to gather a crowd around him as a man who had worked a change in an obstinate girl. But his aloofness did not save him. If he would not go to the wedding, the wedding was bound to come to him. At the earliest possible moment Velan brought the girl and her husband and a huge concourse of relatives to the temple. The girl herself seemed to have spoken of Raju as her savior. She had told everyone, “He doesn’t speak to anyone, but if he looks at you, you are changed.”

  One evening before the company arrived he moved himself to the backyard of the temple and hid himself behind a gigantic hibiscus bush full of red flowers. He heard them arrive, heard their voi
ces on the river step. They were talking in low, hushed voices. They went round the building and passed by the hibiscus bush. Raju’s heart palpitated as he crouched there like an animal at bay. He held his breath and waited. He was already planning to offer an explanation if they should discover his presence there. He would say that he was in deep thought and that the hibiscus shade was congenial for such contemplation. But fortunately they did not look for him there. They stood near the bush talking in a hushed, awed whisper. Said one, “Where could he have gone?”

  “He is a big man, he may go anywhere; he may have a thousand things to do.”

  “Oh, you don’t know. He has renounced the world; he does nothing but meditate. What a pity he is not here today!”

  “Just sitting there for a few minutes with him—ah, what a change it has brought about in our household! Do you know, that cousin of mine came round last night and gave me back the promissory note. As long as he held it, I felt as if I had put a knife in his hand for stabbing us.”

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