Read A Tiger for Malgudi Online

Authors: R. K. Narayan

A Tiger for Malgudi (2 page)

Every creature in the jungle trembled when it sensed my approach. ‘Let them tremble and understand who is the Master, Lord of this world,’I thought with pride. When I strode out from the cave, the scent went ahead, and except monkeys and birds on trees all other creatures shrank out of sight. While I prowled through, half-sunk in jungle grass, I expected the deferential withdrawal from my path of other creatures. We the denizens of the jungle can communicate, without words, exactly as human beings do - we are capable of expressing to each other sympathy, warning, abuse, irony, insult, love and hatred exactly in the manner of human beings, but only when necessary, unlike human beings who talk all their waking hours, and even in sleep. When I passed by, rabbits scurried off, and if a jackal happened to be in my path, he put his ears back, lowered his tail, rolled his eyes in humility, and cried softly: ‘Here comes our Lord and Master. Keep his path clear ...’ Such attention pleased me, and seemed to add to my stature. Occasionally I came across a recalcitrant member of our society who probably thought highly of himself and I always noted, through a corner of my eye, how he pretended not to have seen me, looking the other way or asleep behind a thorny bush out of my reach. I made a mental note of such lapses of courtesy and never failed to punish him when a chance occurred. It might not be more than a scratch or a bite while passing him the next time, but that would take days to heal, and he would lose an eye or a tooth or earn a cut on his lips making it impossible for him to eat his food, all of which I counted as a trophy. Whenever I saw the creature again, you may be sure he never displayed any arrogance. Among our jungle community, we had an understanding, which was an acknowledgement of my superiority, unquestioned, undisputed. My Master, when I mentioned it, explained that it was also true of human beings in various degrees and versions.
While all living creatures avoided me, there was one which I took great care to avoid - the porcupine, after an early experience. Out of a sort of recklessness I once tried to toss him about, and received such a stab of quills over my nose, jaws, and paws that I retreated to my cave and collapsed. I lay there starving for several days; I expected I would soon be dead. A long-tailed, black-faced langur, perched at a safe distance on the branch of a fig tree, munching fruits as the monkey tribe always do, simpered, leered, and said, ‘Served you right. No one in his right mind would ever go near a porcupine. Ignorant fool. Should you run after every kind of flesh indiscriminately? You think no end of your prowess!’I looked up and growled, wishing I could reach him. (He then went out and spread the news far and wide, making it the joke of the season in the jungle.) ‘Shut up,’I cried, and the long-tailed one said, ‘Yes, after I have said this, you despot, now listen carefully. If you can move yourself across the stream, not far off there is a yellow shrub with bristles. Brush against it; milk from its leaves will loosen the quills and heal your sores. You see that hollow over there, go, drop yourself in it, sink down in it, roll in it; it is full of those plants ...’
Forgive me, if you find me running into the past. Whenever I recollect my forest life, I am likely to lose all restraint. I have often felt guilty at reminiscing, but my Master, who reads my mind, has said that there is nothing wrong in it, and advises me not to curb it - it being also a part of my own life, indispensable and unshakable although I have come a long way from it...
I only worried about monkeys - they lived at a height and moved and ran about as they pleased, and thought they were above the normal rules and laws of the jungle, a mischievous tribe. I was aware of how they hopped from place to place, hiding amidst foliage, bearing malicious rumours and trying to damage my authority. Their allies were birds which lived at a height and enjoyed greater facility than monkeys in that they could fly away at my approach. How I longed sometimes to be able to climb or fly even a short distance. Then I would have eliminated this whole contemptible clan; I particularly wished to get at the owl, the wise one with his round eyes always looking down his hook nose, a self-appointed adviser to all those despicable creatures who secretly wished my downfall. (I’m only expressing my mentality in those days in the idiom of those times.) Every time I passed below a tree, I would hear a cynical cackle and hoot and if I looked up I’d see the loving couple, the owl and her mate. One would say to the other, ‘When the King passes, what should one do?’There would be some answer to that.
‘If you don’t?’
‘Then he will nip off your head.’
‘Yes - only if he could carry his mighty bulk up a tree trunk...’
The crow was particularly treacherous, always following my movements and creating enough din to reveal where I had the kill, making it impossible for me to eat in peace, sneaking up to peck at my food and retreating when I turned, again and again. Worse than the crow were kites, vultures, eagles and such, which circled loftily in the high heaven, but to no greater purpose than to spot out carrion, glide down and clean it up to the bone. Mean creatures, ever on the watch for someone else’s kill.
Another creature that I had my eyes on was the leopard. I don’t know how many members of that odious family existed in my forest - they didn’t seem to breed or multiply too openly. The leopard was so secretive that you never noticed more than one at a time and hardly ever a family. It has always been a mystery. When I passed by he would climb a tree pointedly to emphasize the fact that he was higher than myself. I tried to ignore this creature, since he possessed great agility and could get beyond anyone’s reach, but he was mean, and always made it clear that he was there and didn’t care for me. He made all kinds of noises while I passed, and purred and growled and sneered. When he was with his mate it was worse. They made audible remarks most insulting to a tiger, and talked among themselves about the superiority of spots over stripes.
There was a jungle superstition about how the tiger came to have stripes. The first tiger in creation was very much like a lion, endowed with a tawny, shining coat of pure gold. Imagine! But he offended some forest spirit, which branded his back with hot coal. Thus goes the fable, which I didn’t believe in, a canard started by some jealous creature like the leopard who felt inferior owing to his spots, but made a virtue of it. The leopard couple sang this fable every time I passed by, a monotonous silly song; I would have put an end to their song if I could have seen where they were - they were mostly unseen, and just streaked away like lightning when glimpsed. I was helpless with this truant. It hurt my pride as a ruler of the jungle, while all other creatures respected my status, bowed to it and kept out of my way. Night and day I spent in planning and thinking how best to humble the leopard or exterminate him. Sometimes I set out to track him down in his lair, in a deep hollow or inside a cave. When I went in quest, he would invariably anticipate my arrival and sneak away, and then sit atop a steep, slippery rock, and eye me with contempt or go up a banyan tree with the ease of a squirrel ... I realized soon that I had to tolerate his existence and bide my time. This was a great worry for me. He disturbed and scared off my game and was ahead of me in hunting.
The leopard was not the last of my worries. I could ignore him and go my way. Not so a female of our species, whom I encountered beyond those mango groves - a creature as large as myself, I suppose. I smelt her presence a long way off. I hesitated whether to turn back or advance. I was out to hunt for the evening, and if I had not been hungry I would have withdrawn and gone my way in a different direction. But I was proceeding to the meadow beyond the valley where I knew a herd of deer always grazed. I noticed her sitting erect in the middle of the road blocking my passage. I’d never seen her before; probably from an adjoining forest. Normally we respected each other’s territories and never intruded. My temper rose at the sight of her. ‘Get out of my way and go back where you belong,’I roared. She just took it as a joke and showed no response except a slight wave of her tail. This was complete insolence and not to be tolerated. With her back to me she was watching the herd in the meadow. I was furious and jumped on her back and tried to throttle her, with the sort of hold that would make a wild buffalo limp in a second. But this lady surprised me by throwing me off her back with a jerk. My claws were buried in her skin, but that did not make any difference to her as she turned round and gashed my eyes and bit my throat. Fortunately I had shut my eyes, but my brow was torn and blood trickled down my eyes. The jackal, as always attracted by the smell of blood, was there as if summoned, hiding behind a thicket of thorns; he made his presence felt, and mumbled some advice, which was lost in the uproar the lady was creating as she returned for the attack and knocked me off my feet by ramming into me. I have never encountered anyone so strong.
Now the safest course for me would be to retreat gracefully to my cave and get away from this monster quickly. But my dignity would be lost - especially with the jackal there watching my humiliation. I should fight it out, even if one of us were to die in the process. We butted into each other, scratched, clawed, wrestled, grappled, gashing, biting, tearing each other, and I also stood up and threw my weight on her and struck, but it was like beating a rock - she was no normal animal: there is a limit to physical endurance; and I could stand it no longer; I collapsed on the ground bleeding from every pore; I had no strength even to run away, which I wished I had done earlier instead of bothering about prestige before the damned jackal. If I had seized and choked the jackal, I could have saved my blood.
In a few places my skin hung down in ribbons. My satisfaction was that the monster, my adversary, seemed to have fared no better. She had also collapsed in a ditch, no less bloody, with her flesh torn up and exposed. I noticed also that while I could open my eyes with blood dripping, she lay with her eyes swollen and sealed. I remembered aiming at her eyes just as she was trying to gouge out mine, but I seemed to have had better luck. It was her inability to open her eyes, more than physical collapse, which forced her to withdraw.
While both of us lay panting, the jackal came out of his shelter and, standing at a safe distance, raised his voice so that both of us could hear him. He knew that neither of us was in a state to go for him if we did not like his words; all the same he kept his distance and a possible retreat open. The jackal asked with an air of great humility, ‘May I know why you have been fighting and brought on yourselves this misery? If you can show even half of half a reason, I shall be satisfied.’Neither of us could answer, but only moan and growl. For the condition I was in, the jackal could have patted my cheeks or pulled my whiskers and got away with it. I could at least see the world around but the tigress was blinded for the time being.
The jackal continued ingratiatingly, ‘If you cannot discover a reason to be enemies, why don’t you consider being friends? How grand you could make it if you joined forces - you could become supreme in this jungle and the next and the next; no one will ever try to stand up to you, except a crazy tusker, whom you could toss about between you two ... If you combined you could make all the jungle shake.’
His words sounded agreeable. I felt a sudden compassion for my adversary and also gratitude for being spared my life. I struggled to get up on my feet and, mistaking my action, the jackal swiftly withdrew and disappeared before I could say, ‘You have advised us well.’I limped along to the tigress very cautiously and expressed my contrition and desire to make amends. She was in no condition to rise or see me. I cleaned up the bloody mess covering her eyes and sat beside her huge body, paying all attention and performing many acts of tenderness - till she was able to open one eye slightly and stir, and it filled me with dread lest she should kill me instantly. She could have easily done it, if she was so disposed. But a change had come over her too. My ministrations seemed to have helped her to recover her breath, vision, and the use of her limbs. She followed me quietly, although both of us were limping, to an adjacent pond and we splashed about in the water till we were cleansed of blood and felt revived.
We have no reckoning of time in the manner of human beings. But by the time the scars on our backs were dry, a litter of four was added to our family, climbing and jumping over us all the time in the cave.
It was all very well as long as they were sucklings. At that stage they never moved away, their horizon being their mother’s belly. The little ones were happy, continuously suckling, or when fully fed, climbing and jumping over their mother’s immense sides as she stretched herself across the floor of our home. It left me free to roam in the jungle and rest, away from the family. Usually I found the shade of a bamboo cluster very pleasant - I merged in its speckled shade so completely that some little buck or minor game would stray near me, and I’d only have to turn and grab in order to provide food for the cubs.
When they grew up and discovered the use of their limbs, they ran about in different directions. They were now at an unsafe stage. Any bear or bison could trample them out of existence: no reason why such a thing should happen - except that the jungle was a devilish place, where the weak or the young received no consideration for their helpless state. We had to guard them all the time. One would run in the direction of the stream, another wade through, and the third would have climbed a rock, where a colony of giant eagles nested, which might swoop down and carry him off, leaving his bones to bleach in the sun. Equally dangerous were the pythons who just swallowed whole whatever came their way. Also there was the danger of the cubs slipping and rolling down into the ravine. We had to save them from destruction every other minute. They were now too large to be carried by the scruff, and we caught and pummelled them along back into the cave, and one of us would lie across the entrance to prevent their going out again. This could be no permanent solution.

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