Read A Tiger for Malgudi Online

Authors: R. K. Narayan

A Tiger for Malgudi (3 page)

A time came when the obstacle at the cave-mouth made no difference to them. When the sentry parent was fallen into a doze, they could easily hop over him and explore the world. Though we enjoyed the spectacle of our cubs’ activities, it was becoming a sore trial. It was my turn one evening to guard the cubs. Their mother had gone out in search of prey. I saw her go down the sandy slope across the river and climb the other bank. I had supposed the cubs were playing inside at the back wall of the cave. But at some moment when I was not alert enough, they must have vaulted over me and escaped. When I woke up I saw them wading across the river, their little heads bobbing above the water. I watched them go, feeling too lazy to run after them. Evidently they were following their mother’s scent. No harm. I could see them go up the opposite bank; they could reach their mother and come back later. After all they had to gain experience: it’d do them good to watch their mother hunt and share a fresh kill.
The air blowing in our direction brought some strange unfamiliar noises, and crackling sounds like twigs breaking. I felt disturbed and bewildered. No sign of the cubs or the mother. I let out a roar that should ring through the forest, valleys and mountains, and summon back my family. Normally when I called there would be an answer, but today there was none - only the twittering of birds waking at dawn. I ventured out, down the sand and across the river, following the course I had watched the cubs take; the scent led me on and on to the ridge, and then down a valley to the plains which had a path leading to human habitations beyond the jungle. I cried in anguish and desperation - but silenced myself and crouched unobtrusively when I noticed far off in the valley down below a line of men passing, pulling and pushing an open cart on which were laid out the cubs and their mother. The men were singing and shouting vociferously, and did not hear my cry. I had thought till now that our jungle home was impregnable, and unapproachable for human beings. In fact, I had hardly seen any specimen till this moment. Now human feet had strayed in and touched our ground, and that brought to my mind strange forebodings. I watched the revellers wend their way. They were too intoxicated to notice me, since I lay concealed behind the boulders. As the procession wound along, I hopped on to another rock and stalked them. As the sun came up my eyes were dazzled, and the procession melted into thin air. I edged to the shade of an overhanging cliff and stayed there.
I slept till dusk. I got up and moved in the direction the procession had gone. I took care not to be noticed by any jungle creature - particularly the owl or the jackal who always spied on my movements. I moved away from the trees on which the owl generally was perched and the bushes where the jackal would be sneaking around. I kept my movements along the rocks on the hill at a safe height. When I arrived at a village, I found most of the inhabitants asleep. Noiselessly I went up and lay beside a well until everything was quiet.
The cart in which the cubs and their mother were laid out was left to one side in the village street. I could see it all clearly from my hiding place. The sight of my family stretched out there filled me with fury. In those days I was still a tiger, an unmitigated animal, and the only feeling that was aroused in me was fury, rather than grief, which I understand now. A blind, impossible anger stirred within me: I just wanted to dash up, pounce upon every creature, bite and claw and destroy. I wanted to spring forward, pick up the cubs and carry them away.
Just as I was getting ready to dash up, a set of human beings arrived in a strange vehicle, which I now understand to be a jeep. They shouted and summoned the villagers. The village was astir and a crowd gathered around the cart, and there was much jabbering, arguments and shouting. I held myself back although I felt a great drive within to pounce on that whole lot and tear their entrails. But I held myself back. No one knew that I was there. I lay low, watched them transfer the carcasses to the back of their jeep, and drive off. The villagers went back to their homes; silence and darkness fell on the village. I came out of my hiding place behind the well and prowled around. Some of the street dogs started barking and woke up the villagers again. Before they could notice me, I withdrew and went back to my hiding place beside the well. Even there I could not stay too long. Women started approaching the well carrying pots and buckets and chattering among themselves; I slipped back and hid myself on the hill behind
Another day’s sun came up, and I dozed off till the evening. When the sun went down again and dusk fell, I watched the villagers returning from their fields, carrying bundles of firewood on their heads, driving their flocks home. I slipped through the
shrub and lay in wait by their path, well concealed behind a boulder, and pounced upon the last animal in a column, seized its throat, and made off with it. My hunger was appeased for at least two days. I could not repeat this strategy. Later when the villager realized that he had lost an animal and followed the bloodstains, I had to change my tactics, as well as my abode. I eluded the villagers again and again.
They must have begun to wonder about the shape of the predator in their midst. ‘Can’t be a tiger,’they must have thought, ‘the hunters have taken away the entire family, by this time they’ll have sold the skin of the adult, and stuffed the cubs as trophies.’
‘But it was a tigress; the father must still be at large.’
‘Oh, no,’the local animal expert must have explained, ‘you must understand that a male tiger hardly ever lives with the family ... Must be a visitor from another forest. Tigers are not family-bound like monkeys and other creatures. Monkeys belong to a more advanced group ...’Human beings have their own theories, and it is always amusing to hear them talk about us. Such ignorance and self-assurance!
Presently they must have concluded: ‘It could not have been a tiger at all, but a cheetah, or even a hyena, which steals up and attacks. A tiger would not be satisfied with a sheep, but always attacks larger cattle ...’
Nowadays I chose a smaller animal from the herd, since I could manage it without leaving a trail, and eat afresh a whole thing. With a larger animal, I had to keep the kill for a second meal, and that always betrayed my presence, since it attracts the wretches who trailed me for scraps and leavings. I kept my abode constantly changing. It was safer and advantageous too to move along the mountain range. It gave me a very wide area of cover. I moved from place to place, and discovered that below the mountain range in the valleys and plains there were human habitations, to which the cattle were driven back in the evenings. I could repeat my tactics everywhere: lie in wait and seize the last one in the herd and vanish. Among those scattered villages, news spread very slowly, and that was to my advantage. I preferred my present method of seeking food - it spared me all the fatigue and uncertainty of hunting in the jungle. Jungle creatures are more alert and elusive than the village cattle, stupid creatures which could never anticipate danger even when passing under my chin while I crouched on a rock.
Village folk soon realized that they were losing their animals regularly. Some thought a devil was around, and were preparing to perform propitiatory ceremonies in their villages. Also they took care to drive their flocks back home while there was still sunlight, and had more men to guard them. This affected me adversely, but only for a short time. I began to scout around the villages at night, when the men put out the lamps and retired for the day.
Once, along a ditch running down a village street, I moved on soft foot; nothing stirred except bandicoots, scampering away. The village mongrels curled in the street dust were unaware, so silently did I move. Otherwise they would have howled and brought the entire village on me. At the centre of the village, I noticed an enclosure made of bamboo and all kinds of brambles and thorn, with a little door of the same kind. The door could not be pushed open by the stupid sheep penned within the stockade, but I could get through it without any effort. I seized the nearest creature, but before I could turn round and get out, the cry of the lamb I had caught set the whole flock bleating, crying, howling in panic, enough noise to wake up the villagers peacefully slumbering in their homes. In a moment they were out, screaming and shouting obscenities at the enemy invading their sanctum. ‘Ah! Now we know! We have him. He must not escape ...’
They came rushing down in great force holding up flaming torches, hatchets, crowbars, and staves. I was about to dash out with my prize, but in the confusion that ensued, I lost sight of the door. I had never seen humans in such a frenzy of shouting. I never knew that humans beings could be so devilish. They were all armed, aimed spears at me and hit me with arrows while I was desperately trying to find a way out. More than their weapons, the sight of their flaming torches, red-coloured and smoking viciously, was completely unnerving. I dropped the lamb, my only ambition now being to escape with my skin intact. I had never been so close to fire: sometimes in summer, we noticed forest fires far off, but they would not be frightening, and we kept our distance from them. But now the fire was choking, blinding and scorching: one fellow flung his torch at me, which singed my skin, another threw a spear which gashed my side; I ran round and round madly; I could not fall upon my pursuers as I could not see them clearly. The crowd was intent on murdering me. They were heaving huge rocks at me. Men in their frenzy seemed to have lost all fear, and boys of all ages were cursing and chasing me round and round - I could have fallen on any of them and scattered them but for the fire in their hands. It was unbearable. I was bleeding from the cuts on my face and limbs and I wished I were dead. I would have welcomed death in preference to the torture I was facing now.
Penned in the stockade, I felt hopeless and exhausted. The monsters chased and tormented me. Luckily for me a mishap occurred at this desperate moment. A boy who was capering with a torch at the end of a bamboo pole, while attempting to poke me, held his flame too close to the fence, which caught fire. Their attention was now diverted to saving the sheep. They demolished the stockade and opened a way out. Wedged between bleating sheep, which received the blows meant for me, I ran out and escaped into the night.
Looking back, I feel that I should not have chosen the easy path - of raiding villages. Stepping into human society was a thoughtless act. Instead of living the rest of my life majestically as an honest-to-god tiger going in and out of his cave, eating and sleeping, performing no act except what he wished, Lord of the Jungle, before whom other creatures from a squirrel to a bear quaked in fear, I had let myself in for ultimate slavery. I had thought that there could never be any creature stronger than a tiger. I was mistaken. A human being may look small, without prominent teeth or claws, but he is endowed with some strange power, which can manoeuvre a tiger or an elephant as if they were toys.
After my attack on the village, people there not only began to guard their cattle better, but also approached the authorities for help. They sent their spokesmen to the town to meet the Collector and demand his help. They were vociferous and gave sensational and exaggerated reports of how a tiger was terrorizing the countryside, invading the villages and carrying away cattle, and mauling and maiming people going into the forests to gather firewood: they gave a list of names of persons who were killed. They were building a case against me and were inventing stories. I had always tried to avoid encounters with human beings, and if I had wanted, could have mangled and messed up the human creatures that had entered the stockade that night in the village. But I didn’t, I didn’t want to. If I had been present at that meeting with the Collector I would have proved that the villagers were lying. But I came to know of it only later in my life.
The Collector, being a man used to such representations, just said: ‘I’ll look into your case. I can’t promise anything. How do you know that there is a tiger around?’
‘We saw it.’
‘How many of you saw it?’
‘All of us ...’said the deputation.
‘How many persons live in your village?’
They looked at each other in consternation, being unfamiliar with numbers. ‘More than a hundred, sir,’ventured an elder.
‘Have all the hundred seen the tiger?’asked the Collector.
‘Yes,’they chorused.
The Collector fixed his gaze on someone arbitrarily and asked, ‘How big was the tiger?’
The man blinked for a minute and then indicated with his hands some size, whereupon another man pushed himself forward and said, ‘He is wrong. The tiger was this big ...’
A heated argument started, many others joined for and against, until the Collector said, ‘Silence, are you both talking of the same tiger or two different ones? Was there one tiger or two or three?’
Someone said, ‘Five in all, sir. Four cubs and a tigress, which were shot.’
‘Who shot them?’asked the Collector.
from the town...’
‘Which town?’
‘We can’t say, sir, we don’t know.’
‘Did they have a licence to shoot? Who gave them licence?’
The petitioners, feeling they were being dragged beyond their depths, became tongue-tied.
The Collector observed them for a moment and said, ‘Have you brought your petition in writing?’They looked terrified, having no notion of the world of letters. The Collector felt compassionate and said, ‘I can’t take action unless there is a written petition. Go to a petition-writer ... you’ll find one in the veranda of the law court or at the market gate. Get the petition engrossed on a stamp-paper of one rupee and fifty paise, and leave it with my clerk at the office. Then I’ll fix a date for inspection and take action ... For all I know there may be no tiger whatever. You may be imagining ! One mentions one tiger and another says five!’And he permitted himself a dignified grin at the joke. ‘However, it is my duty to look into it, if you have a grievance.’

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