Read A Tiger for Malgudi Online

Authors: R. K. Narayan

A Tiger for Malgudi (6 page)

‘Why should I have done that?’
‘I can’t answer it; people only follow their inclinations, and sooner or later find their reward or retribution. That’s the natural law of life, as inevitable as the ripening of a mango in its season or the fall of a withered leaf.’
For days they kept me without food and water. Only Captain with his companion would come to observe me, and then comment, and leave. I lost all my strength and could hardly stand up, much less pace around my cage. Even that little movement was lost; I might be a carcass for all it mattered. In this state my cage was moved one day and the door opened. I was let into a larger enclosure. I jumped out gratefully, but I found that my legs could not support me. But Captain was there at the centre of the enclosure and would not let me lie down. He was uttering a command in a voice which could be audible in the next jungle. He held a long whip in one hand and a chair in the other. He lashed my face several times. My face smarted. I had never experienced such pain before. When I tried to ward off his attack, he wielded the chair as a shield. With my paws I could only hit the chair, and he constantly poked my face with it. He commanded, ‘Run, run,’and kept repeating it with every lashing.
To my shame and dismay, this was being watched by other animals, beyond the enclosure. First time I was setting eyes on those odd, unfamiliar creatures. I could not understand what species they belonged to. Some of them were tethered to a post, some were free, some in different types of cages. Among the birds I could recognize a parrot, but not some of the long-legged ones. A grotesque one was the camel. I was aghast at its height and humps. A majestic animal, to my surprise a grass-eater, I was told was a horse - there were many of them; a meaner version of the horse, not so handsome either, was also there, a donkey. Another one that took my breath away was a hippopotamus, which I mistook for a piece of ill-shaped mountain. Of course I could recognize the ape, which moved about freely - shaggy one with awkward swinging arms, which seemed to be well integrated in human society, able to move with humans on equal terms ... I had a glimpse of a bear, but no deer, which did not seem to have come to the notice of Captain. So far so good for them; only cursed creatures, weighed down with the
of their previous lives, seemed to have come to his notice, who wielded his chair and whip like a maniac. I now understand that he had held me up as a lesson to other creatures, of what awaited them if they did not obey. At least they were fortunate in knowing how to show their obedience. They were all excellent performers; I was to become a colleague of theirs.
I was ignorant, bewildered, and in pain. It’d have been a relief to be able to pounce on that man and leave it to chance for one of us to survive. But that chair which he held made it impossible for me to approach him, while his whip could reach me all over. He was crying out like a frenzied creature, ‘Run, run, come on!’While I stood paralysed and in great suffering, I heard one of those watching animals suggest to me in our language, which no tyrant could suspect or suppress as it would sound like merely a grunt or a sigh, ‘He wants you to run round and round as if stung by bees at your backside. Do it and he will stop beating you. Otherwise you have no chance.’I couldn’t guess where the message came from — could be the elephant placidly munching sugar cane, giving no suspicion of ever noticing my predicament, except through a corner of his eye. Ah, that was a great help.
I said to my well-wisher, ‘But I feel faint, can’t stand on my feet, starving, not even a drink of water.’
‘Never mind. You will get everything - only run round as he commands. He is a madcap and we must learn to live with him. We are in his hands.’
‘Why do you tolerate him? Any one of us can stamp him out.’
‘Not so easily, he is really stronger than ten of us. Once all of us tried and were sorry for it ...’Mutual communication was one privilege left for us animals: human beings could not interfere with our freedom of speech because they never suspect that we have our own codes, signals, and idioms. Fortunately they usually did not notice when we grunted, hissed or sighed, but when they did, they would talk among themselves anxiously: ‘Poor thing is making peculiar noises, I hope it is not going to be sick. Must tell the veterinarian to look over the beast: it must be in perfect form for the show tomorrow, for the specially advertised item, otherwise the public will smash the chairs and the gallery...’
The ape was the most light-hearted of all. He was the happiest animal in the circus, walking about freely in human company, fondly clinging to the finger of one or the other — even holding hands with Captain sometimes. He must be conceited, fancying himself to be a human being; smoking cigarettes, sitting in chairs and drinking tea from cups, wearing trousers and coat and cap and spectacles, and chattering merrily all the time. His acts in the ring were not different from what he did outside the ring — except a cycle ride combined with trapeze acts. He continuously chattered, grinned and grimaced - a happy soul. In my first glimpse of him, he also added a word of his own: ‘Hey tiger, run round and round as our boss demands. Let us hope and pray we’ll see the day when he’ll do the running and we shall hold the whip ... Anyway, till that good day arrives, obey him and that simpleton will protect and feed us - we are at least spared the trouble of seeking food and preserving ourselves from enemies. He is doing all that for us. He is a damned fool, but doesn’t know it; thinks that he is the Lord of the Universe.’
‘At one time, I had also thought so of myself,’I said.
I ran round and round in circles in pursuit of nothing - and that seemed a very foolish senseless act. At least a hare running ahead would have provided a show of reason for running. But that’s how Captain seemed to want it; I held my breath, and though my eyes were darkening with faintness, I ran and kept running as long as he kept the whip cracking in the air without touching my back - and that was some improvement indeed. He went gyrating round and round following my movement. It seemed as much hard work for him as for me. When the cracking of his whip ceased, I too stopped. It was not possible to run any more. I was ready to fall into a faint and probably breathe my last; breath coming and going so fast. When I came near my cage I found the door open and leaped in and lay down - expecting to be killed outright for my disobedience. But when I opened my eyes, I saw Captain outside looking at me more kindly than ever. ‘Well, that was a fine performance. I now have confidence that we can use him.’The whip and the chair were put away and he was unarmed, and that itself seemed to me a good sign. My cage was wheeled away to its original place, away from other animals. I was sorry because I felt better watching others and being in communion with them. Just as I was closing my eyes, some warders poled and prodded me to move to another cage. I was happy to find there pieces of meat and a trough of water. My first piece of education.
I understood the business now and the routine to be followed. Every day at the same hour they would drive me into a wheeled cage and draw it to the larger enclosure and let me out, where Captain waited with chair and whip. The moment the door was raised and the whip was flourished, I started running round and round. Then back to the cage, to be wheeled off to my home, which I found cleaned and washed and with food kept for me. That was very welcome. I’d have nothing more to do for the rest of the day. Life was not so bad after all. Captain was not such a monster after all. I began to respect him for his capabilities. I began to admire him - a sort of worshipful attitude was developing in me. I had thought in the jungle that I was supreme. Now that was gone. I was a defeated king, and Captain was the unquestioned suzerain. After all, what he expected of me seemed so simple - instead of understanding it, I allowed myself to be beaten, and suffered through ignorance. And running around the enclosure was quite beneficial for one cooped up in a cage all day.
But soon I was to realize that that was not all. It was only a preparation. When I became an adept at running, I was ready for the next stage of education. The more difficult part was still to come.
I was let out into the enclosure as usual one day, Captain alert as ever with his chair and whip. At the crack of the whip, I started running as usual, but I found my passage obstructed by a strange object which I later knew as a stand, placed across my path. I checked my pace, at which he let out a cry, ‘Jump! Go on, jump!’ and the whip came lashing on me. All the good name I had earned and the good feeling I had developed for Captain seemed to be lost. I felt infuriated at the lashing and felt like jumping on him; but he held that terrible chair. Now I know a chair is a worthless, harmless piece of furniture but at that time I dreaded the sight of it. It appeared to me a mighty engine of destruction. How Captain and men like him could ever have realized how a chair would look to a tiger is really a wonder. Now I have enough understanding of life to smash a chair if it is flourished before my eyes. But then a chair looked terrible. When I was lashed, once again all the old terror of not knowing what I should do came back to me. My friends who had advised me on the first day were not there. They had been taken away to some other part of the camp by their trainers; it was a vast world where many activities took place according to Captain’s plans.
I stumbled on the obstacle and kicked it away and ran on my usual round. This enraged Captain, and he came dashing behind me shouting in a frenzy, ‘Jump! Jump!’and applying the whip liberally. I thought that this man was unsteady, alternating between occasional sanity and general madness. At the moment he was in the latter phase. What did he mean by bothering me like this, forcing me to do some obscure act? I ran hither and thither and tried to run back into the cage. That made him more angry. He came after me in a delirium and hit me as I crouched trembling in the cage. He shouted and ordered me out; I jumped out and started running round and came against the hurdle once again, knocked it down and ran hither and thither and went back into the cage. Red in the face and panting like an engine, Captain ordered, ‘Take the devil away. Off rations for three days, not even water, and he will come round, you will see ...’He kept glaring at me.
Now I follow human speech, by the grace of my Master, but in those days I was dense and did not know what the word ‘jump’ meant, and suffered untold misery. Today I would have immediately understood that Captain wished me to cross the hurdle in a jump and proceed to go round, come back to the hurdle and jump over it again and again until he was satisfied that I had mastered the art. Absolutely a pointless accomplishment, but Captain had set his heart on it. On the day I understood and performed it, he was beside himself with joy. He stroked my back with the whip handle as I gratefully rushed back to my cage and said, ‘Good. Keep it up; now you have earned your dinner ...’
Every day I was put through this exercise. After a course of this, the next was only an elaboration of it. A few more obstacles were placed along the course of my run and they had to be cleared with the same smartness. My only aim now was to please Captain, and when I did that I got the reward, pieces of meat and water and undisturbed sleep in my cage. The hurdles were of different kinds, some labyrinth-like, some so twisted that I feared I might get permanently crooked. Into some I had to crawl on my belly and then out; some hurdles would lead me back to my starting point, and I had to clear them at the same speed, while he went gyrating like a spring doll, cracking his whip and commanding: ‘Come on, come on, don’t waste your time.’ He held a watch in his hand and timed my run and movements, so that whatever perverse design he might have, I had to come through to the starting point at the same time. During the actual performance, he would announce: ‘Raja is now running at a speed of sixty miles an hour, the pace he generally maintains while chasing game in the jungle. From his starting point in the ring back to the same spot in two minutes five seconds. Whether he goes one round or several rounds he will maintain the same speed. After that you will see him go through several kinds of obstacles, hurdles and mazes ... You will see, ladies and gentlemen, that whatever the hurdle, he clears it and finishes his round within the same time, adjusting his pace appropriately. He is uncanny in his timing. Anyone who wants to prove that he takes more time and I am wrong, is welcome to step in here and hold this stop-watch I have in hand. Anyone who can prove that he takes even one more second than what I have claimed will get a reward of five hundred rupees ...’ And he flourished five fresh one-hundred-rupee notes in the air. Quite a few in the audience came down but, finding that they were expected to stand within the enclosure to try their luck, withdrew.
Captain had a vast army working for him - trapeze artistes, clowns, trainers of monkeys and parrots and so on, horse riders, elephant and camel men. Each one handled a particular animal and had influence over it; there was one who could even make the hippo climb some height and occupy a stool. Every one of them had his peculiarities and problems and had to be kept in good humour as well as discipline. Captain’s wife, Rita, was at the head of the trapeze team. He had many workers, who pulled, pushed, unrolled carpets and set up fences, furniture, and various other properties, and changed them quickly for the next item. As I became an established member of that circus, I was not isolated any more, but was allowed to stay around Captain in my cage. Thus I was able to watch him all day. And I also picked up a lot of information from other gossiping animals when we were kept near each other. The chimp was always bursting with news. Whenever we gathered together our main topic was the boss. He had other animals including a lion, which remained aloof but kept roaring incessantly, stimulating all other animals to make a noise. When Captain wanted quiet, he would go round cracking his whip and shout ‘Shut up!’in a thundering voice, overwhelming the lion’s roar. At that time, I only knew that he had some concern for me, but I was not ripe enough to grasp the meaning of what was happening. Only in recollection now can I appreciate Captain’s energy and power and the variety of tasks he was able to perform: to be successful and provide all that variety and quantity of food for us, also appear on stage, and do a great deal of off-stage work too, such as checking accounts, making payments, handling his men and so forth, activities that would go on far into the night. In the midst of all this he would also be thinking of new turns and tricks and novelties to announce to the public.

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