Read A Tiger for Malgudi Online

Authors: R. K. Narayan

A Tiger for Malgudi (16 page)

The commotion was at its height when Alphonse, properly armed with the permit, gave a final look to his double-barrelled gun, held it this way and that and looked through the barrel, and shouted a command;‘Your attention, everybody! Everyone must retreat at least a hundred yards before the school gate which will give you an initial advantage if the tiger should decide to chase. No one can foresee how the situation will develop. The beast when shot may smash the door and rush out, and God help anyone in its way. I’ll count ten and this area must be cleared; otherwise, I won’t be responsible for any calamity. Now all clear out ... It’s an emergency. The headmaster or whatever is left of him must be saved without delay. Now clear out, everyone.’He jingled the school-key bunch which he had snatched from the assistant headmaster.‘I’m risking my life ... I’ll push the door open and shoot the same second, normally that should be enough ...’After this he let out a shout like a cattle-driver and a stampede started towards the gate, as he started counting:‘One, two, three ...’
He turned to the chairman and his committee and said, as a special concession,‘You may stay back in that classroom to your left and watch through the window. I’ve reconnoitred that area; it’ll be safe for you to stay there, and you will get a good view through the window, but make sure to bolt the door.’He said to Shekar, ‘Boy, show them the room and stay there yourself with your friend, until I say “all clear”. He may need two shots — the interval between the first one and the second will be crucial. Anything may happen. No once can forecast with a hundred per cent certainty.’
After all these preliminaries, and before delivering the actual assault, Alphonse sat down on the veranda step and took a flask out of his hip pocket, muttering,‘This has been a big strain, must restore my nerves first ...’He took a long swig out of it, while several pairs of eyes were watching him, smacked his lips, shook his head with satisfaction, picked up his gun and examined it keenly, and conducted a little rehearsal by pressing the butt against his shoulder and aiming at an imaginary tiger. He withdrew the gun and placed it at his side, took out the hip flask again, and took another long swig. He was heard to mutter,‘Hands are shaky, need steadying up.’And then he stood up with gun in hand, and rehearsed again with the butt against his shoulder.‘Still shaky ... Bloody dilute rum, has no strength in it; I’ll deal with that fellow.’ He sat down again and took another drink, and another drink, till the flask was emptied.
My Master, who had stayed back unobtrusively, came forward to ask him,‘Whom were you talking to?’
‘You,’said Alphonse.‘I knew you were here. I knew you’d not go. I saw you — you obstinate devil ... So, I thought, I thought, what did I “thought”? I don’t know. I have forgotten. No, no, if the beast comes out and swallows you, it’ll serve you right ... that’s what I thought. Don’t look at me like that ... I’m not drunk ... It’s only watery rum ... less than ten per cent proof ... I’ll deal with that cheat yet ... that bastard ...’
‘Are you relaxing?’my Master asked.
‘Yes, sir,’he said heartily.
And then my Master asked,‘What about the tiger?’
‘What about what?’
‘The tiger, the tiger in there...’
‘Oh, yes, the tiger, he is O.K., I hope?’
‘Aren’t you going to shoot?’
‘No,’he said emphatically.‘My hands must be steadied. I must have another drink. But my flask is empty. The son-of-a-bitch didn’t fill it. I’ll deal with him, don’t worry. This sort of a thing...’
‘The headmaster, what about him?’
‘I don’t know. Don’t ask me. Am I responsible for every son-of-a-bitch?’
‘Where did you learn this rare phrase?’
‘In America,’he said promptly. ‘I lived there for many years.’
‘Would you like to rest?’
‘Of course, how did you guess? I got up at four this morning and rode fifty miles. Where is my vehicle?’
My Master gave him a gentle push, and he fell flat on the ground and passed out.
My Master must have turned on him his powers of suggestion. Taking the key-bunch from Alphonse, he went up to the headmaster’s room and had just inserted the key into the lock when the chairman, watching through the window, shouted across at the top of his voice,‘What are your trying to do? Stop!’
‘I’m only trying to get the tiger out, so that the headmaster may come down confidently.’
While this was going on Shekar suddenly threw back the bolt of the classroom and rushed out, followed by his friend Ramu. Both of them came and stood over Alphonse, watching him wide-eyed. ‘He is still breathing,’one said to the other.
Both of them asked my Master,‘Is Uncle dying?’
My Master said to them,‘No, he will wake up — but rather late — don’t worry. He will be well again ...’
‘Why is he like this? A nice uncle ...’the boy asked tearfully.
‘Oh, he will be all right,’said my Master.‘Don’t worry about him. He has drunk something that is not good and that has put him to sleep...’
‘Is it toddy?’asked the boy.
‘Maybe,’said my Master.‘What do you know about it?’
‘There is a toddy shop near our house ...’began the boy, and my Master listened patiently, while the boy described the scenes of drunkenness that he witnessed in the evenings. Finally the boys asked,‘How will he shoot the tiger?’
‘No one is going to shoot,’said my Master.‘You will see the tiger come out and walk off with me ...’
‘He won’t eat us?’
‘No, he will not hurt anyone. I’m going to open the door and bring him out.’
‘The headmaster?’the boy asked anxiously.
‘He must have also fallen asleep. He will also come out ... don’t worry. Would you like to come in with me and see the tiger?’
The boy hesitated and, looking back for a safe spot, said,‘No, I’ll stand there and watch.’
The chairman, who had watched this dialogue, cried from behind the window,‘What are you trying to do? You are mad.’
‘Come out and be with me. You will see for yourself what I plan to do.’
‘Explain,’the other cried.‘I do not understand you.’
My Master turned round, walked to the window, and asked, ‘Are you afraid to come out of that room?’
‘What a question!’exclaimed the chairman.‘Of course, who wouldn’t be! We are in a hurry. The headmaster must have help without delay. We must act before the gunman wakes up ...’ He spoke through the window.
‘Here, I have the key. I’ll unlock the door and bring the tiger out of the room. One of you take a ladder in and help the headmaster come down from the attic. That’s all ...’
‘Do you mean to say that you are going in as you are, without arms or protection?’
‘Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. We have no time to waste.’
The chairman said,‘By the powers vested in me in my capacity as the Second Honorary Magistrate in this town, I give you notice that you shall not open or enter that room. My committee members will bear witness to this order. It comes into immediate force, notwithstanding the fact that it’s not yet in written form ...’He looked around at his members, who crowded near the window bars and assented in a chorus.
My Master asked when it subsided,‘Why’ll you prevent me from going near the tiger?’
They were at a loss to answer:‘It’s unlawful to commit suicide.’
‘Maybe,’said my Master,‘but which law section says that a man should not approach a tiger? Are not circus people doing it all the time?’
‘Yes,’replied the chairman weakly.‘But that’s different.’
‘I can tame a tiger as well as any circus ringmaster. It’s after all my life that I’m risking.’
‘There is no such thing as my life or your life before the eyes of the law: in the eyes of the law all lives are equal. No one can allow you to murder yourself ...’
‘Life or death is in no one’s hands: you can’t die by willing or escape death by determination. A great power has determined the number of breaths for each individual, who can neither stop them nor prolong ... That’s why God says in the Gita, “I’m life and death, I’m the killer and the killed ... Those enemies you see before you, O Arjuna, are already dead, whether you aim your arrows at them or not!”’
The chairman was visibly confused and bewildered.‘In that case you will have to sign an affidavit absolving us from all responsibilities for your life or death ...’
‘You ignoramus of an honorary magistrate! After all that I have said, in spite of all that urgency ... All right, give me a paper and tell me what to write.’
The magistrate took out a sheet of paper from his briefcase and pushed it through the window bar. My Master sat down and wrote to the chairman’s dictation through the window, absolving anyone from any responsibility. He signed the document and returned it with the comment,‘Just to respect your magistracy, although I am convinced it’s uncalled-for and irrelevant, and you are exercising unnecessary authority. The more important thing for you now would be to take in your custody that gun beside Alphonse. When he wakes up, no one can guess his mood, and it’s not safe to leave the gun within his reach.’
The chairman looked at the document and said,‘Stop, wait. Tell me what is it that you have written here?’
‘Only what you have dictated.’
‘In a language we don’t know, can’t accept it ...’
‘It’s in Sanskrit, in which our scriptures are written, language of the gods. I write only Sanskrit although I know ten other languages including Japanese.’Without further ado, he turned round, paused for a second to satisfy himself that Alphonse was asleep, and put the key into the lock on the headmaster’s room.
I had felt provoked at the sound of the key turning in the lock. No one had a right to come in and bother me. I was enjoying my freedom, and the happy feeling that the whip along with the hand that held it was banished for ever. No more of it; it was pleasant to brood over this good fortune. It was foolish of me to have let the whip go on so long. Next time anyone displayed the whip ... I would know what to do. Just a pat with my paw, I realized, was sufficient to ward off any pugnacious design. What ignorance so far! Now that I knew what men were made of, I had confidence that I could save myself from them. The chair, ah, that was different. That was more paralysing than other instruments of torture. But here where I’m lying, the headmaster’s room, there are chairs, much bigger and more forbidding than what Captain used to wield, but they have done nothing, they have not moved to menace or hurt me. They have stayed put. Now I’ve learnt much about chairs and men and the world in general. Perhaps these men were planning to trap me, cage me and force me to continue those jumping turns with the suspended lamb, shamelessly standing on my hind legs before the crowd of film-makers. If this was going to be the case, I must show them that I could be vicious and violent too. So far I had shown great concern and self-control. Thus far and no further. The evidence of my intentions should be the headmaster, who I hoped was somewhere above me, unharmed and, as I hoped, peacefully sleeping. I can’t be definite. He makes no sort of sound or movement, hence I guess he must be sound asleep. I don’t want to be disturbed, nor am I going to let anyone bother the headmaster. So I have a double responsibility now. Someone at the door. I held myself ready to spring forward.
The door opened quietly and my Master entered, shutting the door behind him. I dashed forward to kill the intruder, but I only hurt myself in hurling against the door. I fell back. He was not there, though a moment ago I saw him enter. I just heard him say, ‘Understand that you are not a tiger, don’t hurt yourself. I am your friend ...’How I was beginning to understand his speech is a mystery. He was exercising some strange power over me. His presence sapped all my strength. When I made one more attempt to spring up, I could not raise myself. When he touched me, I tried to hit him, but my forepaw had no strength and collapsed like a rag. When I tried to snap my jaws, again I bit only the air. He merely said,‘Leave that style out. You won’t have use for such violent gestures any more. It all goes into your past.’I had to become subdued, having no alternative, while he went on talking.‘It’s a natural condition of existence. Every creature is born with a potential store of violence. A child, even before learning to walk, with a pat of its chubby hands just crushes the life out of a tiny ant crawling near it. And as he grows all through life he maintains a vast store of aggressiveness, which will be subdued if he is civilized, or expended in some manner that brings retaliation. But violence cannot be everlasting. Sooner or later it has to go, if not through wisdom, definitely through decrepitude, which comes on with years, whether one wants it or not. The demon, the tormentor, or the tyrant in history, if he ever survives to experience senility, becomes helpless and dependent, lacking the strength even to swat a fly. You are now an adult, full-grown tiger, and assuming you are fifteen years old, in human terms you would be over seventy years old, and at seventy and onwards one’s temper gets toned down through normal decay, and let us be grateful for it. You cannot continue your ferocity for ever. You have to change ...’
At this point someone from the other side of the door called, ‘Sir, Swamiji, are you all right?’
‘Yes, I am, don’t you hear me talking?’
‘Whom are you talking to, sir?’
‘To a friendly soul,’he said.
‘Do you mean the headmaster? Is he safe?’
‘Yes, he is up there, but I’ve not begun to talk to him yet ... he doesn’t seem to be awake yet. I’ll look to him presently. But at the moment I’m discoursing to the tiger ...’
‘Oh, oh, does it understand?’
‘Why not? If you could follow what I’ve been saying, the tiger should understand me even better since I’m closer to his ear ...’I let out a roar because I was feeling uncomfortable with some change coming inside me. I was beginning to understand. Don’t ask me how. My Master never explained to me the mystery or the process of his influence on me.

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