Read A Tiger for Malgudi Online

Authors: R. K. Narayan

A Tiger for Malgudi (4 page)

The deputation of villagers had to visit the Collector almost once a week, spending time and money to no purpose. From within the jungle where their villages were situated, they had to trudge ten miles to the highway and wait endlessly for a chance lift in a passing bus or lorry. At the Collector’s office they could see, after much waiting, only the Collector’s clerk, who took their petitions and then directed them to satisfy further official formalities. At the end of the day they returned to their villages, dreading lest the tiger should waylay them.
I had perfected my system of snatching cattle at night. I became quite familiar with their movements and timings and the weak points in the enclosures that the creatures were penned in. The villages were all alike and the villagers had similar habits in tending their sheep or cattle. They could never anticipate where I’d strike next. I covered a large perimeter. If I took a sheep from this village today, my next target would be elsewhere, in your terms, several days later. In between, they’d not know where to look for me. Some parts of Mempi hills had deep ravines, quite inaccessible to human beings. I hid myself in them and planned to attack with considerable calculation, taking care not to be seen in the same area again. I had perfected the art - no village was too far out, and no fencing was impregnable. I walked in and out of places, hardly aware at that time how very desperate the villagers were beginning to feel. They began to adopt defensive measures, such as keeping up a bonfire all night, and posting vigilant guards, armed with sharp weapons, and in one or two places they had even scattered poisoned meat for me; but I’d not touch such things - only some wildcat or mongrel nosing around ended its career then and there.
 
When he announced his name as Captain, they always asked, ‘Of what?’He would always reply, ‘Just Captain. Mister Captain, if you like.’
‘Oh, we thought it was an army or football captain.’He was used to such quips wherever he went, but he could not afford to mind it and treated it good-humouredly. A man about town, he had to be seeing people constantly on business - running his circus, which had its origin in a certain ‘Grand Irish Circus’. When questioned on the Irish origin or contents of his circus, he generally explained, ‘When I was down and out at Poona, I met a chap, a down-and-out Irishman, who owned a half-starved pony, a yellow monkey, and a parrot which could pick up numbers and alphabets from a stack of cards. He took them about and displayed them here and there in the city. He dispensed with his pony, selling it off to a tonga owner, and managed with the parrot and the monkey, which became his sole assets; he could maintain them inexpensively with a handful of nuts for the monkey and a guava fruit for the parrot. He had a portable signboard painted, GRAND IRISH CIRCUS, and set it up in the town hall compound, street pavements, or market square and attracted a crowd. He called himself O’Brien though he had a brown skin and never uttered a word of English or Irish but spoke only “The Native Language” in order to establish rapport with his public, as he always took the trouble to explain.’Captain always wondered what sort of an Irishman he was, but said to himself, ‘If I could call myself Captain, by the same logic he could be O’Brien.’ At some point in their association O’Brien took up some other business and sold his good will and the circus to Captain for fifty rupees. Captain used the signboard, monkey, and parrot to make a living following O’Brien’s tradition. Feeling that he should do better, he approached one Dadhaji, owner of ‘Dadhaji Grand Circus’.
The grand old man was reclining in an easy chair in his special tent. Young Captain approached him with all humility with the monkey on his shoulder and holding the parrot cage in his hand. Dadhaji watched the visitor for some time and asked, ‘What do you want?’
‘I want to work here, sir.’
‘What do you know of animals?’Captain was afraid to give an answer. After waiting for a moment the man thundered, ‘Have you no answer? Be frank. I would appreciate it. I like people young or old to be frank.’
Captain felt like turning round and fleeing. But he was standing too close to the great man to run away. His aides, standing at different points, were watching him with contempt. The only animal Captain had known was an alley cat and its mates in his boyhood in Abu Lane. And a mongrel he was fond of, which used to curl up in the street dust. The several attempts he made to shelter it in his room were frustrated by his father who was strictly anti-canine. Even after his death, Captain could not realize his ambition, since their creditors took over their property, which resulted in the scattering of the family. Captain, with his little savings in hand, set out to seek his fortune and ended up in Poona. These flashes of memory were not worth recounting, and he helplessly wished that his retreat were not blocked by all those terrible aides in grey uniform with their pockets embroidered in yellow thread: ‘Dadhaji Grand Circus’. Frightening. The old man was evidently enjoying the young fellow’s discomfiture. Captain felt suddenly challenged and said, ‘Born and bred in Abu Lane of Malgudi town, sir, no chance, sir, of encountering animals, sir ... The very reason why I have come to you, sir, is to learn about animals and their training.’ He had found his tongue, which pleased the old gentleman.
‘Ah, that’s better. You should talk, otherwise you will be left out. A young chap who comes out to learn and earn must be alert. I know where we stand now. I seem to know the monkey on your shoulder and the parrot, they were once with the worthless fellow who called himself O’Connor or some such thing. Don’t know where he got the idea that he was Irish - a bastard possibly out of our own slums. I am not going to waste my time asking how and where you met him and all that. It’s your business. Keep that monkey, if you like, or drive it back to its treetop, so also the parrot. If you hoped that you could add them to my show, you were mistaken. They are too insignificant for my circus. When I say “show” I mean acts of large quadrupeds and bipeds, whose movements would be visible from any part of the auditorium. Otherwise it is no show. What you carry is fit for street corners; I have no use for them. Now you may go if you choose - or stay if you are willing to work here.’
Captain was fascinated by the old man’s alternating moods of aggression and tenderness. ‘Let me stay here, sir,’he said, ‘and learn to work.’
The old man said, ‘I have around one hundred and fifty animals in this camp. Are you prepared to start with the horses? You will have to clean their stables first and also groom them. And then I’ll tell you what you can do. Ultimately, if you prove your worth, you will be in charge of the cages of tigers and lions. That is all for the present. You will be fed and sheltered and given pocket money. Think over this offer and give me your answer tomorrow...’
Captain said, ‘Not tomorrow, sir. I’ll stay here.’
‘When I say tomorrow, I mean it. Take twenty-four hours to think it over.’
That was how Captain started his career when he was hardly twenty. Dadhaji imparted to him unreservedly all his knowledge and skill in the training of animals as well as his business methods. Dadhaji often explained his philosophy: ‘There is no such thing as a wild animal - any creature on four legs can be educated if you apply the right method. For over fifty years I have lived with animals - over a hundred at a time - and I know what I am saying.’
Dadhaji began to depend on Captain more and more. When he became too old to manage things, he made him his working partner. At his death the entire circus with all its property and assets and animals were bequeathed to Captain. The transition was unnoticed since Captain had virtually been running the show for years, only presenting periodical reports to Dadhaji while he rested in his tent.
After Dadhaji’s death, Captain shifted his circus to Malgudi. It was a mighty undertaking. He sold the ground at Poona, taking permission from the purchaser of the land to keep his animals there till he was able to move his business to Malgudi. He had enough money to negotiate for the wasteland beyond the level-crossing. Within three months the land was transformed and in big letters loomed the sign GRAND MALGUDI CIRCUS. He had originally intended to name it after the Irishman or Dadhaji, but the municipal chairman and members showed some reluctance in their attitude until he assured them that he was putting Malgudi on the world map by naming it Grand Malgudi Circus. ‘Just to show my roots are here, although I must confess that I had thought of perpetuating my benefactors’ names originally. Hereafter Malgudi will be the home for hundreds of animals and scores of acrobats and performers of all kinds. You will be proud of it ...’His talk was captivating. He liberally dispensed money to smooth out the passage of all kinds of transactions and favours, and in a short while Malgudi became more famous for its circus than for its mountains and river, and Captain was viewed as the wonder man who had transformed the town.
It was the result of hard work. Captain rose at five in the morning and went on a tour of inspection. Elephants and camels and giraffes were at the eastern end of the camp. He went up there first with his chief executive Anand, who had been with him since his Poona days. He started with the camels at one end, keeping in mind Dadhaji’s injunction, ‘You must watch the condition of every animal and anticipate how long it will last, and get an immediate replacement if one dies. Keep an eye on the sources, if you are not to face embarrassment in public. The show never halts because of one animal.’He could judge their health and welfare by observing their stance and attitude at five in the morning. Animals, in his view, looked their brightest at that hour if they were in good health. The animals stirred and gave some indication of recognizing his presence when he approached, and that pleased him. He passed on from animal to animal, checking their welfare; if they were sick, he sent Anand to wake up the veterinarian immediately. Starting with camels, he passed on to elephants, horses and lastly to the minor performing creatures, and by the time he reached his office he would have understood the condition of every creature under his control. He sat at his desk and noted down his observations and suggestions or criticized the state of cleanliness of cages or surroundings and indicated punishments for erring assistants. When he finished his job at the table, his wife would ring the bell for breakfast.
‘All our animals from the performing mongoose to the tusker are in excellent condition,’he boasted at breakfast.
‘Yes,’said his wife,‘they are tended better than your family.’
‘You must say something unpleasant - otherwise you are never happy.’
‘Your beloved animals may also have something to say if they could speak...’
‘What really is your grouse? I never understand. You demanded that the boys should be sent to Lovedale School; that I have done, swallowing my own ideas at such a cost!’
‘Good thing too - otherwise you would have made lion-tamers of them as well.’
‘I don’t know why you say such things, knowing full well where the money comes from, so much needed for you and your damned family at Madras - all hangers-on, none of them will do anything except sit back and wait for my cheque every month ... If you wish to see them get on, why don’t you ask one of your brothers to come and type my correspondence at least?’
‘Isn’t enough that I slave for you? You want the entire “damned” family at your beck and call? I am tired of everything, my boy. As soon as you get someone to lead your trapeze team, I’ll retire and go back to Madras. I’m tired of jumping and swinging and the perpetual tent-living.’When she became too trying, Captain would abruptly leave the table. When she saw him rise, she felt uneasy and said as if nothing had happened, ‘Your coffee. Want more milk, sugar?’He never answered, but just emptied the cup at one gulp and walked out of the tent. She kept looking after him and muttered, ‘He has lost all sense of humour, the slightest upset and he flounces out, let him... I don’t care. Only animals seem to be fit for his company.’
He told himself, ‘Women are impossible. Worse than twenty untamed jungle creatures on one’s hands at a time ...’
 
Captain had gone to the Collector’s office to renew some petty licence. He pricked up his ears when he heard the word ‘tiger’. He was about to leave but halted his steps, remembering another of Dadhaji’s injunctions. ‘If you hear the word “tiger”, don’t leave. Stay back and find out.’And he was hearing the word ‘tiger’not once but several times through the babble of four villagers. ‘This is our twentieth visit and you always keep saying, “Come tomorrow” ... Are you playing with us? You are waiting to see us and our cattle eaten by the tiger and digested before you can think of saving us.’
‘Every time we have to walk from our homes ten miles for a bus to reach here,’said another.
The clerk was irritated and said, ‘No one has invited you.’
‘Then why did the officer promise help?’
‘Ask him. Why should I answer that question?’
‘Yes, if we see him. As it is, we meet only the
Pujari,
not the God in the sanctum, and the
Pujari
denies what the God promises.’And they laughed at their own quip.
‘This is not his only business, he has more important work than listening to your stories.’
‘Ah, stories, you think! Come and spend a night in our village and you will know.’
‘My boss will inspect your village ...’
‘When? After the tiger has had his fill?’
‘There is no tiger and he will not eat you,’said the clerk. ‘The officer will come on inspection next month ...’
‘Next month! Next month! You have been saying it for months while the tiger is fattening himself on our cattle.’
‘You get out of my office! Have you no eyes to see that I am busy now?’He beat his brow in despair. ‘This is a cursed seat. No peace. I’m not allowed to clear these papers. Tomorrow when the boss comes, he will bawl his head off.’He lost his temper suddenly. ‘What do you take me for? Government office is not your nuptial chamber, for you to demand things. I’ll call the police if you are going to be riotous. Mind your manners. The officer will come on inspection to your village and then take necessary steps. Till then you must wait.’

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