Read A Tiger for Malgudi Online

Authors: R. K. Narayan

A Tiger for Malgudi (7 page)

He called his a Creative Circus. After getting an idea he would shut himself in his tent, do some paper work, call up his chief executive, and say, ‘Here is a new idea, see how it can be worked out.’It was not his habit to consult but only to issue orders. He would just state what he wanted done and then tell his staff to achieve it in practical terms. They were not to say yes or no but only proceed with it. Now Captain called his chief executive and said, ‘It’s time to give a new twist to the trapeze items. It will be a sensation if the trapeze act also includes two somersaults in the air and then a passage through a ring of fire - I’ve thought out the details to some extent. I realize that a fireproof undervest for the artistes, which doesn’t show, will be the first requisite ... Here’s a sketch I have made of the position of the ring in relation to the swings and the net below - you work out the mechanical details and modalities. Bring your report tomorrow morning.’
The executive came up next day with the report, after working on it all night, but said, ‘Madam is not for any change.’Captain brooded over it for a moment and said, ‘Put Lyla in Madam’s place ... the rehearsals must begin soon.’Lyla was number two in the team.
This issue precipitated a domestic crisis. That night much shouting could be heard in their home tent. Madam threatened to quit the show once and for all. She said, ‘I’m not prepared to spare any of my girls or set fire to myself just to please your fancy. I’m not an orthodox wife preparing for sati.’
He retorted, ‘Look, don’t talk like that. I’m not planning to set fire to you, you know that; I’m only thinking how we could give the public something new, some new thrills. Public must find it rather stale to see you and your girls in your satin tights swing up and down.’
Here his speech was cut short by the lady saying, ‘You think our items are cheap and that easy? Have you any idea how every second one’s life is being risked? You think whipping and bullying dumb beasts the only great act? Why don’t you come up on the swing at least once and try, instead of talking theories?’
‘You forget, my dear, that I did trapeze at one time, that’s how I started, but I outgrew it ...’
‘Naturally, you had to give it up, otherwise the swings might have snapped or the roof itself might have come down.’
‘Since you fancy your figure has remained unchanged, I am suggesting you try and put it to some use so as to make people say “This lady is capable of more than jumps and twists in the air, she can pass through fire rings so easily, being slim!”’
‘Why don’t you put your head down your lion’s throat and sing a popular song?’
‘You are not suggesting anything original ... I’m planning it, maybe for the Jubilee Show.’
‘You are constantly talking of Jubilee. What sort of a Jubilee are you celebrating? May I know?’she asked cynically.
He ignored her remark and continued, ‘If you are not interested in the new trapeze act, keep off, that’s all. The show will go on ...’
Such a determined man that he planned, prepared, rehearsed this fiery act and presented it to the public later at what he called the Jubilee Show. Rita went through the act, unwilling to let Lyla take her place. The accuracy and timing with which the artistes performed their trapeze acts, somersaulted and shot through a flaming ring before coming to rest on the safety net below, was exciting and repeatedly applauded by the audience. But this happened at a later phase of my story. Let me go back to my training period.
 
After I had become an adept in racing over and through a variety of obstacles, I expected to be left alone. I was ignorant of the fact that it was only a preparation for another stage. What Captain had in mind could not be guessed by anyone. He always allowed an interval between stages of training so that I’d live in an illusion of having nothing more to do. But just as I was resting, my cage would be drawn to the training enclosure and there I’d find Captain waiting, whip in hand. When I saw him thus, I would wish we could talk it over and come to an understanding instead of going through the hard way to get a pat on my back for understanding his wishes.
 
Today he held a new terror for me. It was not enough that I ran around fast and also through the hurdles. At one point, while rounding a bend, I saw fire and shrank back. I thought, ‘Kill me now, but I won’t go near the fire.’I was reminded of the village fire when flaming torches nearly roasted me. I shrank back and naturally the whip came down and bruised me more than ever. He would not allow me to retreat from the fire, nor go round it or away from it. He blocked all my movement with his person, shielded only with the chair, while his whip could reach me from quite a distance: the state I was in, I could have easily destroyed him without a trace. Driven by desperation, panic and fury, I had to content myself with roaring out, ‘Leave me alone, you monster.’ But he overshouted me: ‘Raja, come on through that ring, in there, come on, come on ...’The uproar and pandemonium we both created must have been heard all over the town. I snarled, showed my teeth, wrinkled my nose, opened my mouth and shut it, and growled as if the earth were rumbling. But he was unaffected and warded me off with his chair, and pushed me closer and closer to that fire. All my movement was restricted in such a way as to leave no room for me to move or turn except through the fire. First time my belly was singed but in course of time I could pass without touching the flames. And when I performed diligently I became Captain’s favourite again; with meat and water back in my cage, I was once again left to laze and live in the delusion that my trials had ended and I was going to live a happy and free life hereafter.
The next piece of training was surprisingly mild. I was driven on round and round and then stopped where a stool had been placed. I had to sit on it dangling my tail on the floor. A saucer of milk was placed on a table. I was again and again forced to sit up in front of the saucer with Captain howling ‘Drink, drink, drink!’and holding his chair up; he bent down and put out his tongue over the saucer to indicate what I was expected to do. I watched completely baffled, but he was untiring in imitating the act of drinking off a saucer. ‘Lower, lower,’he was howling. ‘Put head down and tongue out, tongue out,’and he cracked the whip. When he did that I knew that the next would be on my back. I was quite desperate to understand him. Surely he was not expecting me to drink that white stuff in the saucer. It looked like poison to me. But there was no escape from it. He hit me so hard while I had my head down that I had to bend further down with my tongue out. No sooner had my tongue touched the saucer than I was seized with nausea and a fit of sneezing. What stuff was it, tasting so awful?
Later that day the chimp strolled along near my cage. How I envied his freedom! I wished I could also go about like him. But a tiger seemed to have a curse on it - no one can tolerate the sight of a tiger walking freely about, being burdened with size, might, and the fierce make-up that nature has given us. What a blessing to be the stature of an ape! Human beings approve of him because he approximates to their idea of what a creature should be in appearance and size. The ape was grinning as he clutched the bars of my cage and asked, ‘How did you like it?’
‘What?’I asked.
‘The milk in the saucer which you had to lick up.’
‘Terrible,’I said. ‘Why should I drink it?’
‘You will see for yourself soon. Why, don’t you like it?’
‘How can anyone like that terrible stuff?’
‘Human kids are brought up on it right from birth. Men think no end of it.’
‘Do you drink it?’
‘Yes, of course, I don’t mind it, but I prefer banana and what they aptly call monkey-nuts.’
‘Why do you have to drink it?’
‘Can’t help it, when Captain thinks it is good for us, we have to take it.’
vWhat is it made of?’
He answered, ‘It is made by the cow inside, and is squeezed out by men every day.’
‘Every day? But don’t they have to kill it to get it?’
‘It is drawn out without killing the cow - so that they are able to have it every day.’
It seemed to me a strange world into which I was drawn. I said, ‘It is evil tasting. Surprising it should be found in the cow, which itself tastes so good. I won’t drink that stuff whatever may happen!’ Before I could ask for further explanations he hopped down and was off.
By the time I could get a pat of approval on my back from Captain, I had become resigned to the taste of milk. After that a new item cropped up. As I looked up from the saucer at a training session, I found seated opposite me across the table a goat - an extraordinary thing to happen. I thought I was being specially rewarded with fresh food for accepting the milk, though it made my head reel ... A goat sitting up with a tiger as an equal - what a crazy situation! No goat would ever dare do such a thing. Anyway I’d accept the gift and get the milk taste out of my tongue. I gave a shout of joy and the usual victory cry before pouncing across the table. But when I stirred, I was whipped back to my seat and the goat was withdrawn. When I was back in my seat, another pan of milk appeared and the goat was back in his seat. I could not understand. This kind of jugglery was disturbing. Sitting on my haunches was irksome and painful: the sight of the pan of milk was offensive and the goat was appetizing. But what was happening was beyond my understanding. What perversity that I should consume what I hated and leave what I would relish! There seemed to be an eerie indestructibility about the goat and the pan of milk. Any other goat would have run away or vanished into my belly. This sort of dodging and reappearing — I didn’t like it. It was confusing, maddening, I didn’t like it at all. I went at it again and again, and it disappeared and reappeared after I had been whipped back to my seat. Ultimately I realized that it’d be best to keep still, and take no notice of the goat. If it was not meant for me, why were they offering it? The ways of Captain were mysterious. Whatever he had in mind, he seemed to be able to express it only through violence. How I wished that he could speak my language or I his. There was no meeting ground beween us, but still we had so much to do with each other all the time. That was the irony of fate. Captain was convinced that if he bellowed deafeningly I’d understand, stupid fellow; although I had to admire him for several reasons.
Ultimately by sheer doggedness he made me realize that I was to ignore the goat. If I had realized it was only a dummy for purposes of practice, it’d have been quite simple. But it was so lifelike, I was deceived. I ignored it now. I sat peacefully, hoping as usual that my trial was ended and that I could go back to my home. But there could be no such thing as the end in my life. The end of one trouble was but the beginning of another. Here I was disciplined enough not to move a muscle in the presence of that supposed goat. I do not know at what point they had substituted the real one. But it bleated and that roused me. I involuntarily tensed, but Captain was too watchful and shouted,‘Stay back, Raja,’and that was enough warning for me. The stupid goat forgot its perils and became greedy at the sight of the milk; it immediately put its head down and lapped the saucer dry, and sat up to look at me as if to ask,‘What next?’Captain directed it with the slightest flourish of his whip and without any display of the chair. He looked pleased at the performance of the goat. With a smile on his face, he ordered for more milk, just as I was feeling relieved that the terrible drink was gone.
When another supply of milk came, he said,‘Raja, now that milk is for you. Lower your head and drink that milk.’What an impossible torture! I’d have preferred to have that goat sitting and blinking before me. I couldn’t understand what he kept it for. Milk indeed! I hesitated, noticed a slight movement of the whip and bent down to the saucer, pretended to lick the milk, and sat back, as well as I could. Next it was the goat’s turn. Captain ordered it with a slight wave of the whip, and the goat bent down and licked the plate dry. It was surprising how much milk that goat could consume. It looked as if it were Captain’s intention to fill the goat to bursting point. He filled up the saucer again and again. It was merciful of him not to order me to drink the whole lot each time; he was satisfied if I dampened my nose or tongue, and then I could resume my seat. This went on all afternoon. The goat finished his portion first and then whatever remained in the plate after my show of drinking. Though I had by this time been forced to get used to the proximity of the goat, I began to hope that the goat might explode loudly with the quantities of the milk inside him and when that happened they would surely pass him on to me as they would have no further use for him. We had to be licking the milk alternately that whole day. I felt completely exhausted when I was allowed to return to my cage, and could hardly eat when my meat was brought in because of the lingering smell of milk. I just sank down and slept.
Next day I was put through a new set of exercises. I had to sit still until the goat had started lapping it up and then take my mouth to the saucer at the same time and pretend to enjoy the drink in his company. This was a trying moment as the proximity of the goat’s head and its flavour was overpowering. I was perplexed at the way the whole thing was working out. I was amazed at the foolhardiness of the goat, which enjoyed its milk notwithstanding possible annihilation any moment. We had to rehearse this piece day by day until I was supposed to cultivate a taste for milk and an apparent distaste for the goat. When Captain was satisfied with the results, he made me rehearse the whole series, starting with running round through obstacles and fire, and coming to rest for a saucer of milk. (He set special value on this part and announced it with fanfare for the Jubilee Show, where it was to be presented as a Four-in-One Act.) Before the Jubilee he presented me in single-item acts, each once a week. He announced me to the public as ‘that miracle tiger Raja - the magnificent’. I must have indeed looked grand and mighty with my yellow and black acquiring a special gloss, possibly through doses of milk imbibed each day. He explained that I was not an ordinary, commonplace tiger but an intelligent creature, almost human in understanding. (He was prophetic.) ‘He can read the time ...’He always held up his stop-watch in my face before I started my round of runs, saying, ‘Mark the time, Raja, and keep up your speed.’

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