Read A Tiger for Malgudi Online

Authors: R. K. Narayan

A Tiger for Malgudi (8 page)

Captain presented his shows six months in a year in Malgudi town. A team of men went round to the villages in the district clad in fancy costumes and with the beat of drums and a megaphone advertised the circus. They drove around village streets in a Model T Ford painted black and yellow to remind one of the tiger. They went up to Kommal, the farthest village, nearly fifty kilometres from Malgudi. On festivals and holidays the patrons arrived by bus, lorry, bullock-carts, and bicycles for the show; coming into the town for the circus was an exciting event for villagers, who turned up in family groups and camped in the town under the shade of trees, in the veranda of Albert Mission College, or in their wagons after unyoking the bullocks and leaving them to graze in the fields. At every show all seats in the galleries were taken as were the benches and wooden chairs and the squatting space on bare ground not far from the stage. Six cushioned seats were always kept in reserve for a hierarchy of local officials on whose goodwill depended Captain’s survival.
When the monsoon set in, in October-November, the circus moved out of Malgudi to other centres in a long caravan, parading the animals, which made the circus known all along the way; the central office at Malgudi worked all through the year.
At every show, Captain made a speech, sometimes autobiographical and sometimes to boost a special act, such as mine. He delivered his message in at least three languages, as he explained: ‘... in Hindi since it is our national language and given to us by Mahatma Gandhi himself; also in English because as our beloved respected leader Nehru put it, it opens a window on the world. In Tamil, because it is, ah, our Mother Tongue, in which our greatest poets like Kamban and Valluvar composed; also the sublime inspiring patriotic songs of Bharathi, who can ever forget them?’ Whatever the language, he spoke flamboyantly, always touching upon his personal life. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, friends, Romans, and countrymen, as Shakespeare said, I love my circus and the animals that have made my business a success; and I have pitched my tent here because I love Malgudi; I love Malgudi because I was born and grew up here. I was a backwoods boy - living and playing in the dust of Abu Lane. They sent me, hoping to make a scholar of me, to Albert Mission School, but fate willed it otherwise.
I won’t waste your time recounting my adventures while you are all eager to see the performance begin. You will see my life history in book form (a shiny colourful brochure with his portrait on the cover) sold at the gate at cost price, so that young people may cultivate ambition and a spirit of adventure and bring our nation a great name ... All that I wish to say is that the great circus master Dadhaji of Poona adopted me and trained me though I looked like a vagrant and was indeed one; and he employed me at first to clean the stables and then taught me how to educate animals. I cannot begin the show without bowing in homage and gratitude to the memory of that great master ...’
 
Captain was considerate and helped us conserve our energies by regulating our rest periods. On off days he sent away all the herbivores to forage in the lower reaches of Mempi range — camels, horses, elephants, and zebra went out in a sort of parade through the streets of Malgudi and returned in time for the next show. A set of animals always had at least two days’ rest between performances. He did a lot of paperwork beforehand, scheduling each animal’s duty and off-hours in a month. He studied the roster containing the names of animals (he had christened every one of the animals in his collection) and drew up a sort of chart for each one of them. The most strenuous part of their lives was during the training period. At that stage he was unsparing; and if they perished during the training, he took it as an inevitable risk of his trade. Once they were trained to perform, he viewed them as his assets to be protected, his own prosperity depending on their welfare.
He bestowed special attention to my part of the work. It always came after the trapeze sequence, which was his wife’s show. He never made any speech for introducing her - a matter which made her grumble from time to time. But he just waved her off: ‘Everyone knows what a grand team you lead, your girls are famous and need no introduction, also it’d sound odd to boost one’s wife.’
‘While your wit and eloquence are reserved only for the tiger and the rest, I suppose.’
‘Yes, they need introduction, not you. Why are we always talking like this? Something wrong with our horoscopes ...’
‘Your horoscope and the tiger’s seem to be better matched,’she would say.
‘Don’t talk in that style. Someday you will be sorry that you have disturbed my mind. You don’t realize that I need a calm mind and concentration in my work. My mood must not be spoilt...’
‘As if I don’t need a calm mind in my job! You think only of yourself and your tiger.’
I don’t know why she was measuring herself against me all the time. Fancy anyone being jealous of a tiger! Yet it was not really so. Given her chance, I don’t think she would have poisoned me. She enjoyed being argumentative, that’s all. They were a peculiar couple, devoted to each other but not betraying their feelings in speech. When I mentioned this subject to my Master, later in life, and sought his verdict as to whether they were to be considered friendly or inimical to each other, he just smiled and said, ‘Human ties cannot be defined in just black-and-white terms. There can be no such thing as unmitigated hatred or unmitigated love. Those who are deeply attached sometimes deliberately present a rough exterior to each other and that is also one way of enjoying the married state. Some wives in this world show their deepest love only by nagging, and the husbands also enjoy putting on an air of being victims. You must not forget that everyone is acting a part all the time, knowingly or unknowingly. But God who sees everything must be aware of their thoughts and the secret ecstasies of companionship of even that Captain and his wife ... So don’t make the mistake of thinking that they were not properly matched, judging merely from conversation overheard.’Do you know, at the end, though his death was sudden, with the last flicker of consciousness he worried about his wife and how she was going to manage without him. Do you know what she did when she came over and saw him? She stood looking at the body without a word or a tear; and when others tried to comfort her said, ‘Leave me alone.’ After that she went back to the circus tent, climbed to the top where the swings were clamped, took out one, took a full swing up and down, and when the swing touched the ceiling, let go her hold ...
 
‘Jubilee’seemed to have become a self-explanatory word. When Captain started the publicity for his special Jubilee Show, no one questioned it, although his wife continued to taunt him. Announcements were made through colourful lithographed posters pasted on every wall in Malgudi. You could find the posters stuck side by side, starting from Albert Mission College compound wall, the first available wall when you turned townward from the circus grounds, on which was originally to be seen the bold stencilled warning, BILL STICKERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Captain’s men had come back to consult him about it, and Captain advised, ‘Stick the posters well over their warning and that will make it lawful ... If we are questioned we shall send complimentary passes to the principal and professors.’He had planned to put up a few more special ringside seats to take care of all possible objectors and obstructors, from the sanitary department to the jail superintendent, who could have created trouble for Captain at any stage; though law-abiding in a general sense, he had contempt for what he felt were silly objections. This was not the time for one to be finicky. He had to make use of the sprawling Central Jail walls, paint over them his Jubilee messages in giant lettering so that travellers journeying on the highway could not miss them. He had always felt that such walls were going to waste and should be utilized properly. He differed from those whom he considered a bunch of eccentrics, calling themselves Town Arts Council, who were opposed to every kind of announcement and hoarding, never realizing that they were thus cramping our economic life and ultimate prosperity.
When his plans were opposed, he had his own technique of winning over opposition, a few complimentary tickets (not always for VIP seats; he had a few seats for semi-VIPs and non-VIPs, accommodation in rattan chairs, wooden chairs, and galleries, depending upon the status of those to be favoured). When mere tickets would not work, he donated cash from a fund he had earmarked as ‘Birthday Gifts’ in his account books, and Income Tax rarely questioned whose birthday. He invaded every blank space in town to advertise the Jubilee. Starting with Albert Mission College, as we have seen, to the end of Abu Lane which splintered off from Ellamman Street, the last outpost of Malgudi eastward, every kind of wall, of shops, schools, houses, and hotels, proclaimed the Jubilee of the Grand Malgudi Circus, displaying Rita in death-defying trapeze acts, the chimp riding a motor cycle, the tusker carrying on its back the chimp dressed as a Maharaja with crown and all, a giraffe doing something or the other, and clowns tumbling. At every corner people stood staring at the wall. Even those in a hurry to go to work paused to read the notice. Not a single soul was left in doubt about the coming Jubilee celebrations of the circus. In the same manner the countryside was also informed by the usual team of clowns with extra noise of drums.
As a result of this publicity, the box office presented an air of a besiegement on the opening day. Every inch of the auditorium was occupied for all the three shows each day — noon, evening and night.
Captain reserved the tiger’s act for the night show. It came after Rita’s trapeze act, somersaults, and dive through a fire ring. When the tiger was wheeled in and the enclosure was erected around the ring, Captain, dressed in satin breeches and a glittering vest, holding the whip in hand, appeared before the audience in a kind of light skipping movement, bowed to the public deeply in all directions, and introduced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see our Raja perform an act which I have named “Four-in-One” which is actually a symphony in movement as you will notice when the band plays. I have composed it with a lot of forethought. It’s a sequence of precise acts, timed properly, which sense of time is displayed uncannily by Raja. He will go through the act with precision, and finish the sequence as befits a country dedicated to non-violence, with a sip of milk in the company of a goat. I’d now appeal to you ladies and gentlemen to watch this act unwinkingly, keep your eyes open and your nerves cool — never fear for a moment that Raja will ever overstep the bounds in any manner.’
After this speech, which created suspense and anticipation in the audience, he let me out of the cage, opening the door with his own hand. He carried nothing more than his whip; he had put away even the chair. He wished to demonstrate that he was absolutely confident of his authority over me and had nothing to fear. He cracked his whip in the air twice to start me off. I galloped around the ring, while he watched with a side glance at his stop-watch, keeping himself deftly at a distance just a foot beyond my pouncing range, but always close to an emergency exit. The audience watched in absolute silence without stirring. I too caught the atmosphere and enjoyed showing off my talent. When the rounds were completed, the hurdles and mazes and labyrinths appeared at the appropriate places, and then rings of flames at some points, followed by the item of the goat and the milk. My mouth watered at the sight of the goat, but Captain was very careful to crack his whip and drive me back to the cage, unobtrusively, when he noticed it.
No one had witnessed such a composite and complex act before. When the applause subsided, Captain came forward and said, “Sorry, gentlemen, no encore is practical for this particular act, nor am I in a position to ask Raja to take the bow personally. I’ll have to do it on his behalf. But I also hope someday I’ll educate him in proper manners to respond to his adoring public.’And more applause ...
The Four-in-One act and the fiery dive of the trapeze artistes were very popular and brought Captain great fame. His box-office collections soared, and apart from that his admirers showered on him cash and presents of all kinds. He had done something original and really creative in the annals of circus and no one could repeat or imitate his programme; the success was entirely due to Captain’s genius. Jubilee, going on and on, each week bringing in more crowds than ever. Captain looked particularly happy and ordered an extra ration for all the animals every day. He was careful not to overfeed any animal that had, like myself, difficult acts to perform: ‘Keep Raja light, and feed him well at the end of his act, late at night. If he becomes heavy, he won’t be fit to run through his acts so smartly’ - with the result that they hardly fed me until midnight, when all my duty was done. This compulsory fasting the whole day kept me always hungry, and made it more and more difficult to accept the milk in the goat’s company.
Thus it went on day after day, week after week, for a very long time. One evening I had just gone through all the turns preceding the milk - run with and without hurdles and through fire - and was sitting before the pan of milk. As a piece of courtesy to a weaker companion, the goat must be allowed to sip the milk first. He now had great confidence in me and took me for granted - rather a risky thing to do. I sat up watching him, assuming as benign a look as possible since the slightest frown on my face might bring the whip down, Captain being watchful as ever. As the goat bent down and stretched its neck to reach the milk in the pan, I felt a powerful impulse to seize that smooth white neck held out so temptingly - the agony of self-control was worse than the raging hunger. The gluttonous goat was lapping up the milk. How lovely it’d be to put one’s teeth to it and go off to the bamboo bush to a leisurely meal.
Forest memories overwhelmed me while that silly goat was relishing its milk, as if he had never tasted it before.
If only he had lifted his head, withdrawn even slightly, out of my reach, the world would have heard a different story. As it happened, the temptation stayed too long - holding myself back seemed impossible. Captain, reading my mind, was more alert that ever; he cracked his whip as a warning and commanded me to share the milk while the goat was still at it. But I hated that milk more than ever, and was delaying the unpleasant task. Normally when Captain fixed his look on me, I’d be nearly paralysed, and obey. But now, suddenly he had to look away, when he heard a commotion in the auditorium as someone fell off the top rung of a gallery. I chose this moment to shoot forward and nip off the goat’s head. There were shouts and cries and confusion from a section nearby for a minute, and Captain whipped me hard, picked up his chair, hit me with it, and drove me back to my cage. The goat was finished, but of no use to me whatever, as it was snatched away out of sight at once and the place was cleaned and cleared as if nothing unusual had happened. Among the several thousands in the hall, a handful in the front row had noticed the end of the goat, but they were dignified VIPs who would not normally scream even if they noticed a fire or murder. Before the general spectators in the hall could know what was happening, I was back in my cage. The men had cleared the place very quickly, efficient men behind a curtain drawn all around, and the next item came on without delay as if nothing had happened. Four of our best clowns, along with the chimp in tuxedo and wearing spectacles, came on the stage with their special charms and jugglery, and completely diverted the minds of the audience so that no question was asked as to how the preceding item had ended.

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