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R. K. Narayan’s ‘A Tiger for Malgudi’

By Girija VM

Now it is my regret that R. K. Narayan was not my favourite author once. But recently I have read almost all the books he wrote. In 2015, a special book came my way and it influenced me much. It’s his A Tiger for Malgudi. It was first published in England in 1983 by William Heinmann, London and in the US by the Viking Press Inc. The first Indian edition also came out in 1983. Later on, it was reissued in 1991 and 1993. I read the 1993 edition, which had a beautiful colour cover picture by R. K. Laxman. I think I haven’t seen any colour pictures by this famous cartoonist brother of this great writer.

This novel is so different from other novels or stories RKN wrote. It’s not a long narrative story with incidents and accidents. Rather, it’s a classic epic like narration. In epics, story is not of much importance. The story is narrated in the beginning itself as a short text. We don’t read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata to follow an unknown story.  We follow the retold life to assimilate some values or understand the undercurrents of what is called LIFE!

This is a short fiction with only 176 pages. I’m still reading the Indian Edition of the book published in 1993 by Indian Thought Publications, Mysore. That is the author’s own Publication House, which is still vibrant with his re-editions, I suppose.

An old tiger, Raja, leads a retired life in a zoo and he thinks and ruminates and dreams and evaluates his life lying there. His only urge is to see his mentor, his Master again. He wishes that his Master will come suddenly and ask ‘Let’s go.’ When he was young, he considered himself as the King of the Forest:

“I strode from the cave, the scent went ahead, and except monkeys and birds on trees all other creatures shrank out of sight. We the denizens of the jungle [Yes…like the citizens and residents of dens and caves. What a beautiful correlation!] can communicate, without words, exactly as human beings do – we are capable of expressing to each other sympathy, warning, abuse, irony, insult, love and hatred exactly in the manner of human beings, but only when necessary unlike human beings who talk all their waking hours and even in sleep.”

Thus his story begins. Raja lives with pride and cruelty in a forest. He leads a family life but is captured by a Shikari and sold to a circus company. There the most powerful King of the forest is made a slave by mere fear and ignorance. He is afraid of the ringmaster, trainer and owner of the circus The Captain and the unknown human approaches him. He is trained for many ‘un-tigerly’ tasks, such as sipping milk from a plate along with a goat controlling his urge to kill and eat the small creature. What made him afraid is not the whip or the cruelty of human beings, especially of the Captain, who is his trainer. It is hunger and the presence of chairs. The author offers a deep insight in order to understand an animal, which is afraid of an artificially created automatic lifeless world. For example, a tree is known to a tiger and he never fears it. But a chair shaped in odd forms with the tree and a stool placed between him and his tormentor makes him shudder with fear. He cannot analyse such presence with his impulses, reflexes, and genuine animal faculties and activities. It’s a great tool of torment made by Man. A rifle is not needed to terrify a huge animal and make him feel insecure. The furniture manufactured for human purposes is enough to make enslave Raja.  For the first time, Raja asks, “Why should I fear this creature no bigger than my tail?” He tears off the Captain’s head with a strong blow. It was surprising to Raja, the Tiger, that such a flimsy creature no better than a membrane stretched over a thin framework, with so little stuff inside, should have held him in fear for so long!

K. Narayanan’s genuine finding is a message of how we culturally restructure ourselves and how bigger nations rule smaller states. To extend that analogy, how a democracy only in name rules over strong cultural places like JNU, as is evident now. They create their own cultural weapons to terrify a segment of society. An unknown language, a new profession with huge salary, huge buildings with escalators and brand new products have a terrifying effect on rural poor people. Films and news channels also can be poisonous weapons in order to keep people enslaved. After Raja becomes free, he travels to the location of a film shooting and a pandemonium breaks out. He strolls through the streets and people shutter their houses. The author says that all Raja wants to say to the employees of Anandabhavan Restaurant is not to panic. He is just passing by celebrating his freedom. The schools are closed and the children are happy about it. Narayan writes:

Now that this brute is safely locked up,we must decide – began a teacher.
At this moment my Master pushed his way through the crowds and admonished, “Never use the words beast or brute. They are ugly words coined by man in his arrogance. The human being thinks all the other creatures are “beasts”. Awful world!
Somebody asks whether it is the time to discuss problems of vocabulary. Master says it is the time to discuss what Man thinks about other creatures. Language is only a cultural tool which expresses Man’s thoughts about the Universe.

And what follows is incredible. It’s the essence of this novel and it influenced me in such a way that I just can’t pluck a flower as usual.  Yes I can collect fallen flowers from soil to feel the fragrance or beauty. But this novel made it impossible to pluck a flower or pinch a green leaf as I can feel their fraternal soul communicating with me. This empathy with all living beings is not new in Indian philosophical and literary traditions. Vyasa, Vaalmeeki and Kaalidasa tell us this universe is the demonstration of One and Single Spirit. But how The Master transforms the Tiger and how the soul to soul communication is engineered in the novel make for a mysteriously beautiful process. “If You brood over your improvements rather than Your shortcomings, You will be happier,” Master says to the tiger.

A slow transformation happens within the Tiger.  While the Captain in circus began to teach him the use of TIME with a stop-watch, the Master would not teach him numbers and figures. Here I quote from the text:

“A sense of Time may be required for human beings engaged in worldly activities. But why for You and Me?…In short You don’t have to know the business of counting, which habit has made us human beings miserable in many ways. We have lost the faculty of appreciating the present living moment. We are always looking forward or backward and waiting for one or sighing for the other, and lose the pleasure of awareness of the moment in which we actually exist.”

This quote is too short. I would have liked to quote many other parts from the book to share the pleasure, peace, and understanding I derived from my reading.  It’s so beautiful and peaceful like a Zen or a well-told Jaathaka story or the Kungfu Panda film-series in essence but in the form of a beautiful novel.

Let me say a bit about the old age slowly coming over the Tiger and Master. The Tiger’s hearing is impaired. Master pacifies Raja by saying, “Old age is Beautiful. Then faculties are dimmed one by one so that we may be restful, very much like extinguishing lights in a home, one by one  before one goes to sleep.”

To sum up, A Tiger for Malgudi is very different from other works of RKN, which deal with common life, simple days and happenings in a simpler language full of humour. This novel is deeper and more philosophical.  The novel propagates the idea that this Universe is not owned by Man. It is for all creatures and plants and living organisms, large and small. Yes Life force of Life is the God and its rule is loving and giving.   Understand this will make our lives easier, happier, and less heavy. We hear it every day in the lifeless words. But R. K. Narayan has turned this philosophy into an emotional, beautiful, and soulful experience, which may transform the reader thoroughly. As he writes in his Introduction, “Now in my story the ‘Tiger Hermit’ employs his powers to save the tiger and transform it inwardly – working on the basis that, deep within, the core of personality is same in spite of differing appearances and categories.”

I am so thankful to 2015 that I began to love R. K. Narayan. I rummaged for his books and found this in our office library (All India Radio, Kochi), which was waiting for me there silently for many years. It’s good to think that great writers don’t leave us but are there to guide and nurture us…ALWAYS.

V M Girija
is a Malayalam poet and essayist. Her work includes seven poetry collections, published by well known publishers, and many anthologies. Her first collection of poetry has been translated into Hindi, Prem Ek Elbum. Her eighth volume of poetry will be released in August. It’s a collection of longer poems. She also has a collection of folk-stories to her credit. She has been working with the All India Radio since 1983.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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