Man in his smugness never imagines for a moment
that other creatures may also possess ego,
values, outlook and the ability to communicate,
though they may be incapable of audible speech.
Knowledge, like food must be taken within limits. You must know only as much as you need and not more.
Eight years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a book launch by celebrated British Author, Jeffrey Archer for his book ‘Honor among Thieves’. When quizzed about his favourite Indian author, the charming man replied without preamble: R.K.Narayan. It was such a moment of pride for not just R.K.Narayan fans, but also for all of the Indians who lapped up his Malgudi series on national television, not to mention ‘The Guide’, the Bollywood blockbuster of the yesteryears.
The master storyteller of ‘Malgudi Days’ and ‘Swami and friends’ weaves his magic again, in yet another tale set in the fictional town of Malgudi in ‘A Tiger For Malgudi.’(1983).
I’d been wanting to read this book since a long time. A few years ago, I read a passage, which was an excerpt from this book and remained intrigued to read more, ever since. I finally got my hands on the novel and wasn’t disappointed.
In the introduction, R.K.Narayan recounts the circumstances which led him to write a story in first person with a wild animal as the main character. The tale is as interesting as the story itself. A hermit at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, who made news all over the world with a tame tiger as a companion caught the writer’s fancy and laid the foundation for the novel. And a bookmark with a tiger pleading to get into a good book narrowed it down for him.
R.K.Narayan is very modest when he apparently replied to the tiger in the bookmark, ‘Surely you will get into my book but the goodness of the book I cannot guarantee.’ Well, any reader can attest to the goodness of the book being top notch, as his books tend to be.
Apparently, when a journalist quizzed him about why the central character was a Tiger and not a mouse, he replied with his infallible wit: So that the chief character may not be trampled upon or lost sight of in a hole!
It is a refreshing change for readers accustomed to the same kind of books, with human protagonists in them. Like the author opines, humans have monopolized the fiction writers’ attention for too long. This candid tale captures the sardonic weirdness of the human psyche as described by an animal of the wild and proves to be a potpourri that spans from hilarious ironies to poignant realities.
The Key characters:
The Tiger, the star of the story, who relates his journey from cub-hood to old age.
The Captain, a circus owner, who captures, tames the tiger and christens him as ‘Raja, the magnificent’. He achieves fear and obedience from the wild animal, but subsequently pays a heavy price when he falls prey to lure of money.
The Film-maker, who is blinded by greed and ambition, incurs heavy losses in his quest for fame and fortune.
The Hunter Alphonse, a haughty and cunning manipulator who attempts to kill the tiger, although he turns out to be a coward, not half as courageous as he feigns to be.
The Master, the Swamiji with intriguing powers, who rescues the Tiger and brings about the most amazing transformation in the animal.
The Reader’s take on the Story:
This a simple story, with deep connotations. Wry humour, interspersed with reality and ample sarcasm makes this book a delightful read. It is invigorating to read an autobiography of a Tiger whose life is far more interesting than most bigheaded, self-absorbed humans would believe.
The journey of a little cub relying on its mother in all innocence only to find himself alone at her sudden disappearance; to a young tiger finding himself a mate and starting a family, only to end up losing them to the brutality of humans, tugs at heartstrings. The sheer strength of the young animal of the wild, and the arrogant power it wields as the lord of the jungle are thrilling in its portrayal.
The annoyance of the Tiger when mere monkeys and leopards dare to defy its authority, albeit from a safe distance, brings a smile on the readers’ lips, even as the reader roots for the tiger to get even with the said beasts.
The upper hand of the human species is brought out with incredible finesse, when the tiger is captured by a circus owner, the Captain. How the mighty tiger begins to fear a puny human with a whip and unbelievable a mere chair, is almost beyond belief, and yet rings with the conviction of the sad reality, that one witnesses in most circuses.
It is distressing for the reader to see the tiger being reduced to a mere play-toy for the entertainment of our species. The parts where he is starved to sap his nature-given strength, and then whipped for not being able to follow the instructions in human language is heart-wrenching in its senseless brutality.
How an animal as powerful as the Tiger, is reduced to a victim, using simple tactics of starvation, isolation and violence is perhaps the deepest lesson in the book. It reminds female readers of how even several of the strongest women are reduced to being (sometimes weak) victims, at the hands of their overbearing male counterparts.
The undying persistence of the Circus owner in taming the animal is interesting. His marketing acumen, especially how he anticipates the problems and doles out the solutions to them, in his deals with the officials he comes up against, is exemplary.
The parts where Raja is forced to exercise immense self-control, drink the loathsome milk while a sumptuous goat is enticingly close to his mouth, is extra-ordinary. The reader feels a sense of rightness during the scene where Raja’s natural instincts finally win in his war against himself, so much so that one forgets to feel sorry for the hapless goat, while reveling in the sheer speed and power with which the animal kills its prey.
Multiple scenes in the book make the reader’s heart go out to the hapless tiger. Even in the scene when Raja kills the circus owner, it is made amply clear that he does so with no intention of harming his master, but only tries to free himself from intense pain. Raja’s actions are entirely justified, given the inhumane torture that he suffers at the hands of selfish and greedy humans.
It is endearing to see the animal express surprise at his own strength, and the wonder, when he realizes that he’d been afraid of such a weak being such as a human and a lifeless thing such as a chair!
Raja’s observations of the unique love-hate relationship shared by the circus owner and his wife are awe-inspiring and showcase the author’s in-depth understanding of the complexity of human relationships, especially between spouses. The conversations between Raja and the other animals are funny and saddening in equal measure.
The film-maker’s pathetic ministrations to the Captain, to fulfill his movie-making ambitions and then his complete turn-around, when he wields the reins of influence are fascinating.
The cowardly antics of a massive muscleman, who incidentally turns out to be the Tiger’s ‘co-star’ in a movie are hilarious. The complete turn- around of human beings who lord around in smug confidence when the tiger is caged, only to run helter-skelter for their lives when the animal is free, is bang-on in its portrayal.
Raja’s dramatic escape from the film sets onto the freedom he craves, that only serves to endanger his life, shows us the grim reality of the mere farce that ‘wildlife protection’ is in the country. Trigger-happy, self-glorified hunters making clandestine deals with wildlife officials, who are willing to sacrifice the tiger when their palms are greased, make the reader fume in helpless empathy with the creature in danger.
The panic which ensues when the twelve-foot long Raja, majestically enters the town is hilarious, especially when Raja tries to convey that he means them no harm whatsoever. Raja’s realization that humans were after all, physically far weaker species than himself leaves the reader with a sense of righteous propriety that has long been due to the animal.
The part where people flee blindly from the tiger and yet fear for loss of their belongings/money, in times of peril, more than they fear for their lives, is shamefully consistent with the materialism of the human race.
The simple innocence of children who find pleasure in chaos is brought out with brilliance. The joy with which the children welcome the Tiger’s arrival to escape school is hilarious. Further, the long drawn conversations between the school staff when the tiger is locked up in the headmaster’s room, is an eye-opener to the naiveté of people’s ego, even at the time of crisis.
The ridiculous pompousness of the Shikhari Alphonse is annoying enough to predict the flat outcome of his supposed heroism. His covert deal with the ‘Save the Tiger’ committee chairman to falsely declare the tiger a man-eater, in exchange for a substantial bribe, and hence authorize its execution, makes the reader’s blood boil at the blatant corruption in the country.
The arrival of the Swamiji, whom Raja refers to as Master is the best turning point in the tiger’s life. The mystic twist in the tale, wherein the surreal transformation of a wild animal into an almost docile creature with noble connotations occurs, is almost too good to be true.
The book forces the reader to empathize with the feelings of a mute, magnificent animal. A host of lessons are to be learned from a story such as this one.
It is hard to maintain a disconnect between fiction and reality because the story revolves close to stark authenticity, largely uncomfortably so, for the reader.
And multiple parts in the story prove that no matter how long and hard man believes and attempts to control or defy the laws of nature, natural instincts of animals shall prevail in the end.
This is a must-read, not just for animal lovers but for all those who love breezy reading with ample experiences to glean, from the revelations of a creature of the wild.
Mutual communication was one privilege left for us animals. Human beings could not interfere with our freedom of speech because they never suspect we have our own codes, signals and idioms.
I wanted to scream loudly, ‘Oh Captain, don’t be foolhardy. Your life is in danger, go away, leave me alone before calamity befalls you.’ But he was drunk with authority.
It was surprising that such a flimsy creature, no better than a membrane stretched over some thin framework , with so little stuff inside , should have held me in fear for so long.
You, nearest to me, hugging the cash box, you are craven with fear, afraid even to breathe. Go on, count the cash if that’s your pleasure. I just want to watch, that’s all…
‘And leave the tiger in charge of the school?’ asked the acting headmaster with untimely irony.
‘Never use the word ‘Beast’ or ‘Brute’. They are ugly words coined by man in his arrogance. The human being thinks all other creatures are beasts. Awful word!’
‘You are asking a profound question. I’ve no idea who I am. All my life I’ve been trying to find the answer. Are you sure you know who you are?’
‘Do you mean to say,’ Alphonse asked contemptuously, ‘that you run a school like this without a ladder.’
Life or death is in no one’s hands: you can tdie by willing or escapre death by determination. A great power has determined the number of breaths for each individual, who can neither stop them nor prolong…
No one had the right to bother me. I was enjoying my freedom…
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.
You need not fear; he has only the appearance of a tiger, but he is not one - inside he is no different from you and me.
A change is coming; you will have to start a new life, a different one…
He shut the door again, pulled the table into position, and put a chair on it, then another chair and a stool, went up step by step to reach the loft, saying to himself, ‘How the headmaster reached here will remain a mystery…’
Tiger-man , put a collar and chain around your pet, we are terrified…
You should not need a tiger to keep the peace.
…lost in the thrill of the moment and relished the taste of warm flesh and blood, a luxury Id missed in the circus, where stale meat was thrown out of buckets at feeding time, by butchers on contract. It might be any meant, no way of knowing, might be a dog’s or a donkey’s, dull tasting since the contractor soaked the meat in water to give it weight.
I suffered hunger for consecutive days before seeking food again, but felt nobler for it.
Do not crave for the unattainable. It’s enough you have realization. All in good time.
All the thousands of human beings you’ve encountered since leaving the shelter of your forest life suffer from minds overburdened with knowledge, facts and information – fetters and shackles for the rising soul.
Remember he is only a tiger in appearance…He is a sensitive soul who understands life and its problems exactly as we do.