A Tiger for Malgudi  Tiger

*warning: spoilers

When Deepika suggested a R. K. Narayan readalong I was delighted. Another dear reading pal had introduced me to Narayan some years ago, gifted me some of his books, and as a result Narayan quickly became one of my all time favorite authors. Recently Deepika asked me which was my favorite Narayan book. I think that I replied ‘Who Can Choose?”

What fun to actually buy all of his books that I didn’t have! I rarely buy books for myself. As a former librarian I felt that I should always borrow my books, but this felt like a special treat and so I splurged.

I found Narayan’s writing in A Tiger for Malgudi to be more complex than in his charming Swami and Friends. Still he maintained the ease of telling his story in a way that draws the reader in, line by line, until we feel that we are experiencing his stories firsthand. I found this story to be more complex and more difficult to understand. Let me explain! Throughout the story I was painfully aware that my lack of knowledge about the Hindu religion was hampering my full understanding of any number of references that were made, or insinuated. When I finished the story I was quite fascinated to think of Raja (such a splendid name for a Tiger) and his life. I think that Narayan was effectively trying to see the human qualities that Raja, and other animal species such as the other circus animals contain. Man is not so different from his animal friends as sometimes is pompously thought. A beautiful example was that Raja’s conversations with the other animals were so reassuring to him, and he missed those words when he was cruelly isolated from the other animals.

I found great delight in the section of the book when Raja had departed the circus and is resting at the school. This embodied Narayan’s writing style that I first met in Malgudi Days. His mastery at caricature is brilliant. There was an ultimate fear in the scene by the locals that was very real and justifiably so, but as we have gotten to know Raja from inside his own head, the scene is made quite hilarious. Lovely! There was so much action going on at once that it reminded me of an operetta without music. I further enjoyed the village life scene and had to laugh when the Headmaster was hiding in the attic because of his terror of Raja, the delightful children who were terrifying the onlookers by shouting “Tiger! Tiger! It’s here again!”  Shaker, the boy who thoughtfully obtained the coins to buy tiffin for the headmaster, and eventually downed it himself really touched my heart. He was such a bold and kind child. 

On another level I think that Narayan was illustrating man’s life through Raja in another way to explain how many and animals are so similar. In Pico Iyer’s introduction of A Tiger for Malgudi he states “Throughout Narayan’s work, the lines between animals and people are completely porous, and we see that the hyena, the snake. and the monkey are as much a part of the latticework of living things as are all of the other living things with two paws”

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When man is born he learns to be self reliant, and feel like a king in his domain, perhaps epitomized during his teen years and young adulthood. The transition in a man’s life begins when he choses a mate, and has offspring. When his mate and young were killed, it symbolized a split in the family relationship. I think that in our world of man can often feel alienated from his wife and children, and superfluous to them. The circus that Raja is enlisted into represents man’s career. His efforts to please his boss, while sometimes succeeding, is whipped more often, held at length with a chair, or later zapped by the electric prod. He doesn’t understand what he has done wrong, why he didn’t get the bonus or promotion, and throughout is rewarded, only after deprivation, with tainted meat and water. Which could be compared to meager salary and housing. Raja’s movie career further exemplifies exploitation by Captain. He is in a position of rarely pleasing his boss, and being asked to perform more and more absurd actions that he as a species is not capable of accomplishing. When Raja leaves the circus and is taken under the Master’s wing, it reminds me of a man’s retirement years. He can laze in the tall grasses, reflect, and enjoy the life he had before he worked in the circus. We have an expression about retirement that states that in retirement one is “put out to pasture.” Finally the paths of the Master and Raja must part so the Master makes arrangement  for Raja to go to the zoo where he will be cared for. It won’t be the life he has just had with Master, but he will be cared for, and not left to die alone…much like putting man into an old people’s home. Man’s former life is over, but it will continue in safety, and his basic needs being met, even though it is an institutionalized situation. Raja tells us from his enclosure in the zoo that “you are not likely to understand that I am different from the tiger next door, that I possess a soul within this forbidding exterior. I can think, analyze, judge, remember, and do everything that you can do, perhaps with greater subtlety and sense. I lack only the faculty of speech.” I think that beautifully sums up Narayan’s message in this book.