Monday, February 16, 2009

Malgudi days

The Coachman's Son

SWAMINATHAN had two different attachments: one to Somu,
Sankar, and the Pea—a purely scholastic one, which automatically ceased
when the school gates closed; his other attachment was more human to
Rajam and Mani. Now that they had no school, they were free from the
shackles of time, and were almost always together, and arranged for
themselves a hectic vacation.
Swaminathan's one consuming passion in life now was to get a hoop.
He dreamt of it day and night. He feasted on visions of an ex-cycle wheel
without spokes or tyre. You had only to press a stick into the groove and the
thing would fly. Oh, what joy to see it climb small obstacles, and how gently
it took curves! When running it made a steady hum, which was music to the
ear. Swaminathan thought that anybody in Malgudi would understand that
he was coming, even a mile away, by that hum. He sometimes kept awake
till ten thirty in the night, thinking of this hoop. He begged everyone that he
came across, from his father's friends to a municipal sweeper that he knew,
to give him a cycle wheel.
Now he could not set his eyes on a decent bicycle without his
imagination running riot over its wheels. He dreamt one night that he
crossed the Sarayu near Nallappa's Grove 'on' his wheel. It was a vivid
dream; the steel wheel crunched on the sandy bed of the river as it struggled
and heaved across. It became a sort of horse when it reached the other bank.
It went back home in one leap, took him to the kitchen, and then to his bed,
and lay down beside him. This was fantastic; but the early part of the dream
was real enough. It nearly maddened him to wake to a hoopless morning.
In sheer despair he opened his heart to a coachman—a casual
acquaintance of his. The coachman was very sympathetic. He agreed that
existence was difficult without a hoop. He said that he would be able to give
Swaminathan one in. a few hours if the latter could give him five rupees.
This was an immense sum, which Swaminathan hoped to possess in some
distant future when he should become as tall as his father. He said so. At
which the coachman gave a convincing talk on how to get it. He wanted only
six pies to start with; in a short time he would make it six annas, and after
that convert it to six rupees. And Swaminathan could spend the five out of
the six rupees on the hoop and the balance of one rupee just as he pleased.
Swaminathan declared that nothing would give him greater happiness tlian
giving that extra rupee to the coachman. If any doubts arose in
Swaminathan's mind, they were swept away by the other's rhetoric. The
coachman's process of minting higher currency was this: he had a special
metal pot at home in which he kept all base copper coins together with some
mysterious herb (whose name he would not reveal even if he were
threatened with torture). He kept the whole thing, he said, buried in the
ground, he squatted on the spot at dead of night and performed some
yoga, and lo when the time came, all the copper was silver. He could make
even gold, but to get the herbs for it, he would have to walk two hundred and
fifty miles across strange places, and he did not consider it worth all that
Swaminathan asked him when he might see him again as he had to
think out and execute a plan to get six pies. The coachman said that if the
other did not get the money immediately he would not be available for
weeks to come as his master was going away and he would have to go away
too. Swaminathan cringed and begged him to grant him six hours and ran
home. He first tried granny. She almost shed tears that she had no money,
and held her wooden box upside down to prove how hard up she was.
'I know, granny, you have a lot of coins under your pillows.'
'No, boy. You can search if you like.'
Swaminathan ordered granny to leave the bed and made a thorough
search under the pillows and the carpets.
'Why do you want money now?' granny asked.
'If you have what I want, have the goodness to oblige me. If not, why
ask futile questions?'
Granny cried to mother: 'If you have money, give this boy six pies.'
But nobody was prepared to oblige Swaminathan. Father dismissed the
request in a fraction of a second, which made Swaminathan wonder what he
did with all the money that he took from his clients.
He now tried a last desperate chance. He fell on his hands and knees,
and resting his cheek on the cold cement floor, peered into the dark space
under his father's heavy wardrobe. He had a wild notion that he might find a
few coins scattered there. He thrust his hand under the wardrobe and moved
it in all directions. All that he was able to collect was a disused envelope
musty with cobweb and dust, a cockroach, and pinches of fine dust.
He sometimes believed that he could perform magic, if only he set
about it with sufficient earnestness. He also remembered Ebenezar's saying
in the class that God would readily help those that prayed to him. He secured
a small cardboard box, placed in it a couple of pebbles, and covered them
with fine sand and leaves. He carried the box to the pooja room and placed it
in a corner. It was a small room in which a few framed pictures of Gods
hung in the wall, and a few bronze and brass idols kept staring at
Swaminathan from a small carved wooden pedestal. A permanent smell of
flowers, camphor, and incense, hung in the air.
Swaminathan stood before the Gods and with great piety informed
them of the box and its contents, how he expected them to convert the two
pebbles into two three-pie coins, and why he needed money so urgently. He
promised that if the Gods helped him; he would give up biting his thumb. He
closed his eyes and muttered: 'Oh, Sri Rama! Thou hast slain Ravana though
he had ten heads, can't you give me six pies? ... If I give you the six pies
now, when will you give me the hoop? I wish you would tell me what that
herb is. ... Mani, shall I tell you the secret of getting a hoop?
Oh, Rama! Give me six pies and I will give up biting my thumb for a
year. .. .'
He wandered aimlessly in the backyard persuading himself that in a
few minutes he could return to the pooja room and take his money—
transmuted pebbles. He fixed a time limit of half an hour.
Ten minutes later he entered the pooja room, prostrated himself before
the Gods, rose, and snatching his box, ran to a secluded place in the
backyard. With a fluttering heart he opened the box. He emptied it on the
ground, ran his fingers through the mass of sand and leaves, and picked up
the two pebbles. As he gazed at the cardboard box, the scattered leaves,
sand, and the unconverted pebbles, he was filled with rage. The indifference
of the Gods infuriated him and brought tears to his eyes. He wanted to abuse
the Gods, but was afraid to. Instead, he vented all his rage on the cardboard
box, and kicked it from place to place and stamped upon the leaves and
sand. He paused and doubted if the Gods would approve of even this. He
was afraid that it might offend them. He might get on without money, but it
was dangerous to incur the wrath of Gods; they might make him fail in his
examinations, or kill father, mother, granny, or the baby. He picked up the
box again and put back into it the sand, the leaves, and the pebbles, that were
crushed, crumpled, and kicked, a minute ago. He dug a small pit at the root
of a banana tree and buried the box reverently.
Ten minutes later he stood in Abu lane, before Mani's house, and
whistled twice or thrice. Mani did not appear. Swaminathan climbed the
steps and knocked on the door. As the door-chain clanked inside, he stood in
suspense. He was afraid he might not be able to explain his presence if
anyone other than Mani should open the door. The door opened, and his
heart sank. A big man with bushy eyebrows stood before him. 'Who are
you?' he asked.
'Who are you? Where is Mani?' Swaminathan asked. This was
intended to convey that he had come to see Mani but was quite surprised to
meet this other person, and would like to know who it was, whom he had the
pleasure of seeing before him. But in his confusion, he could not put this
sentiment in better form.
'You ask me who I am in my own house?' bellowed the Bushy-
Eyebrows. Swaminathan turned and jumped down the steps to flee. But the
Bushy-Eyebrows ordered: 'Come here, little man.' It was impossible to
disobey this command. Swaminathan slowly advanced up the steps, his eyes
bulging with terror. The Bushy-Eyebrows said: 'Why do you run away? If
you have come to see Mani, why don't you see him?' This was logic
'Never mind,' Swaminathan said irrelevantly.
'Go in and see him, little man.'
Swaminathan meekly entered the house. Mani was standing behind
the door, tame and unimpressive in his domestic setting. He and
Swaminathan stood staring at each other, neither of them uttering a single
word. The Bushy-Eyebrows was standing in the door-way with his back to
them, watching the street. Swaminathan pointed a timid finger and jerked his
head questioningly. Mani whispered: 'Uncle.'
The uncle suddenly turned round and said: Why do you stand staring
at each other? -Did you come for that? Wag your tongues, boys.' After this
advice he stepped into the street to drive away two dogs that came and rolled
in front of the house, locked in a terrible fight. He was now out of earshot.
Swaminathan said: ‘Your uncle? I never knew. I say, Mani, can't you come
out now? . . . No? ... I came on urgent business. Give me—urgent—six
pies—got to have it—coachman goes away for weeks—may not get the
chance again—don't know what to do without hoop. . ..' He paused.
Mani's uncle was circling round the dogs, swearing at them and madly
searching for stones. Swaminathan continued:
'My life depends on it. If you don't give it, I am undone. Quick, get the
'I have no money, nobody gives me money,' Mani replied.
Swaminathan felt lost. 'Where does your uncle keep his money? Look
into that box....'
'I don't know.'
'Mani, come here,' his uncle cried from the street, 'drive away these
devils. Get me a stone.'
'Rajam, can you lend me a policeman?' Swaminathan asked two
weeks later.
'Policeman! Why?'
'There is a rascal in this town who has robbed me.' He related to
Rajam his dealings with the coachman. 'And now,' Swaminathan said
continuing his tale of woe, 'whenever he sees me, he pretends not to
recognise me. If I got to his house, I am told he is not at home, though I can
hear him cursing somebody inside. If I persist, he sends word that he will
unchain his dog and kill me.'
'Has he a dog?' asked Rajam.
'Not any that I could see.'
'Then why not rush into his house and kick him?'
'It is all very well to say that. I tremble whenever I go to see him.
There is no knowing what coachmen have in their houses. . . . He may set
his horse on me.'
'Let him, it isn't going to eat you,' said Mani.
'Isn't it? I am glad to know it. You come with me one day to tailor
Ranga and hear what he has to say about horses. They are sometimes more
dangerous than even tigers,' Swaminathan said earnestly.
'Suppose you wait one day and catch him at the gate?' Rajam
'I have tried it. But whenever he comes out, he is on his coach. And as
soon as he sees me, he takes out his long whip. I get out of his reach and
shout. But what is the use? That horse simply flies! And to think that he has
duped me of two annas!'
'It was six pies, wasn't it?'
'But he took from me twice again, six pies each time. . ..'
'Then it is only an anna and a half,' Rajam said.
'No, Rajam, It is two annas.'
'My dear boy, twelve pies make an anna, and you have
paid thrice, six pies each time; that is eighteen pies in all,
one anna and a half.'
'It is a useless discussion. Who cares how many pies make an anna?'
Swaminathan said.
'But in money matters, you must be precise—very well go on, Swami.'
'The coachman first took from me six pies, promising me the silver
coins in two days. He dodged me for four days and demanded six more pies,
saying that he had collected herbs for twelve pies. He put me off again and
took from me another six pies, saying that without it the whole process
would fail. And after that, every time I went to him he put me off with some
excuse or other; he often complained that owing to the weather the process
was going on rather slowly. And two days ago he told me that he did not
know me or anything about my money. And now you know how he
behaves—I don't mind the money, but I hate his boy—that dark rascal. He
makes faces at me whenever he sees me, and he has threatened to empty a
bucketful of drain-water on my head. One day he held up an open penknife.
I want to thrash him; that will make his father give me back my two annas.'
Next day Swaminathan and Mani started for the coachman's house.
Swaminathan was beginning to regret that he had ever opened the subject
before his friends. The affair was growing beyond his control. And
considering the interest that Rajam and Mani displayed in the affair, one
could not foresee where it was going to take them all.
Rajam had formed a little plan to decoy and kidnap the coachman's
son. Mani was his executive. He was to befriend the coachman's son.
Swaminathan had very little part to play in the preliminary stages. His duty
would cease with pointing out the coachman's house to Mani.
The coachman lived a mile from Swaminathan's house, westward, in
Keelacheri, which consisted of about a dozen thatched huts and dingy
hovels, smoke-tinted and evil- smelling, clustering together irregularly.
They were now within a few yards of the place. Swaminathan tried a
last desperate chance to stop the wheel of vengeance.
'Mani, I think the coachman's son has returned the money.'
'I think . . .'
'You think so, do you? Can you show it to me?'
Swaminathan pleaded: 'Leave him alone, Mani. You don't know what
troubles we shall get into by tampering with that boy. . . .'
'Shut up or I will wring your neck.'
'Oh, Mani—the police—or the boy himself—he is frightful, capable
of anything.' He had in his heart a great dread of the boy. And sometimes in
the night would float before him a face dark, dirty and cruel, and make him
shiver. It was the face of the coachman's son.
'He lives in the third house,' Swaminathan pointed out. At the last
moment Mani changed his plan and insisted upon Swaminathan's following
him to the coachman's house. Swaminathan sat down in the road as a protest.
But Mani was stubborn. He dragged Swaminathan along till they came
before the coachman's house, and then started shouting at him.
'Mani, Mani, what is the matter?’
‘You son of a donkey,' Mani roared at Swaminathan and swung his
hand to strike him.
Swaminathan began to cry. Mani attempted to strangle him. A motley
crowd gathered round them, urchins with prodigious bellies, women of dark
aspect, and their men. Scurvy chickens cackled and ran hither and thither.
The sun was unsparing. Two or three mongrels lay in the shade of a tree and
snored. A general malodour of hencoop and unwashed clothes pervaded the
And now from the hovel that Swaminathan had pointed out as the
coachman's, emerged a little man of three feet or so, ill-clad and unwashed.
He pushed his way through the crowd and, securing a fine place, sucked his
thumb and watched the fight in rapture. Mani addressed the crowd
indignantly, pointing at Swaminathan: 'This urchin, I don't know who he is,
all of a sudden demands two annas from me. I have never seen him before.
He says I owe him that money.' Mani continued in this strain for fifteen
minutes. At the end of it, the coachman's son took the thumb out of his
mouth and remarked: 'He must be sent to the jail.' At this Mani bestowed an
approving smile upon him and asked: 'Will you help me to carry him to the
police station?' 'No,' said the coachman's son, being afraid of police stations
Mani asked: 'How do you know that he must be taken to the police
'I know it.'
'Does he ever trouble you similarly?' asked Mani.
‘No,' said the boy.
'Where is the two annas that your father took from me?' asked
Swaminathan, turning to the boy his tear-drenched face. The crowd had
meanwhile melted, after making half-hearted attempts to bring peace. Mani
asked the boy suddenly: 'Do you want this top?' He held a shining red top.
The boy put out his hand for the top.
Mani said: 'I can't give you this. if you come with me, I will give you
a bigger one. Let us become friends.'
The boy had no objection. 'Won't you let me see it?' he asked. Mani
gave it to him. The boy turned it in his hand twice or thrice and in the
twinkling of an eye disappeared from the place. Mani took time to grasp the
situation. When he did grasp it, he saw the boy entering a hovel far off. He
started after him.
When Mani reached the hovel the door was closed. Mani knocked a
dozen times, before a surly man appeared and said that the boy was not
there. The door was shut again. Mani started knocking again. Two or three
menacing neighbors came round and threatened to bury him alive if he dared
to trouble them in their own locality. Swaminathan was desperately
appealing to Mani to come away. But it took a great deal more to move him.
He went on knocking.
The neighbours took up their position a few yards off, with handfuls
of stones, and woke the dogs-sleeping under the tree.
It was only when the dogs came bouncing towards them that Mani
shouted: 'Run,' to Swaminathan, and set an example himself.
A couple of stones hit Swaminathan on the back. One or two hit Mani
also. A sharp stone skinned Mani's right heel. They became blind and
insensible to everything except the stretch of road before them.

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