Monday, February 16, 2009

Malgudi days

Swami's Grandmother

IN THE ill-ventilated dark passage between the front hall and the
dining-room, Swaminathan's grandmother lived with all her belongings,
which consisted of an elaborate bed made of five carpets, three bed sheets,
and five pillows, a square box made of jute fibre, and a small wooden box
containing copper coins, cardamoms, cloves, and areca-nut.
After the night meal, with his head on his granny's lap, nestling close
to her, Swaminathan felt very snug and safe in the faint atmosphere of
cardamom and cloves.
'Oh, granny!' he cried ecstatically, 'you don't know what a great fellow
Rajam is.' He told her the story of the first enmity between Rajam and Mani
and the subsequent friendship.
'You know, he has a real police dress,' said Swaminathan.
'Is it? What does he want a police dress for?' asked granny.
'His father is the Police Superintendent. He is the master of every
policeman here.' Granny was impressed. She said that it must be a
tremendous office indeed. She then recounted the days when her husband,
Swaminathan's grandfather, was a powerful Sub-Magistrate, in which office
he made the police force tremble before him, and the fiercest dacoits of the
place flee. Swaminathan waited impatiently for her to finish the story. But
she went on, rambled, confused, mixed up various incidents that took place
at different times.
That will do, granny,' he said ungraciously. 'Let me tell you something
about Rajam. Do you know how many marks he gets in Arithmetic?'
'He gets all the marks, does he, child?' asked granny.
'No, silly. He gets ninety marks out of one hundred.'
'Good. But you must also try and get marks like him. . . You know,
Swami, your grandfather used to frighten the examiners with his answers
sometimes. When he answered a question, he did it in a tenth of the time that
others took to do it. And then, his answers would be so powerful that his
teachers would give him two hundred marks sometimes. .. . When he passed
his F.A. he got such a big medal!
I wore it as a pendant for years till—When did I remove it? Yes, when
your aunt was born. . . . No, it wasn't your aunt. ... It was when your father
was born. ... I remember on the tenth day of confinement. . . . No, no. I was
It was when your aunt was born. Where is that medal now?
I gave it away to your aunt—and she melted it and made four bangles
out of it. The fool! And such flimsy bangles too! I have always maintained
that she is the worst fool in our family. ...'
'Oh, enough, granny! You go on bothering about old unnecessary
stories. Won't you listen to Rajam?'
‘Yes, dear, yes.'
'Granny, when Rajam was a small boy, he killed a tiger.' 'Indeed! The
brave little boy!'
You are saying it just to please me. You don't believe it.'
Swaminathan started the story enthusiastically: Rajam's father was
camping in a forest. He had his son with him. Two tigers came upon them
suddenly, one knocking down the father from behind. The other began
chasing Rajam, who took shelter behind a bush and shot. it dead with his
gun. 'Granny, are you asleep?' Swaminathan asked at the end of the story.
'No, dear, I am listening.'
'Let me see. How many tigers came upon how many?'
'About two tigers on Rajam,' said granny.
Swaminathan became indignant at his grandmother's inaccuracy.
'Here I am going hoarse telling you important things and you fall asleep and
imagine all sorts of nonsense.
I am not going to tell you anything more. I know why you are so
indifferent. You hate Rajam.'
'No, no, he is a lovely little boy,' granny said with conviction, though
she had never seen Rajam. Swaminathan was pleased. Next moment a new
doubt assailed him.
'Granny, probably you don't believe the tiger incident.'
'Oh, I believe every word of it,' granny said soothingly.
Swaminathan was pleased, but added as a warning: 'He would shoot
anyone that called him a liar.'
Granny expressed her approval of this attitude and then begged leave
to start the story of Harischandra, who, just to be true to his word, lost his
throne, wife, and child, and got them all back in the end. She was half-way
through it when Swaminathan's rhythmic snoring punctuated her narration,
and she lay down to sleep.
Saturday afternoon. Since Saturday and Sunday came so rarely, to
Swaminathan it seemed absurd to waste at home, gossiping with granny and
mother or doing sums. It was his father's definite orders that Swaminathan
should not start loafing in the afternoon and that he should stay at home and
do school work. But this order was seldom obeyed.
Swaminathan sat impatiently in his 'study', trying to wrest the
meaning out of a poem in his English Reader. His father stood before the
mirror, winding a turban round his head. He had put on his silk coat. Now
only his spectacles remained. Swaminathan watched his progress keenly.
Even the spectacles were on. All that now remained was the watch.
Swaminathan felt glad. This was the last item and after that father would
leave for the Court. Mother came in with a tumbler of water in one hand and
a plate of betel leaves and nuts in the other. Frank drank the water and held
out his hand. She gave him a little areca-nut and half a dozen neatly rolled
betel leaves. He put them all into his mouth, chewing them with great
contentment. Swaminathan read at the top of his voice the poem about a
woolly sheep. His father fussed about a little for his tiny silver snuff-box and
the spotted kerchief, which was the most unwashed thing in that house. He
hooked his umbrella on his arm. This was really the last signal for starting.
Swaminathan had almost closed the book and risen. His father had almost
gone out of the room. But—Swaminathan stamped his foot under the table.
Mother stopped father and said: 'By the way, I want some change. The tailor
is coming today. He has been pestering me for the last four days.'
'Ask him to come to-morrow,' father said. Mother was insistent.
Father returned to his bureau, searched for the keys, opened it, took out a
purse, and gave her the change.
'I don't know how I am going to manage things for the rest of the
month,' he said peering into the purse. He locked the bureau, and adjusted
his turban before the mirror. He took a heavy pinch of snuff, and wiping his
nose with his kerchief, walked out. Swaminathan heaved a sigh of relief.
'Bolt the door,' came father's voice from the street door.
Swaminathan heard the clicking of the bolts. He sat at the window,
watched his father turn the corner, and then left his post.
His mother was in the kitchen giving instructions to the cook about
the afternoon coffee. Granny was sitting up in her bed. 'Come here, boy,' she
cried as soon as she saw him.
'I can't. No time now.'
'Please. I will give you three pies,' she cried.
Swaminathan ignored the offer and dashed away.
'Where are you going?' mother asked.
'I have got to go,' Swaminathan said with a serious face.
'Are you going to loaf about in the sun?'
'Certainly not,' he replied curtly.
'Wander about recklessly and catch fever? ...'
'No, mother, I am not going to wander about.'
'Has your father not asked you to stay at home on holidays?'
'Yes, but my Drawing Master has asked me to see him. I suppose even
then I should not go.' He added bitterly: 'If I fail in the Drawing examination
I think you will be pleased.'
Swaminathan ran down Grove Street, turned to his right, threaded his
way through Abu Lane, stood before a low roofed, dingy house, and gave a
low whistle. He waited for a second and repeated it. The door chain clanked,
the door opened a little, and Mani's head appeared and said: 'Fool! My aunt
is here, don't come in. Go away and wait for me there.'
Swaminathan moved away and waited under a tree. The sun was
beating down fiercely. The street was almost deserted. A donkey was
standing near a gutter, patiently watching its sharp shadow. A cow was
munching a broad, green, plantain leaf. Presently Mani sneaked out of his
Rajam's father lived in Lawley Extension (named after the mighty
engineer Sir Frederick Lawley, who was at one time the Superintending
Engineer for Malgudi Circle), which consisted of about fifty neat
bungalows, mostly occupied by government officials. The Trunk Road to
Trichinopoly passed a few yards in front of these houses.
Swaminathan and Mani were nervously walking up the short drive
leading to Rajam's house. A policeman in uniform cried to them to stop and
came running towards them.
Swaminathan felt like turning and fleeing. He appealed to Mani to
speak to the policeman. The policeman asked what they were doing there.
Mani said in a tone in which overdone carelessness was a trifle obvious: 'If
Rajam is in the house, we are here to see him. He asked us to come.' The
policeman at once became astonishingly amiable and took them along to
Rajam's room.
To Mani and Swaminathan the room looked large. There were chairs
in it, actually chairs, and a good big table with Rajam's books arranged
neatly on it. What impressed them most was a timepiece on the table. Such a
young follow to own a timepiece! His father seemed to be an extraordinary
Presently Rajam entered. He had known that his friends were waiting
for him, but he liked to keep them waiting for a few minutes, because he had
seen his father doing it. So he stood for a few minutes in the adjoining room,
biting his nails. When he could keep away no longer, he burst in upon his
'Sit down, boys, sit down,' he cried when he saw them standing.
In a few minutes they were chatting about odds and ends, discussing
their teachers and school-mates, their parents, toys, and games.
Rajam took them to a cupboard and threw it open. They beheld
astounding things in it, miniature trains and motors, mechanical marvels, and
a magic-lantern with slides, a good many large picture-books, and a hundred
other things.
What interested Mani most was a grim air-gun that stood in a corner.
Rajam gave them permission to handle anything they pleased. In a short
while Swaminathan was running an engine all over the room. Mani was
shooting arrow after arrow from a bow, at the opposite wall. When he tired
of it, he took up the gun and devastated the furniture around with lead balls.
'Are you fellows, any of you, hungry?' Rajam asked.
'No,' they said half-heartedly.
'Hey,' Rajam cried. A policeman entered.
'Go and ask the cook to bring some coffee and tiffin for three.' The
ease and authority with which he addressed the policeman filled his friends
with wonder and admiration.
The cook entered with a big plateful of eatables. He set down the plate
on the table. Rajam felt that he must display his authority.
'Remove it from the table, you—' he roared at the cook.
The cook removed it and placed it on a chair.
'You dirty ass, take it away, don't put it there.'
'Where am I to put it, Raju?' asked the cook.
Rajam burst out: 'You rascal, you scoundrel, you talk back to me?'
The cook made a wry face and muttered something .
'Put it on the table/ Rajam commanded. The cook obeyed, mumbling:
'If you are rude, I am going to tell your mother.'
'Go and tell her, I don't care,' Rajam retorted.
He peered into a cup and cursed the cook for bringing it so dirty. The
cook looked up for a moment, quietly lifted the plate, and saying, 'Come and
eat in the kitchen if you want food,' went away with it.
This was a great disappointment to Swaminathan and Mani, who were
waiting with watering mouths. To Rajam it was a terrible moment. To be
outdone by his servant before his friends! He sat still for a few minutes and
then said with a forced laugh: 'The scoundrel, that cook is a buffoon .... Wait
a minute.' He went out.
After a while he returned, carrying the plate himself. His friends were
a bit astonished at this sign of defeat. Obviously he could not subdue the
cook. Swaminathan puzzled his head to find out why Rajam did not shoot
the cook dead, and Mani wanted to ask if he could be allowed to have his
own way with the cook for a few minutes. But Rajam set their minds at rest
by explaining to them: 'I had to bring this myself. I went in and gave the
cook such n. kick for his impertinence that he is lying unconscious in the

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