Monday, February 16, 2009

Malgudi days

In Fathers Presence

DURING summer Malgudi was one of the most detested towns in
South India. Sometimes the heat went above a hundred and ten in the shade,
and between twelve and three any day in summer the dusty blanched roads
were deserted.
Even donkeys and dogs, the most vagrant of animals, preferred to
move to the edge of the street, where cat-walks and minor projections from
buildings cast a sparse strip of shade, when the fierce sun tilted towards the
west. But there is this peculiarity about heat: it appears to affect only those
that think of it. Swaminathan, Mani and Rajam would have been surprised if
anybody had taken the trouble to prove to them that the Malgudi sun was
unbearable. They found the noon and the afternoon the most fascinating part
of the day. The same sun that beat down on the head of Mr. Hentel, the mill
manager, and drove him to Kodaikanal, or on the turban of Mr. Krishnan,
the Executive Engineer, and made him complain that his profession was one
of the hardest, compelling him to wander in sun and storm, beat down on
Swaminathan's curly head, Mani's tough matted hair, and Rajam's short wiry
crop, and left them unmoved. The same sun that baked the earth so much
that even Mr. Retty, the most Indianised of the 'Europeans', who owned a
rice mill in the deserted bungalow outside the town (he was, by the way, the
mystery man of the place: nobody could say who he was or where he had
come from; he swore at his boy and at his customers in perfect Tamil and
always moved about in shirt, shorts, and sandalled feet) screamed one day
when he forgetfully took a step or two barefoot, the same sun made the three
friends loathe to remain under a roof.
They were sitting on a short culvert, half a mile outside the municipal
limits, on the Trunk Road. A streak of water ran under the culvert on a short
stretch of sand, and mingled with Sarayu farther down. There was no tree
where they sat, and the sun struck their heads directly. On the sides of the
road there were paddy fields; but now all that remained was scorched
stubble, vast stretches of stubble, relieved here and there by clustering
groves of mango or coco-nut. The Trunk Road was deserted but for an
occasional country cart lumbering along head for ten minutes, if you want
me to do it as a punishment. I only pretended to scratch Swami to show the
coachman's boy that I was his enemy.'
A jingling was now heard. A close mat-covered cart drawn by a white
bullock was coming down the road. When it had come within a yard of the
culvert, they rose, advanced, stood in a row, and shouted: 'Pull up the
animal, will you?'
The cart driver was a little village boy.
'Stop the cart, you fool,' cried Rajam.
'If he does not stop, we shall arrest him and confiscate his cart.' This
was Swaminathan.
The cart driver said: 'Boys, why do you stop me?'
'Don't talk,' Mani commanded, and with a serious face went round the
cart and examined the wheels. He bent down and scrutinised the bottom of
the cart: 'Hey, cart man, get down.'
'Boys, I must go,' pleaded the driver.
Whom do you address as "boys"?' asked Rajam menacingly. 'Don't
you know who we are?'
'We are the Government Police out to catch humbugs like you,' added
'I shall shoot you if you say a word,' said Rajam to the young driver.
Though the driver was incredulous, he felt that there must be something in
what they said.
Mani tapped a wheel and said: 'The culvert is weak, we can't let you
go over it unless you show us the pass.'
The cart driver jabbered: 'Please, sirs, let me—I have to be there.'
'Shut up,' Rajam commanded.
Swaminathan examined the animal and said: 'Come here.'
The cart driver was loath to get down. Mani dragged him from his seat
and gave him a push towards Swaminathan. Swaminathan scowled at him,
and pointing at the sides of the animal, asked: 'Why have you not washed the
animal, you blockhead?'
The villager replied timidly: 'I have washed the animal, sir.
'But why is this here?' Swaminathan asked, pointing at a brown patch.
'Oh, that! The animal has had it since its birth, sir.'
'Birth? Are you trying to teach me?' Swaminathan shouted and raised
his leg to kick the cart driver.
They showed signs of relenting.
'Give the rascal a pass, and be done with him,' Rajam conceded
graciously. Swaminathan took out a pencil stub and a grubby pocket-book
that he always carried about him on principle. It was his habit to note down
all sorts of things: the number of cycles that passed him, the number of
people going barefoot, the number going with sandals or shoes on, and so
He held the paper and pencil ready. Mani took hold of the rope of the
bullock, pushed it back, and turned it the other way round. The cart driver
protested. But Mani said:
'Don't worry. It has got to stand here. This is the boundary.'
'I have to go this way, sir.'
'You can turn it round and go.'
What is your name?' asked Rajam.
'Karuppan,' answered the boy.
Swaminathan took it down.
'I don't know, sir.'
'You don't know? Swami, write a hundred,' said Rajaro
'No sir, no sir, I am not a hundred.'
'Mind your business and hold your tongue. You are a hundred. I will
kill you if you say no. What is your bullock's name?'
'I don't know, sir.’
‘Swami write "Karuppan" again.’
'Sir, that is my name, not the bullock's.'
They ignored this and Swaminathan wrote 'Karuppan' against the
name of the bullock.
'Where are you going?'
Swaminathan wrote it down.
'How long will you stay there?'
'It is my place, sir.'
'If that is so, what brought you here?'
'Our headman sent ten bags of coco-nut to the Railway Shed.'
Swaminathan entered every word in his note-book. Then all the three
signed the page, tore it off, gave it to the cart driver, and permitted him to
Much to Swaminathan's displeasure, his father's courts closed in the
second week of May, and father began to spend the afternoons at home.
Swaminathan feared that it might interfere with his afternoon rambles with
Rajam and Mani. And it did. On the very third day of his vacation, father
commanded Swaminathan, just as he was stepping out of the house: 'Swami,
come here.'
Father was standing in the small courtyard, wearing a dhoti and a
banian, the dress, which, for its very homeliness, Swaminathan detested to
see him in; it indicated that he did not intend going out in the near future.
'Where are you going?'
Where were you yesterday at this time?'
"You are lying. You were not here yesterday. And you are not going
out now.'
'That is right,' mother added, just appearing from some where, 'there is
no limit to his loafing in the sun. He will die of sunstroke if he keeps on like
Father would have gone on even without mother's encouragement. But
now her words spurred him to action. Swaminathan was asked to follow him
to his 'room' in his father's dressing-room.
'How many days is it since you have touched your books?' father
asked as he blew off the fine layer of dust on Swaminathan's books, and
cleared the web that an industrious spider was weaving between a corner of
the table and the pile of books.
Swaminathan viewed this question as a gross breach of promise.
'Should I read even when I have no school?'
'Do you think you have passed the B.A.?' father asked.
'I mean, father, when the school is closed, when there is no
examination, even then should I read?'
'What a question! You must read.'
'But, father, you said before the examinations that I needn't read after
they were over. Even Rajam does not read.'
As he uttered the last sentence, he tried to believe it; he clearly
remembered Rajam's complaining bitterly of a home tutor who came and
pestered him for two hours a day thrice a week. Father was apparently deaf
to Swaminathan's remarks. He stood over Swaminathan and set him to dust
his books and clean his table. Swaminathan vigorously started blowing off
the dust from the book covers. He caught the spider carefully, and took it to
the window to throw it out. He held it outside the window and watched it for
a while. It was swinging from a strand that gleamed in a hundred delicate
'Look sharp! Do you want a whole day to throw out the spider?' father
asked. Swaminathan suddenly realised that he might have the spider as his
pet and that it would be a criminal waste to throw it out. He secretly slipped
it into his pocket and, after shaking an empty hand outside the window ,
returned to his duty at the desk.
'Look at the way you have kept your English Text! Are you not
ashamed of yourself?' Swaminathan picked up the oily red-bound Fourth
Reader, opened it, and banged together the covers, in order to shake off the
dust, and then robbed violently the oily covers with his palm.
'Get a piece of cloth, boy. That is not the way to clean things. Get a
piece of cloth, Swami,' father said, half kindly and half impatiently.
Swaminathan looked about and complained, 'I can't find any here,
'Run and see.'
This was a welcome suggestion. Swaminathan hurried out. He first
went to his grandmother.
'Granny, get me a piece of cloth, quick.'
Where am I to go for a piece of cloth?'
'Where am I to go?' he asked peevishly and added quite irrelevantly,
'if one has got to read even during holidays, I don't see why holidays are
given at all.' 'What is the matter?'
This was his opportunity to earn some sympathy. He almost wept as
he said: 'I don't know what Rajam and Mani will think, waiting for me there,
if I keep on fooling here. Granny, if father cannot find any work to do, why
shouldn't he go and sleep?'
Father shouted across the hall: 'Did you find the cloth?'
Swaminathan answered: 'Granny hasn't got it. I shall see if mother
has.' His mother was sitting in the back corridor on a mat, with the baby
sleeping on her lap. Swaminathan glared at her. Her advice to her husband a
few minutes ago rankled in his heart. 'You are a fine lady, mother,' he said in
an undertone, 'why don't you leave us, poor folk, alone?'
'What?' she asked, unconscious of the sarcasm, and having forgotten
what she had said to her husband a few minutes ago.
'You needn't have gone and carried tales against me. I don't know
what I have done to you.' He would have enjoyed prolonging this talk, but
father was waiting for the duster.
'Can you give me a piece of cloth?' he asked, coming to business.
'What cloth?'
'What cloth! How should I know? It seems I have got to tidy up
those—those books of mine. A fine way of spending the holidays!'
'I can't get any now.'
'Hmm. You can't, can't you?' He looked about. There was a piece of
cloth under the baby. In a flash, he stooped, rolled the baby over, pulled out
the cloth, and was off. He held his mother responsible for all his troubles,
and disturbing the baby and snatching its cloth gave him great relief.
With a fierce satisfaction he tilted the table and tipped all the things
on it over the floor, and then picked them up one by one, and arranged them
on the table. Father watched him: 'Is this how you arrange things? You have
kept all the light things at the bottom and the heavy ones on top. Take out
those note-books. Keep the Atlas at the bottom.' Mother came in with the
baby in her arms and complained to father, 'Look at that boy, he has taken
the baby's cloth. Is there nobody to control him, in this house? I wonder how
long his school is going to be kept closed.' Swaminathan continued his work
with concentrated interest. Father was pleased to ignore mother's complaint;
he merely pinched the sleeping baby's cheeks, at which mother was annoyed
and left the room.
Half an hour later Swaminathan sat in his father's room in a chair,
with a slate in his hand and pencil ready. Father held the arithmetic book
open and dictated: ' "Rama has ten mangoes with which he wants to earn
fifteen annas. Krishna wants only four mangoes. How much will Krishna
have to pay?"'
Swaminathan gazed and gazed at this sum, and every time he read it,
it seemed to acquire a new meaning. He had the feeling of having stepped
into a fearful maze. . . . His mouth began to water at the thought of mangoes.
He wondered what made Rama fix fifteen annas for ten mangoes. What kind
of a man was Rama? Probably he was like Sankar. Somehow one couldn't
help feeling that he must have been like Sankar, with his ten mangoes and
his iron determination to get fifteen annas. If Rama was like Sankar,
Krishna must have been like the Pea. Here Swaminathan felt an
unaccountable sympathy for Krishna.
'Have you done the sum?' father asked, looking over the newspaper he
was reading.
'Father, will you tell me if the mangoes were ripe?'
Father regarded him for a while and smothering a smile remarked: 'Do
the sum first. I will tell you whether the fruits were ripe or not, afterwards.'
Swaminathan felt utterly helpless. If only father would tell him
whether Rama was trying to sell ripe fruits or unripe ones! Of what avail
would it be to tell him afterwards? He felt strongly that the answer to this
question contained the key to the whole problem. It would be scandalous to
expect fifteen annas for ten unripe mangoes. But even if he did; it wouldn't
be unlike Rama, whom Swaminathan was steadily beginning to hate and
invest with the darkest qualities.
'Father, I cannot do the sum,' Swaminathan said, pushing away the
'What is the matter with you? You can't solve a simple problem in
Simple Proportion?'
‘We are not taught this kind of thing in our school.'
'Get the slate here. I will make you give the answer now.'
Swaminathan waited with interest for the miracle to happen. Father
studied the sum for a second and asked: 'What is the price of ten mangoes?'
Swaminathan looked over the sum to find out which part of the sum
contained an answer to this question. 'I don't know.'
'You seem to be an extraordinary idiot. Now read the sum. Come on.
How much does Rama expect for ten mangoes?'
'Fifteen annas of course,' Swaminathan thought, but how could that be
its price, just price? It was very well for Rama to expect it in his avarice. But
was it the right price? And then there was the obscure point whether the
mangoes were ripe or not. If they were ripe, fifteen annas might not be an
improbable price. If only he could get more light on this point!
‘How much does Rama want for his mangoes?'
'Fifteen annas,' replied Swaminathan without conviction.
Very good. How many mangoes does Krishna want?'
'What is the price of four?'
Father seemed to delight in torturing him. How could he know? How
could he know what that fool Krishna would pay?
'Look here, boy. I have half a mind to thrash you. What have you in
your head? Ten mangoes cost fifteen annas. What is the price of one? Come
on. If you don't say it—' His hand took Swaminathan's ear and gently
twisted it. Swaminathan could not open his mouth because he could not
decide whether the solution lay in the realm of addition, subtraction,
multiplication, or division. The longer he hesitated, the more violent the
twist was becoming. In the end when father was waiting with a scowl for an
answer, he received only a squeal from his son. 'I am not going to leave you
till you tell me how much a single mango costs at fifteen annas for ten.'
What was the matter with father? Swaminathan kept blinking. Where was
the urgency to know its price? Anyway, if father wanted so badly to know,
instead of harassing him, let him go to the market and find it out.
The whole brood of Ramas and Krishnas, with their endless
transactions with odd quantities of mangoes and fractions of money, were
getting disgusting.
Father admitted defeat by declaring: 'One mango costs fifteen over ten
annas. Simplify it.'
Here he was being led to the most hideous regions of arithmetic,
Fractions. 'Give me the slate, father. I will find it out.' He worked and found
at the end of fifteen minutes:
'The price of one mango is three over two annas.' He expected to be
contradicted any moment. But father said: 'Very good, simplify it further.' It
was plain sailing after that. Swaminathan announced at the end of half an
hour's agony:
'Krishna must pay six annas,' and burst into tears.
At five o'clock when he was ready to start for the club, Swaminathan's
father felt sorry for having worried his son all the afternoon. 'Would you like
to come with me to the club, boy?' he asked when he saw Swaminathan
sulking behind a pillar with a woebegone face. Swaminathan answered by
disappearing for a minute and reappearing dressed in his coat and cap.
Father surveyed him from head to foot and remarked: 'Why can't you be a
little more tidy?' Swaminathan writhed awkwardly.
'Lakshmi,' father called, and said to mother when she came: 'there
must be a clean dress for the boy in the box. Give him something clean.'
'Please don't worry about it now. He is all right. Who is to open the
box? The keys are somewhere. ... I have just mixed milk for the baby—' said
'What has happened to all his dresses?'
'What dresses? You haven't bought a square inch of cloth since last
What do you mean? What has happened to all the pieces of twill I
bought a few months ago?' he demanded vaguely, making a mental note at
the same time, to take the boy to the tailor on Wednesday evening.
Swaminathan was relieved to find his mother reluctant to get him a fresh
dress, since he had an obscure dread that his father would leave him behind
and go away if he went in to change.
A car hooted in front of the house. Father snatched his tennis racket
from a table and rushed out, followed by Swaminathan. A gentleman,
wearing a blazer that appealed to Swaminathan, sat at the wheel, and said:
'Good evening,' with a grin. Swaminathan was at first afraid that this person
might refuse to take him in the car. But his fears were dispelled by the
gentleman's saying amiably: 'Hallo, Srinivasan, are you bringing your boy to
the club? Right 0!' Swaminathan sat in the back seat while his father and his
friend occupied the front.
The car whizzed along. Swaminathan was elated and wished that
some of his friends could see him then. The car slid into a gate and came to a
stop amidst half a dozen other cars.
He watched his father playing tennis, and came to the conclusion that
he was the best player in all the three courts that were laid side by side.
Swaminathan found that whenever his father hit the ball, his opponents were
unable to receive it and so let it go and strike the screen. He also found that
the picker's life was one of grave risks.
Swaminathan fell into a pleasant state of mind. The very fact that he
was allowed to be present there and watch the play gave him a sense of
importance. He would have something to say to his friends tomorrow. He
slowly moved and stood near the screen behind his father. Before stationing
himself there, he wondered for a moment if the little fellow in khaki dress
might not object. But the little fellow was busy picking up balls and
throwing them at the players. Swaminathan stayed there for about ten
minutes. His father's actions were clearer to watch from behind, and the
twang of his racket when hitting the ball was very pleasing to the ear.
For a change Swaminathan stood looking at the boy in khaki dress.
As he gazed, his expression changed. He blinked fast as if he disbelieved his
eyes. It was the coachman's son, only slightly transformed by the khaki
dress! Now the boy had turned and seen him. He grinned maliciously and
hastily took out of his pocket a penknife, and held it up. Swaminathan was
seized with cold fear. He moved away fast, unobtrusively, to his former
place, which was at a safe distance from his enemy. After the set when his
father walked towards the building, Swaminathan took care to walk a little in
front of him and not behind, as he feared that he might get a stab any minute
in his back .
'Swami, don't go in front. You are getting between my legs.'
Swaminathan obeyed with a reluctant heart. He kept shooting glances
sideways and behind. He stooped and picked up a stone, a sharp stone, and
held it ready for use if any emergency should arise. The distance from the
tennis court to the building was about a dozen yards, but to Swaminathan it
seemed to be a mile and a half.
He felt safe when he sat in a chair beside his father in the card-room.
A thick cloud of smoke floated in the air. Father was shuffling and throwing
cards with great zest. This was the safest place on earth. There was father
and any number of his friends, and let the coachman's son try a hand if he
liked. A little later Swaminathan looked out of the window and felt disturbed
at the sight of the stars. It would be darker still by the time the card game
was finished and father rose to go home.
An hour later father rose from the table. Swaminathan was in a highly
nervous state when he got down the last steps of the building. There were
unknown dangers lurking m the darkness around. He was no doubt secure
between father and his friend. That thought was encouraging. But
Swaminathan felt at the same time that it would have been better if all the
persons in the card-room had escorted him to the car. He needed all the
guarding he could get, and some more. Probably by this time the boy had
gone out and brought a huge gang of assassins and was waiting for him.
He could not walk in front as, in addition to getting between his
father's legs, he had no idea which way they had to go for the car. Following
his father was out of the question, as he might not reach the car at all. He
walked in a peculiar sidestep which enabled him to see before him and
behind him simultaneously. The distance was interminable. He decided to
explain the danger to father and seek his protection.
Well, boy?'
Swaminathan suddenly decided that his father had better not know
anything about the coachman's son, however serious the situation might be.
'What do you want, boy?' father asked again.
'Father, are we going home now?'
'No. The car is there, near the gate.'
When they came to the car, Swaminathan got in first and occupied the
centre of the back seat. He was still in suspense. Father's friend was taking
time to start the car. Swaminathan was sitting all alone in the back seat, very
far behind father and his friend. Even now, the coachman's son and his gang
could easily pull him out and finish him.
The car started. When its engine rumbled, it sounded to
Swaminathan's ears like the voice of a saviour. The car was outside the gate
now and picked up speed. Swaminathan lifted a corner of his dhoti and
mopped his brow.

No comments:

Post a Comment