Monday, February 16, 2009

Malgudi days

What is a tail

THE Geography Master was absent, and the boys of the First A had
leisure between three and three-forty-five on Wednesday.
Somehow Swaminathan had missed his friends and found himself
alone. He wandered along the corridor of the Infant Standards. To
Swaminathan, who did not really stand over four feet, the children of the
Infant Standards seemed ridiculously tiny. He felt vastly superior and old.
He was filled with contempt when he saw them dabbling in wet clay, trying
to shape models. It seemed such a meaningless thing to do at school! Why,
they could as well do those things resembling elephants, mangoes, and
whatnots, in the backyards of their houses. Why did they come all the way to
a school to do this sort of thing? Schools were meant for more serious things
like Geography, Arithmetic, Bible, and English.
In one room he found all the children engaged in repeating
simultaneously the first two letters of the Tamil alphabet. He covered his
ears and wondered how the teacher was able to stand it. He passed on. In
another room he found an ill-clad, noisy crowd of children. The noise that
they made, sitting on their benches and swinging their legs, got on his
nerves. He wrinkled his brow and twisted his mouth in the hope of making
the teacher feel his resentment but unfortunately the teacher was sitting with
his back to Swaminathan.
He paused at the foot of the staircase leading to the senior classes the
Second and the Third Forms. He wanted to go up and inspect those classes
which he eagerly looked for ward to joining. He took two or three steps up,
and changed his mind. The Head Master might be up there, he always
handled those classes. The teachers too were formidable, not to speak of the
boys themselves, who were snobs and bullies. He heard the creak of sandals
far off and recognised the footsteps of the Head Master. He did not want to
be caught there—that would mean a lot of unsatisfactory explanations.
It was with pleasant surprise that he stumbled into his own set, which
he had thought was not at school. Except Rajam and Mani all the rest were
there. Under the huge tamarind tree they were playing some game.
Swaminathan joined them with a low, ecstatic cry. The response
disappointed him. They turned their faces to him with a faint smile, and
returned to their game. What surprised Swaminathan most was that even the
genial Somu was grim. Something seemed to be wrong somewhere.
Swaminathan assumed an easy tone and shouted: 'Boys, what about a little
place for me in the game?' Nobody answered this. Swaminathan paused and
announced that he was waiting for a place in the game.
'It is a pity, we can't take more,' Sankar said curtly.
There are people who can be very efficient as tails,' said the Pea. The
rest laughed at this.
‘You said Tail, didn't you?' asked Sankar. ‘What makes ' you talk of
Tail now?'
'It is just my pleasure. What do you care? It doesn't apply to you
anyway,' said the Pea.
'I am glad to hear it, but does it apply to anyone here?' asked Sankar.
'It may.'
‘What is a Tail?'
'A long thing that attaches itself to an ass or a dog.'
Swaminathan could comprehend very little except that the remark
contained some unpleasant references to himself. His cheeks grew hot. He
wanted to cry.
The bell rang and they ran to their class. Swaminathan slunk to his
seat with a red face.
It was the English period presided over by Vedanayagam. He was
reading the story of the old man who planted trees for posterity and was paid
ten rupees by a king. Not a word reached Swaminathan's brain, in which
there was only dull pain and vacuity. If he had been questioned he would
have blundered and would have had to spend the rest of the hour standing
on the bench. But his luck was good.
The period was over. He was walking home alone, rather slowly, with
a troubled heart. Somu was going a few yards in front of him. Swaminathan
cried out: 'Somu, Somu. . . . Somu, won't you stop?' Somu stopped till the
other came up. After a brief silence Swaminathan quavered: 'What is the
matter with you fellows?'
'Nothing very particular,' replied Somu. 'By the way, may I inform
you that you have earned a new name?—The Tail, Rajam's Tail, to be more
precise. We aren't good enough for you, I believe. But how can everyone be
a son of a Police Superintendent?' With that he was off.
This was probably Swaminathan's first shock in life. It paralysed all
his mental processes. When his mind started working again, he faintly
wondered if he had been dreaming. The staid Somu, the genial Somu, the
uncle Somu, was it the same Somu that had talked to him a few minutes
ago? What was wrong in liking and going about with
Rajam? Why did it make them so angry?
He went home, flung his coat and cap and books on the table, gulped
down the cold coffee that was waiting for him, and sat on the pyol, vacantly
gazing into the dark intricacies of the gutter that adorned Vinayaka Mudali
Street. A dark volume of water was rushing along. Odd pieces of paper,
leaves, and sticks, floated by. A small piece of tin was gently skimming
along. Swaminathan had an impulse to plunge his hand in and pick it up. But
he let it go. His mind was inert. He watched the shining bit float away. It
was now at the end of the compound wall; now it had passed under the tree.
Swaminathan was slightly irritated when a brick obstructed the progress of
the tin. He said that the brick must either move along or stand aside without
interfering with the traffic. The piece of tin released itself and dashed along
furiously, disappeared round a bend at the end of the street. Swaminathan
ran in, got a sheet of paper, and made a boat. He saw a small ant moving
about aimlessly. He carefully caught it, placed it in the boat, and lowered
the boat into the stream. He watched in rapture its quick motion. He held his
breath when the boat with its cargo neared a danger zone formed by stuck-up
bits of straw and other odds and ends. The boat made a beautiful swerve to
the right and avoided destruction. It went on and on. It neared a fatal spot
where the waters were swirling round and round in eddies. Swaminathan
was certain that his boat was nearing its last moment. He had no doubt that it
was going to be drawn right to the bottom of the circling eddies.
The boat whirled madly round, shaking and swaying and quivering.
But providentially a fresh supply of water from the kitchen in the
neighbour's house pushed it from behind out of danger. But it rushed on at a
fearful speed, and Swaminathan felt that it was going to turn turtle. Presently
it calmed, and resumed a normal speed. But when it passed under a
tree, a thick dry leaf fell down and upset it. Swaminathan ran frantically to
the spot to see if he could save at least the ant. He peered long into the water,
but there was no sign of the ant. The boat and its cargo were wrecked
beyond recovery. He took a pinch of earth, uttered a prayer for the soul of
the ant, and dropped it into the gutter. In a few days Swaminathan got
accustomed to his position as the enemy of Somu and company.
All the same now and then he had an irresistible desire to talk to his
old friends. When the Scripture Master pursed his lips and scratched his
nose, Swaminathan had a wild impulse to stamp on the Pea's leg and laugh,
for that was a joke that they had never failed to enjoy day after day for many
years past. But now Swaminathan smothered the impulse and chuckled at it
himself, alone. And again, when the boy with the red cap nodded in his seat
and woke up with a start every time his head sank down, Swaminathan
wanted to whisper into the Pea's ear: 'Look at that fellow, third on the first
bench, red cap—Now he is falling off again—' and giggle; but he merely bit
his lips and kept quiet.
Somu was looking in his direction. Swaminathan thought that there
was friendliness in his look. He felt a momentary ecstasy as he realised that
Somu was willing to be friendly again. They stared at each other for a while,
and just as Swaminathan was beginning to put on a sweet friendly look,
Somu's expression hardened and he turned away.
Swaminathan was loitering in the compound. He heard familiar voices
behind, turned round, and saw Somu, Sankar, and the Pea, following him.
Swaminathan wondered whether to stop and join them, or wait till they had
passed and then go in the opposite direction. For it was awkward to be
conscious of the stare of three pairs of hostile eyes behind one's ears. He
believed that every minute movement of his body was being watched and
commented on by the three followers. He felt that his gait was showing
unfavourably in their eyes. He felt they were laughing at the way in which
he carried his books. There was a slight itching on his nape, his hand almost
rose, but he checked it, feeling that the scratching would be studiously
watched by the six keen eyes.
He wanted to turn to his right and enter the school hall. But that would
be construed as cowardice; they would certainly think that he was doing it to
escape from them. He wanted to run away, but that would be no better. He
wanted to turn back and get away in the opposite direction, but that would
mean meeting them square in the face. So, his only recourse was to keep on
walking as best as he could, not showing that he was conscious of his
followers. The same fellows ten days ago, what they were! Now what
formidable creatures they had turned out to be! Swaminathan was wonder
struck at the change.
It was becoming unendurable. He felt that his legs were taking a
circular motion, and were twining round each other when he walked. It was
too late to turn and dash into the school hall. He had passed it. Now he had
only one way of escape. He must run. It was imperative. He tried a trick.
He paused suddenly, turned this way and that, as if looking for
something, and then cried aloud: -Oh, I have left my note-book somewhere,'
raised his hand and was off from the spot like a stag.

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