Authors: R. K. Narayan
ll day long, I sat half buried in sand piled in a corner of our garden, raising castles and mountain-ranges, unaware of the fierce Madras sun overhead. I had a peacock and a monkey for company. The monkey was chained to a post, on top of which a little cabin was available for his shelter, but he preferred to sit on the roof of his home, hanging down his tail. He responded to the name Rama by baring his teeth, and kept a wary eye on the peacock, which was perpetually engaged in scratching the mud and looking for edible insects. I cannot say exactly when they came into my life, but they seemed to have been always there with me. In an early photo of myself, when I was four years old, I am set on a miniature bamboo chair flanked by the peacock and the monkey. My uncle (Mother's brother), who brought me up, must have been one of the earliest amateur photographers in India. He kept his head, on most bright afternoons, under a black hood enveloping an enormous camera on a tripod. He posed me constantly against the flowers in the garden, in the company of my pets. I had to remain rigid, unblinking, and immobile whenever he photographed us, and it was a feat to keep the monkey and the peacock still. I enjoyed these sessions, although my grandmother declared from time to time that a photograph was likely to shorten the subject's life. I was proud of the group in the picture and hoped that others would see a resemblance between me and Rama. When I sought confirmation on this point, my grandmother was horrified and said, “What a fool to want to look like a monkey! You are in bad company. You must send away that creature. Wanting to look like a monkey when God has endowed you with such large eyes and all those curls falling down to your cheeks!” She was so fond of my curls that she never let a barber come near me, which meant that I had constantly to part the veil of hair with my fingers when I wished to look at anyone.
The peacock was not fully grown yet, but he bore his three-foot tail haughtily, and enjoyed the freedom of the house, pecking away every ant that had the ill luck to come within the range of his vision. Most afternoons, when I was tired of the sand dump, I moved to the threshold of the door opening on Purasawalkam High Road and watched the traffic, which consisted of cyclists and horse- or bullock-drawn carriages. A caravan of corporation carts passed along, stuffed to the brim with garbage, with the top layer blowing off in the high wind coming from the sea at this hour. The last few carriages forming the rear of the caravan were waggons, tar-painted and sealed, filled with night soil; the entire column moved westward and was soon lost in the dusty glare of the evening sun, but it left an odorous trail which made me jump up and rush in crying, “Rubbish carts are passing.” This announcement was directed at Grandmother, who would thereby understand that it was time to begin her evening operations, namely, the watering of over fifty flower beds and pots. (She knew a potter who made special giant-size pots for her, a size I have never seen anywhere before or since, each one being capable of bearing a tree.) She reared in her garden over twenty hibiscus families, blue, grey, purple, double-row petals, and several kinds of jasmine, each scattering its special fragrance into the night airânumerous exotic flowers in all shapes and sizes. A corner of her garden was reserved for nurturing certain delicate plants which gasped for breath. She acquired geronia, geranium, lavender, and violet, which could flourish only at an altitude of three thousand feet in Bangalore, and stubbornly tried to cultivate them in the salty air of Madras. When the plants wilted she shed tears and cursed the Madras climate. Even after the plants had perished in their boxes, she tended them hopefully for a few days before throwing them over the wall, to be ultimately gathered into the corporation caravan going westward.
Filling up a bronze water-pot, a bucket, and a watering-can by turns, my grandmother transported water from a tap at the back yard impartially to all her plants, and finally through a brass syringe shot into the air a grand column of water which would descend like a gift from the heavens on the whole garden, dampening down the mud and stirring up an earthy smell (which tempted one to taste the mud), the foliage glittering in the sun like finely cut diamonds as water dripped off their edges. The peacock busily kept pace with us as we moved up and down bearing the water-pots. When a shower of water descended, the peacock fanned out its tail, parading its colours. At this moment, one could hear Rama rattle his chain, since he always felt uneasy when the peacock preened itself thus, and demonstrated his protest by clanking his chain and tumbling around on the roof of his own cabin. As the evening grew dim, I drove the peacock under a bamboo coop in a corner of the living-room. Rama would be fed with rice and driven into his cabin. He became purblind and bemused at dusk and one could push him hither and thither as one pleased.
Sometimes, when I sat at the street door, the peacock stood beside me. Every passer-by would stop to admire it; sometimes a youngster would beg for a feather to be plucked out and given to him. The first time I had this request I saw no reason why I should not oblige him; after all, he wanted only a feather while I had a whole bird to myself, and so I allowed him to pluck out a feather of his choice, just one. When he reached for it, the peacock stabbed the back of his hand with its beak and the boy fled screaming. I had not noticed till then how aggressive this bird could be. I began to notice that it possessed the temperament of a watch-dog. Quite a variety of persons had to pass in and out of our home all day, having business with my grandmotherâmendicants, vegetable vendors, the tailor and goldsmithâand if anyone stepped in without warning they were viciously chased by the peacock. It generally perched on the wall over the door and directly descended on the visitors, pestering them until it was caught by its tail and dragged away.
My uncle, the only other member of the family, would not be home yet. He had a room upstairs which he used as his study and darkroom combined, where, when he was not washing the negatives, he pored over his class books. He went out in the mornings to catch the tram for his college and returned late in the evening. On holiday afternoons, he lugged out his camera on the tripod and fixed me in front of it. Sometimes he sat on the kitchen floor and narrated the day's events at his college; he was a member of the college drama group, and he explained to us Shakespeare's
and how they were trying to produce it; he mimicked some of his friends who acted in it and that made us laugh; he was a good raconteur and I knew
long before I knew anything else. My uncle was Prospero and he described how his best chum, who did Caliban, entered his role so heartily that he proved a public menace during the rehearsals. He spoke of his professor, one Dr. Skinner, with great admiration, and we all admired him too, although by hearsay.
All sound ceased presently. The streets became silent but for the swear words emanating from the shop across the High Road while the owner berated his habitual debtors seeking further favours. He called his defaulting customers and their mothers names, and if I had picked up choice slang it must have been from the rich verbal arsenal that freely floated in the air.
Over all that hubbub one heard the tramcar grinding the rails at its terminus in the street of shops two furlongs away. Eastward of our home were shops and the tram terminus, where one boarded to get to the wide world and the sea-coast beyond, whereas the west side, where the corporation caravans went, seemed full of sinister possibilities. From that direction, one heard bickerings and curses and affrays from an unseen tavern. Corpses were borne in funeral processions in the same direction. I shuddered to look that way, but longed to see the shops and tramway at the other end.
It was exciting, one day, to be asked to go with my uncle to the street of shops. I clung to his arm and marched along. It was the evening hour again. I noticed a man with his hand and shoulder stuck through a bamboo ladder, going from post to post lighting the street lamps. The lamp-posts were few and far between: hexagonal glass shades on top of cast-iron fluted pillars. The lamplighter was an old man wearing a khaki coat and a blue turban, equipped with a ladder, a box of matches, rags, and a can of oil. He moved from pillar to pillar, unhurryingly. I was fascinated. I had never suspected that there could be so much to do to light up the dark nights. Clinging to my uncle's fingers, I watched him, my head turned backâa difficult operation, since my uncle dragged me along, never slackening his pace. The lamplighter went up his ladder, opened a little ventilator, took out the lamp, cleaned and wiped it with the rag, filled it with oil, lit up the wick and closed the shutter, climbed down, thrust his shoulder through the ladder again, and passed on to the next one. I had numerous questions welling up within me, all sorts of things I wished to know about the manâhis name, where he came from, if he slept wearing the ladder, what he ate, and so forth; but before I could phrase them properly, I had to be moving along with my questions unuttered.
Other spectacles presently attracted my attention: the Pankaja Lodge, a sweet-meat shop with edibles heaped up in trays, presided over by a bespectacled man with a gleaming gold chain around his neck. The frying smell generated here reached me every afternoon while I sat at the street door of my home, with the peacock at my back, and made me very hungry. Today, my uncle stopped by to pick up a little packet of eatables for me, wrapped in a crackling brown leaf. I munched it, immediately forgetting the lamplighter. My uncle walked me onto the edge of the road in order to protect me from the traffic hazards of those days; one constantly heard reports of persons knocked down by cyclists. Milkmen with milking-cans in hand were driving their cows through the streets. I jumped aside at the sight of the cows, although my uncle tried to convince me they were harmless. When we passed an orange-coloured school building with a green gate, my uncle promised that I would in due course find myself there. I did not welcome the idea. It was a gaunt-looking building with a crucifix on its roof, and I hated it at first sight.
With time my outlook did not change. As far as this school was concerned, my first reaction seemed also to be the final one. In due course I became a pupil there. On the first day I wept in fear. The sight of my classmates shook my nerves. An old man with silvery stubble on his chin, turban crowning his head, clad in a striped coat without buttons and a white dhoti, a short cane permanently tucked under his arm, presided over the class of infants. Under his watchful eye we sat on the floor and kneaded small lumps of wet clay and shaped them into vegetables, fruits, and what not; we also cut out coloured sheets of paper and made more vegetables and fruits and also boats and quadrupeds. He brought his cane down violently on the table in order to gain our attention and tell us what to do next. I do not think I ever saw him lay his cane on anyone's back, but he flourished it and used it as a medium of self-expression, like a conductor's baton. My main ambition in life was to remain unnoticed by him. No matter how hard I tried, the clay never assumed proper shape in my hands. It never retained any symmetry or shape; while other boys produced marvellous imitations of all kinds of objects in creation, my own handiwork remained unclassifiable (perhaps I was ahead of my time as a sculptor). I was always afraid what the teacher might say; luckily for me I was a late admission and was given the last seat, and we were quite a crowd in the class; by the time he reached me, the time would be up, and we would have to run to the water-tap under the tree and clean up the mess on our fingers.