A Tiger for Malgudi

by R. K. Narayan

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

In A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan, a tiger named Raja narrates his life story. Through the tiger’s autobiography, the author explores themes of spirituality, identity, and freedom and presents observations of Indian society.

Raja informs readers that he is more than an ordinary tiger in a zoo. He mentions someone named the Master, and the narrative that follows traces the tiger’s journey to his encounter with this person.

The tiger describes his life in the jungle, recalling his clashes with other animals. He fights with a female tiger and then, at the advice of a jackal, becomes her mate. After a brief period of happiness, Raja is devastated when hunters from a village kill his mate and cubs. In anger, he attacks their livestock.

The narrative shifts to describe the villagers as they complain to a local authority named the Collector about the tiger. Another character, the Captain, comes to the Collector’s office to renew a license and is interested in the tiger for his circus. His background and how he acquired what becomes the Malgudi circus is explained. The villagers then bait the tiger into a trap, and he is taken to the Captain’s circus.

The tiger, now given the name Raja, describes his life in the circus. He observes the behavior of the other animals, how they conform to the Captain’s demands, and the relationship between the Captain and his wife, Rita, a trapeze artist. Raja doesn’t like captivity and finds training boring and demeaning. He especially feels humiliation at being coaxed to drink from a bowl of milk with a goat, the symbol of his entrapment.

The Captain puts the animals through a lengthy training session in anticipation for the Jubilee Show. A frustrated Raja attacks the goat, killing it. The Captain punishes Raja by keeping him in his cage, but a filmmaker named Madan who witnessed the attack on the goat thinks the tiger would make a great subject for his next film. The Captain and Madan enter into a series of negotiations about the film’s script and how Raja is to be presented. Madan wants to change Raja’s behavior to fit the script, and Rita advises the Captain to use an electric shock prod with Raja. After a difficult day of filming, Raja again reaches his limits. When the Captain approaches Raja with the electric prod, the tiger reacts by swiping his paw at it, and he kills the Captain.

Raja runs away into town, causing panic among adults and excitement among children. He runs into a school building and hides in the headmaster’s office. In a comedic interlude, townspeople representing different facets of society discuss how to get the tiger out of the building. A simple man who seems to be a hermit offers advice, but he is mocked or ignored. Finally, after arguments and ineffectual actions by the townspeople, the hermit walks into the office, appears to place a spell on Raja, and calmly leads the tiger out of the school and out of town.

Raja then lives with the hermit, a sannyasi whom he calls the Master. The Master imparts his spiritual teachings, leading Raja to reflect on his past and seek to understand himself. The Master’s wife visits, and she and the Master hold a heated argument about why he chose the isolated sannyasi life.

One day, the Master feels that he is about to experience samadhi, a spiritual awakening. He gives the aging Raja to a zoo operated by a sympathetic zookeeper. Upon parting, the Master hints to Raja that perhaps they will meet again in another incarnation.

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Chapter Summaries