The Tiger King by Kalki Krishnamurthy is terrific a short story which revolves around the theme of power, pride and the downfall of unchecked power in political life. A biting political satire which challenged the idea of unquestioned authority, The Tiger King takes into account of the contemporary political life when it was being written. The story engages with the ideas of democracy, accountability and the conservation of life forms, especially as it was evolving in the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle.
The Tiger King | Summary
The story begins with a declaration about its hero- The Maharaja of Pratibandapuram. There is a long list of grand titles he may be referred to as, but in the end, it is often shortened to The Tiger King. The narrator wants to explain how that name came about, and nobody, not even the Stuka, can throw him off track. Before he begins, the narrator informs readers that they can never meet the Tiger King, for he has already died, and he will only reveal how it happened at the end of the tale.
The moment the Tiger King was born, it was foretold by astrologers that he would be the greatest warrior there was, but the star under which he was born signifies that he would die. Then, the Tiger King, who was only ten days old at the time, miraculously spoke- he asked the astrologers for the manner of death, since everyone on the earth would have to die someday. They were all amazed at his question and at the fact that an infant had spoken coherent words. It is explained that the Tiger King was born under the star of the Bull- that is, the Tiger’s enemy. Hence, death would come from a tiger. And rather than being terrified, the infant let out a growl and announced that tigers should beware. This is only a rumour, but based on the way he died, the narrator thinks it may have been true.
In the second section of the story, the narrator describes the King’s- Jung Jung Bahadur’s- growth. He grew up drinking English milk, being tutored by an Englishman, watching English films and having an English nanny. However, everyone in the kingdom remembered the prophecy. The Maharaja didn’t think there was anything wrong with killing tigers in self-defense, and so he went on a tiger hunt. He sent for the astrologer to show him his first kill, to which the man replied that it is the hundredth the Maharaja had to be careful about. The astrologer, on Maharaja’s prodding, promised monotonously that if the hundredth tiger was killed, he would shave off his hair, burn his books and become an insurance agent.
In the third part of the story, the narrator said tiger hunting was banned for anyone except the Maharaja, who would prioritise it above anything. Sometimes, he fought tigers with his bare hands and won. Another time, a British officer who loved tiger-hunting wanted to do so in Pratibandapuram, to which the Maharaja firmly refused. On declining the Englishman’s request, his throne was in danger. After a meeting, the Maharaja decided to appease the situation by requesting a sample of fifty expensive rings from a famous jeweler. He sent them all to the Englishman and his wife, expecting the wife to choose one or two as a gift. However, she responded by thanking him for all fifty. The Maharaja lost 3 lakhs in the exchange, but protected his kingdom.
In the fourth section, the Tiger King has killed seventy tigers in ten years. But alas, there were no more tigers left in the forests of Pratibandapuram. The Maharaja calls for his dewan and announces that he plans to get married, much to the dewans’ shock and hesitance. The Maharaja desires to marry a girl from a region of high tiger population so that he can continue his hunt there. Finally, after finding the right girl, he kills a few tigers every time he visits his father in law- there are ninety-nine tiger skins hanging in his palace.
The Maharaja lived in worry, longing to kill the last tiger. He heard news of disappearing sheep in the kingdom, meaning a tiger must be nearby- but it was not easily found. The Maharaja refused to leave the forest till it was found, and in his mounting anger, many officers lost their jobs. He demands the dewan to double the land tax, to which he replies that the people would be upset and their kingdom would fall prey to the Indian National Congress. But when the Maharaja threatens his job, the dewan has no choice. Knowing that the peace of the kingdom depended on the Maharaja killing the final tiger, the dewan took it upon himself to capture it and place it in front of the Maharaja to kill.
So, the dewan and his wife find the tiger and shove it into the car, letting it out only when they are near the Maharaja. The tiger stands humbly in front of the Maharaja, who kills it with joy and rejoices over his triumph. The tiger’s body is taken to the kingdom in a grand procession, as the king has finally completed his vow. However, after he left, the hunters took a closer look and realised that the tiger was not dead- the bullet had missed and the tiger fainted from shock. They were afraid of telling the Maharaja, for they might lose their job, and hence they shot the tiger in the foot and killed it themselves. It was buried in the town and a tomb was erected.
Three days later, the Maharaja was planning for his son’s third birthday. He bought a wooden tiger doll, sold at three hundred rupees when in reality its quality was worth just a few annas. The wood was splintered and the craftsmanship was bad. As the king played with his son, a shard of wood splintered his hand. He pulled it out deftly and continued to play with the prince, but the next day it had flared into an infection and spread all over his arm. Three famous surgeons were brought in. The operation was successful, but the king died from the infection- and thus was the revenge of the hundredth tiger.
The Tiger King | Analysis
The Tiger King by Kalki Krishnamurthy is a short story written in first person, however the main character is the Maharaja. The unnamed narrator simply narrates the Tiger King’s story, with no actual attention on them self. The piece is satirical in nature, focusing on rather outlandish Indian kings and an autocratic leadership system, at the time India was under the British rule. This creates two levels within the kingdom Pratibandapuram- the Tiger King who holds a power over his people, bending the laws to suit him and indulging in foolish and grand ideas, and the Tiger King who is careful and afraid around the English officials. The satire and irony stands out especially in the impossible feats, the often-deadpan reactions of the characters to the Maharaja and the eccentric behaviour. The story uses humour and parody to highlight the arrogance and greed of those in power, and the way they often exclude themselves from any regulation, or alter it to their favour.
The title ‘The Tiger King’ refers to the nickname given by the people to the Maharaja- not just because of his tiger-hunting spree but because of the prophecy made about him at birth. The prophecy itself is not out-of-the-ordinary as such- astrologists are often called to determine the fate and fortune of newborns. Here, however, the ten-day-old not only speaks, but also asks coherent questions and declares his superiority over tigers. Quite an impossible thing, and in this humour, a unique twist is put on the usual grandeur of Kings and their declarations.
Sarcasm is often employed to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation- and it becomes all the more amusing when the reader realises that such actions are quite a norm. For example, when the Maharaja calls the astrologist to show him his first killed tiger, and orders that if he manages to kill a hundred, the astrologist must “burn his books, shave his hair and become an insurance agent.” The expression with which the astrologist is described- his drawling and incoherence- increases the satiric tone. The King’s demand also sheds light on the King’s arrogance and conceit. He is convinced that he will best the astrologist’s prediction, and shows off his first kill with unabashed grandeur. It is also important to note that the Maharaja was brought up in a predominantly English-speaking background:
“The boy drank the milk of an English cow, was brought up by an English nanny, tutored in English by an Englishman, saw nothing but English films — exactly as the crown princes of all the other Indian states did.”
This showcases the monopoly the British had over India at the time.
In the third section, we see how those in power alter rules in selfishness, to suit their own needs- here being the way the Maharaja banned tiger hunting for everyone in his kingdom except himself. He is so staunch that he does not even relax the rule for an English officer. However, what happens next is a humorous twist on corruption- the King, afraid to lose his crown at the hands of an angry Englishman, wins back his favour through valuable assets. The rings symbolise this corruption very well, and the last line- “The Maharaja was happy that though he had lost three lakh of rupees, he had managed to retain his kingdom.”– presents a comic irony, for the Maharaja would not have had to lose his kingdom or his money had he just allowed the man to tiger-hunt for some time in his area. We also see an element of animal cruelty- hunting was a common pastime, and hence it was the norm to shoot animals for human pleasure.
Eventually, there are no more tigers left in the Kingdom. The line given below provides great amusement, as well as a reference to the socio-political situation at the time with the mention of the British.
“Who knows whether the tigers practiced birth control or committed harakiri? Or simply ran away from the State because they desired to be shot by British hands alone?”
To find more tigers, the Maharaja decides to marry. This is once more a mockery at the olden Kings’ habits of marrying many different women for varying purposes- to stop wars, to bring peace between Kingdoms, to procure land, and so on. Here, it is to have more tigers to hunt. Further, his nonsensical banter with his dewan adds to the satire. His dewan also adds “I already have two wives” which is a link back to the previous point. The fact that the Maharaja also hangs the tiger skins in the palace is a show of grandeur and haughtiness.
Perhaps the shortest but largest attempt of the king to bend the law to his will is when he orders his dewan to double land tax. This is something that will directly affect his people, but he couldn’t care less as long as he is benefitted. This is a play on the political scenario, where prices and rules are often switched up to benefit not the people but those in power. When the dewan replies in fear of falling prey to the Indian National Congress, it is a bit of a touch to reality. It is because of this that the dewan devises his plan. We once again see impossible feats, such as stuffing a tiger into a car, and the tiger humbly sitting in front of the Maharaja asking what should be done.
The plot twist of the story is the Maharaja assuming he killed the tiger, when in fact he did not- the hunters did in fear of angering the Maharaja and losing their jobs. This, along with the scene where the Maharaja shops for toys for his son, shows the dynamic he has with his people- not a very good one. This shows his ignorance as a leader, and uses humour to highlight the concept of ruling by fear. The hunters fear they will lose their job, as does the dewan. The King does not rule with respect, but instead scares his subjects into following his orders. This is in line with punishments for acting against the will of authority. In this situation, it backfired heavily on the maharaja because he only ended up killing ninety-nine tigers. The hundredth that took revenge on him was not a real tiger, but a wooden toy.
The wooden toy represents vengeance and unexpected victory over a conceited man. The Maharaja never once thought of the tiger being a toy- and may have even scoffed at the idea of being killed by a wood carving. We also see signs of the grandeur of his lifestyle- the way a procession was used to take the apparent-hundredth tiger back to the kingdom, and the fact that three surgeons were called to treat him rather than one. Those three surgeons end up speaking confusingly, saying the operation was successful but the king had died. It is important to note that it is not exactly the wooden tiger that killed him, but the infection. The wooden tiger only caused the infection; hence it was the initiator. This symbolises the fact that destiny cannot be played, and the human body is far more powerful than any external elements. The ever-strong Maharaja who had battled tigers with his bare hands was brought to death by a mere splinter- an infection which his own body could not save him from. Hence, Kalki wittily mocks the outer confidence and splendor of royalty and people in power- they think they are above everybody, and they easily brush off the welfare of the people in their own interests. Yet in the end, ironically, it is an unexpected and seemingly harmless source that tears them down, and their own body that betrays them.