The Axe: R.K.Narayan

An astrologer passing through the village foretold that Velan would live in a three-storeyed house surrounded by many acres of garden. At this everybody gathered round young Velan and made fun of him. For Koppal did not have a more ragged and godforsaken family than Velan’s. His father had mortgaged every bit of property he had, and worked, with his whole family, on other people’s lands in return for a few annas a week . . . A three-storeyed house for Velan indeed! . . . But the scoffers would have congratulated the astrologer if they had seen Velan about thirty or forty years later. He became the sole occupant of Kumar Baugh—that palatial house on the outskirts of Malgudi town.

 When he was eighteen Velan left home. His father slapped his face one day for coming late with the midday-meal, and he did that in the presence of others in the field. Velan put down the basket, glared at his father and left the place. He just walked out of the village, and walked on and on till he came to the town. He starved for a couple of days, begged wherever he could and arrived in Malgudi, where after much knocking about, an old man took him on to assist him in laying out a garden. The garden existed only in the mind of the gardener. What they could see now was acre upon acre of weed-covered land. Velan’s main business consisted in destroying all the vegetation he saw. Day after day he sat in the sun and tore up by hand the unwanted plants. And all the jungle gradually disappeared and the land stood as bare as a football field. Three sides of the land were marked off for an extensive garden, and on the rest was to be built a house. By the time the mangoes had sprouted they were laying the foundation of the house. About the time the margosa sapling had shot up a couple of yards, the walls were also coming up.

The flowers—hibiscus, chrysanthemum, jasmine, roses and canna—in the front park suddenly created a wonderland one early summer. Velan had to race with the bricklayers. He was now the chief gardener, the old man he had come to assist having suddenly fallen ill. Velan was proud of his position and responsibility. He keenly watched the progress of the bricklayers and whispered to the plants as he watered them, ‘Now look sharp, young fellows. The building is going up and up every day. If it is ready and we aren’t, we shall be the laughingstock of the town.’ He heaped manure, aired the roots, trimmed the branches and watered the plants twice a day, and on the whole gave an impression of hustling nature; and nature seemed to respond. For he did present a good-sized garden to his master and his family when they came to occupy the house.

The house proudly held up a dome. Balconies with intricately carved woodwork hung down from the sides of the house; smooth, rounded pillars, deep verandas, chequered marble floors and spacious halls, ranged one behind another, gave the house such an imposing appearance that Velan asked himself, ‘Can any mortal live in this? I thought such mansions existed only in Swarga Loka.’ When he saw the kitchen and the dining room he said, ‘Why, our whole village could be accommodated in this eating place alone!’ The house-builder’s assistant told him, ‘We have built bigger houses, things costing nearly two lakhs. What is this house? It has hardly cost your master a lakh of rupees. It is just a little more than an ordinary house, that is all . . .’ After returning to his hut Velan sat a long time trying to grasp the vision, scope and calculations of the builders of the house, but he felt dizzy. He went to the margosa plant, gripped its stem with his fingers and said, ‘Is this all, you scraggy one? What if you wave your head so high above mine? I can put my fingers around you and shake you up like this. Grow up, little one, grow up. Grow fat. Have a trunk which two pairs of arms can’t hug, and go up and spread. Be fit to stand beside this palace; otherwise I will pull you out.’

When the margosa tree came up approximately to this vision, the house had acquired a mellowness in its appearance. Successive summers and monsoons had robbed the paints on the doors and windows and woodwork of their brightness and the walls of their original colour, and had put in their place tints and shades of their own choice. And though the house had lost its resplendence, it had now a more human look. Hundreds of parrots and mynas and unnamed birds lived in the branches of the margosa, and under its shade the master’s great-grandchildren and the (younger) grandchildren played and quarrelled. The master walked about leaning on a staff. The lady of the house, who had looked such a blooming creature on the inauguration day, was shrunken and grey and spent most of her time in an invalid’s chair on the veranda, gazing at the garden with dull eyes. Velan himself was much changed. Now he had to depend more and more upon his assistants to keep the garden in shape. He had lost his parents, his wife and eight children out of fourteen. He had managed to reclaim his ancestral property, which was now being looked after by his sons-in-law and sons. He went to the village for Pongal, New Year’s and Deepavali, and brought back with him one or the other of his grandchildren, of whom he was extremely fond.

Velan was perfectly contented and happy. He demanded nothing more of life. As far as he could see, the people in the big house too seemed to be equally at peace with life. One saw no reason why these good things should not go on and on for ever. But Death peeped around the corner. From the servants’ quarters whispers reached the gardener in his hut that the master was very ill and lay in his room downstairs (the bedroom upstairs so laboriously planned had to be abandoned with advancing age). Doctors and visitors were constantly coming and going, and Velan had to be more than ever on guard against ‘flower-pluckers’. One midnight he was awakened and told that the master was dead. ‘What is to happen to the garden and to me? The sons are no good,’ he thought at once.

And his fears proved to be not entirely groundless. The sons were no good, really. They stayed for a year more, quarrelled among themselves and went away to live in another house. A year later some other family came in as tenants. The moment they saw Velan they said, ‘Old gardener? Don’t be up to any tricks. We know the sort you are. We will sack you if you don’t behave yourself.’ Velan found life intolerable. These people had no regard for a garden. They walked on flower beds, children climbed the fruit trees and plucked unripe fruits, and they dug pits on the garden paths. Velan had no courage to protest. They ordered him about, sent him on errands, made him wash the cow and lectured to him on how to grow a garden. He detested the whole business and often thought of throwing up his work and returning to his village. But the idea was unbearable: he couldn’t live away from his plants. Fortune, however, soon favoured him. The tenants left. The house was locked up for a few years. Occasionally one of the sons of the late owner came round and inspected the garden. Gradually even this ceased. They left the keys of the house with Velan. Occasionally a prospective tenant came down, had the house opened and went away after remarking that it was in ruins—plaster was falling off in flakes, paint on doors and windows remained only in a few small patches and white ants were eating away all the cupboards and shelves . . . A year later another tenant came, and then another, and then a third. No one remained for more than a few months. And then the house acquired the reputation of being haunted.

 Even the owners dropped the practice of coming and seeing the house. Velan was very nearly the master of the house now. The keys were with him. He was also growing old. Although he did his best, grass grew on the paths, weeds and creepers strangled the flowering plants in the front garden. The fruit trees yielded their load punctually. The owners leased out the whole of the fruit garden for three years.

Velan was too old. His hut was leaky and he had no energy to put up new thatch. So he shifted his residence to the front veranda of the house. It was a deep veranda running on three sides, paved with chequered marble. The old man saw no reason why he should not live there. He had as good a right as the bats and the rats.

When the mood seized him (about once a year) he opened the house and had the floor swept and scrubbed. But gradually he gave up this practice. He was too old to bother about these things.
 Years and years passed without any change. It came to be known as the ‘Ghost House’, and people avoided it. Velan found nothing to grumble about in this state of affairs. It suited him excellently. Once a quarter he sent his son to the old family in the town to fetch his wages. There was no reason why this should not have gone on indefinitely. But one day a car sounded its horn angrily at the gate. Velan hobbled up with the keys.

‘Have you the keys? Open the gate,’ commanded someone in the car.

 ‘There is a small side-gate,’ said Velan meekly.

‘Open the big gate for the car!’

Velan had to fetch a spade and clear the vegetation which blocked the entrance. The gates opened on rusty hinges, creaking and groaning.

 They threw open all the doors and windows, went through the house keenly examining every portion and remarked, ‘Did you notice the crack on the dome? The walls too are cracked . . . There is no other way. If we pull down the old ramshackle carefully we may still be able to use some of the materials, though I am not at all certain that the wooden portions are not hollow inside . . . Heaven alone knows what madness is responsible for people building houses like this.’
They went round the garden and said, ‘We have to clear every bit of this jungle. All this will have to go . . .’ Some mighty person looked Velan up and down and said, ‘You are the gardener, I suppose? We have not much use for a garden now. All the trees, except half a dozen on the very boundary of the property, will have to go. We can’t afford to waste space. This flower garden . . . H’m, it is . . . old-fashioned and crude, and apart from that the front portion of the site is too valuable to be wasted . . .’

A week later one of the sons of his old master came and told Velan, ‘You will have to go back to your village, old fellow. The house is sold to a company. They are not going to have a garden. They are cutting down even the fruit trees; they are offering compensation to the leaseholder; they are wiping out the garden and pulling down even the building. They are going to build small houses by the score without leaving space even for a blade of grass.’

 There was much bustle and activity, much coming and going, and Velan retired to his old hut. When he felt tired he lay down and slept; at other times he went round the garden and stood gazing at his plants. He was given a fortnight’s notice. Every moment of it seemed to him precious, and he would have stayed till the last second with his plants but for the sound of an axe which stirred him out of his afternoon nap two days after he was given notice. The dull noise of a blade meeting a tough surface reached his ears. He got up and rushed out. He saw four men hacking the massive trunk of the old margosa tree. He let out a scream: ‘Stop that!’ He took his staff and rushed at those who were hacking. They easily avoided the blow he aimed. ‘What is the matter?’ they asked.

 Velan wept. ‘This is my child. I planted it. I saw it grow. I loved it. Don’t cut it down . . .’

 ‘But it is the company’s orders. What can we do? We shall be dismissed if we don’t obey, and someone else will do it.’

Velan stood thinking for a while and said, ‘Will you at least do me this good turn? Give me a little time. I will bundle up my clothes and go away. After I am gone do what you like.’ They laid down their axes and waited.

Presently Velan came out of his hut with a bundle on his head. He looked at the tree-cutters and said, ‘You are very kind to an old man. You are very kind to wait.’ He looked at the margosa and wiped his eyes. ‘Brothers, don’t start cutting till I am really gone far, far away.’

The tree-cutters squatted on the ground and watched the old man go. Nearly half an hour later his voice came from a distance, half-indistinctly: ‘Don’t cut yet. I am still within hearing. Please wait till I am gone farther.’

About R. K. Narayan
R.K. Narayan is one of the most reputed Indian English writers. Much of his work deals with the trials and troubles of 20th century Indian life. His novels and stories emanated from his own regional experience. Most of his writings centre round a fictitious town named Malgudi.

Narayan was born in Madras (now known as Chennai) on October 10, 1906 in a south Indian Brahmin family. After the completion of graduation he could not continue his studies. He became a clerk but he could not continue this job because it was monotonous for him. He resigned it and became a teacher. After a month or so he left the job of a teacher also and decided to devote himself to writing. It brought him great success as a novelist and a short story writer.

Narayan’s first novel, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935 and was well received in England and elsewhere. This novel, an episodic narrative, recounts the adventures of a group of schoolboys. In his works Narayan typically portrays the peculiarities of human relationships and the ironies of Indian daily life. He brought out the humour and energy of ordinary life and displayed compassionate humanism. His style is graceful, marked by genial humour, elegance, and simplicity.

His important novels which drew the attention of the readers and earned awards and appreciation include Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room, The English Teacher, Mr. Sampath, The Financial Expert, Waiting for the Mahatma, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, The Vendor of Sweets, The Painter of Signs, A Tiger for Malgudi, Talkative Man and The World of Nagaraj.  He wrote a number of short stories collections include Malgudi Days, An Astrologer's Day and Other Stories, Lawley Road and Other Stories, A Horse and Two Goats, Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories and The Grandmother's Tale and Selected Stories. His popular Non-fiction include Next Sunday, My Dateless Diary, My Days, Reluctant Guru, The Emerald Route, A Writer's Nightmare, A Story-Teller's World and The Writerly Life. He also published shortened modern prose versions of two Indian epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata.

Narayan won numerous awards during the course of his literary career. For The Guide he received the Sahitya Akademi Award (1958). When The Guide was made into a film Narayan got Filmfare Award (1967) for the best story. He received the Padma Bhushan (1964) and the Padma Bibhushan (2000) for his literary contribution. In 1980, he was awarded the AC Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature. He died on May 13, 2001 in Madras

Summary of The Axe
Narayan’s short stories have appeared in several collections and are based on the same material as his novels. His concern is mainly sociological. The Axe is a beautiful story about Velan who looks after an excellent garden. About him an astrologer has predicted that he would live in a three-story house. Velan came from the poorest family in his village. At the age of 18, his father slapped his face in public, and he left his house. After a few days of walking and begging, he got a job as a gardener. The plot of land was large. But one day the property is sold to a builder who decides to cut off most of the trees and uproot the flower garden. The fall of the axe on his beloved tree, margosa, hurts him terribly and he decides to leave the place before the tree is cut.
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