‘Cat Within’ is a humorous and unpretentious short story penned by the ‘Grand Old Man of Malgudi’ R.K. Narayan. R.K. Narayan is one of India’s most beloved writers and has entertained the Indian reader with ironic, humorous, anecdotal, and sometimes sentimental short stories, novels, and essays right from the Independence period. He passed away in 2001, leaving behind a rich legacy of literature. Most of his stories take place in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. The stories of Malgudi span over the decades of the twentieth century right from the pre-Independence period to the modern contemporary Indian scenario. ‘Cat Within’ is a humorous, ironic, and comical short story about a shopkeeper who thinks his shop is possessed by a devil or evil spirit and so calls in an exorcist. The comic timing and satire in the story are hilarious and can never be dated. This is because there are still people in India who, even to this day, always blame fate, evil spirits, and devils for their problems instead of themselves or something more practical. Therefore, it is understandable that Narayan highlights the fact that the exorcist got a whopping fifty rupees a day without even stepping out of his cubicle. It is essential to realize that probably the exorcist was making more money every day in Malgudi than a certified medical practitioner, all because of superstition and the backwardness of the population. Narayan, a man of paradoxes but witty all the same, criticizes and satirizes the behavior of the tenants, shopkeeper, and the exorcist. They all think they are dealing with a malevolent spirit in the shop when the real cause of the pandemonium is because a cat has caught its head in a jar and can’t pull itself out.
Superstition is not the only theme of this story. The stinginess and miserly behavior of the shopkeeper or landowner are highlighted in this story. He is one of those with vast property who do not wish to make their tenants comfortable. This is probably because of the high maintenance prices, the inflation in India, soaring prices, lack of governmental support, and the fact that the shopkeeper was highly stingy and did not want to spend a pie on his tenants. He is obsessed with money and his property to such an extent that he sleeps in the pathway or threshold to his shop just so that the ‘robber’ or ‘thief’ can trip on him as he goes by. The shopkeeper even places around him some empty kerosene cans so that they can act as an effective burglar alarm of sorts. The shopkeeper is miserly and will do anything for money, even kill his own friend in the village and use the deceased man’s wife for his pleasure. This information we get from the shopkeeper’s confession to the exorcist. The shopkeeper is a poor landowner, and we notice the tenants’ issues because of the lack of amenities in the shanties and cubicles where they are residing. They lack, among other things, electricity, lights, many wells, proper water supply, communal toilets, privacy, candles, and cleanliness. This highlights a few things:
- That Narayan wanted to dig at the poor situation of some of the most poverty-stricken classes in Indian society.
- Narayan wants to tell the reader not to be like the shopkeeper or exorcist and always jump to a paranormal conclusion for simple everyday practical matters. Always try to find a simple explanation for events rather than believe in the supernatural.
- That India should spend a little less on their godmen and spend a bit more on the basic amenities of life. Obviously, if there was proper electricity in the shop, everyone would have realized that a cat was causing the chaos, and the problem would have been easily solved. According to the BBC, around 85% of the people in 1973 were still living below the poverty line in India when this short story ‘Cat Within’ was written.
- It is a pity that so much money and time was wasted on an exorcist when the problem could have been solved quickly with the aid of science and technology, which indicates the installation of electricity.
We realize that the exorcist is nothing but a braggart, a terrible coward, a mercenary, a very good conman, and a first-rate liar. The whole story of ‘Cat Within’ highlights the different ways the exorcist, as it were, was communicating with the evil spirit, trying to exorcise it, talk to it when everything was a sham to get money. It is possible that the exorcist was indirectly caught in his own game because he really believed there was something very evil and bizarre going on in the shop. We know he was not prepared for the chaos and direct attacks in the dark of the cat caught in the jug. He is terrified and only does his shamming for the sake of earning a quick buck despite the so-called ‘dangerous activities’ in progress. The irony of the fake exorcist is especially seen when he supposedly communicated with the spirit with the aluminum vessel or pot when nothing of that sort was actually happening. Where the revelation is concerned, the exorcist to cover up his lies indicates in some kind of anti-climax that maybe the cat was possessed with a demon and not the jug.
People usually get foxed with the ending, but it is evident that to cover up his lies and yet get a fee for his job, the exorcist exclaims arbitrarily that the jug was not possessed, but probably the cat in the jug was possessed. Despite the story being narrated hilariously, we learn several lessons and social morals from this story. Narayan’s satire and blunt descriptions of his character’s activities are comical and evergreen. The picture we get of this conman, the exorcist, trying to make the shopkeeper yield the secrets of his past so that the exorcist and other tenants can blackmail him later indicates that when a superstitious person is in a tight spot, he is ready to reveal too much for his comfort. The short story ‘Cat Within’ indeed indicates that the pot or jug was on the cat’s head, blinding him when actually the jug is on people’s heads, blinding them from reason. The revelations of the shopkeeper are hilarious but also bring to light how corrupt our country’s land laws were till the late twentieth century. The shopkeeper is so distressed that he has yielded so much to the exorcist that he catches the exorcist by the scruff of his neck and pushes the poor scared fellow into the shop to face the demon. The beautiful images that are drawn by the pen of R.K. Narayan’s prose, along with the reader’s knowledge that the reason for all the chaos was a cat, makes us realize that Narayan was not trying to teach us something in the line of suspense, but that he wanted to show us how corrupt the people who take advantage of other people’s superstitions really are. Narayan also brings to the fore the incompetence of the exorcist and the slapstick, but hilarious scenes of the confrontations the exorcist has with the cat in the jug make the reader smile.
There are a few stray comedy episodes in the story, especially in the sentences of the perverted and corrupted wag who sleeps with women even though he is unmarried. When he sleeps with them, everyone can hear him do so because of the closeness and poor hovels that the tenants live in. Another amusing incident is how the cat gets caught in the jug and starts acting like someone who has been ‘crowned’ and ‘blinded’, indicating in both cases that people act bizarrely. The shopkeeper also happens to be as good a conman as the exorcist. We realize this on reading how he robbed his friend and neighbor Honappa, nabbed his property, killed or kidnapped Honappa, and took charge of Honappa’s widow. The story ends with a message and a dose of the ordinary things that usually happen in India but which people take so seriously and ultimately are simple things with simple explanations.
I loved reviewing R.K. Narayan’s short story ‘Cat Within’. I have even reviewed R.K. Narayan’s memoir titled My Days. If you are interested in reading more short stories, you can check out my short story collection titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to review and analyze more writings of Indian short-story writers and novelists in the coming days.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to purchase my books, you can check out my website, fizapathanpublishing.us. Happy reading to you all!
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