He Who Rides a Tiger by Bhabhani Bhattacharya
He Who Rides a Tiger: Fiction as Allegory
In He Who Rides a Tiger (1954), Bhabhani Bhattacharyaexposes the wicked practices of the hollow religion, employed by the vested interests to exploit the blind faith of simple and credulous people. Religion seems to have lost its pristine glory and forgotten its basic ethical values. It is turned into a spiritual trade where people try to buy spiritual merit in exchange for merchandise. Kalo’s fellow prisoner, B-10 shocks his age-old accepted faith when he remarks: “Food for the soul is produced and sold like food for the stomach, and though the ways of the two trades are different, you pay for both with hard cash. The temple is the market and the priest a dealer. People are always ready to pay well for feeding the inner man.”
The novel is cast in the allegorical form of Kalo’s journey through different experiences of life. The changes faced by him on the physical plane correspond with changes undergone by him on the spiritual plane. Kalo’s physical journey through life, thus, allegorizes his journey through the world of spirit.
Kalo, the honest blacksmith of small Jharna town, turns a destitute when the famine strikes the land of Bengal. In the big city of Calcutta where he goes in search of some work, he is branded as a thief and put in jail. On being released from there he takes up the work of removing corpses of destitutes for poor wages. Finding his earning insufficient, he turns a pimp for a brothel where by accident he discovers his daughter Lekha who has been brought there cunningly, and rescues her before it is too late. Through all these phases of life as a destitute , thief, prisoner, corpse-remover, and pimp though Kalo goes down on the social scale, he remains exalted on the moral scale. Despite his turning a decrepit, he does not debase his soul but makes constant efforts to find some source of honest living. The assault on the honour of his daughter, however, fills his heart with bitterness against the corrupt and acquisitive society that turns innocent girls into prostitutes and honest men into thieves. Soon the truth of what B-10 has said to him in the jail, “We are the scum of the earth. The boss people scorn us because they fear us. They hit us where it hurts badly- in the pit of belly. We’ve got to hit back, dawns on him, and he resolves to fight against this sordid society and take revenge on it.
Kalo transforms himself into Mangal Adhikari, the Brahmin priest, and by a clever trick performs the miracle of making an image of Shiva rise out of the soil under an old banyan tree. Even while playing this ruse upon the high-caste people, his conscience pricks him because ‘he commits blasphemy against his abiding faith which was ancestral ingrained. By doing so he had not only to deny but to eradicate the values by which he had been bred. He had to cut his social taproot and give up his inheritance. The rebel in him, however, takes the better to his conscience and he begins to take pride in his Brahmin masquerade. He soon turns the prosperous priest of the new Shiva temple and is idolised by the same rich and powerful people who had earlier despised and persecuted him. The rich jute merchants like Sir Abalabandhu and stock-brokers like Moti Chand turn his devotees and help him to make the new Shiva temple a famous religious institutions. On occasions kalo’s honest peasant blood revolts against this deception, particularly when he sees poor people sacrificing their hard-earned money on a fake God created by him. He desires, “Would that he found some way of honest living." He, however, feels exultation at the thought of his own triumph. Thus though on the material or social scale he goes up, on the moral scale he is degraded. The irony is that the religion which is supposed to save the soul of people, in fact, corrupts them and makes them callous and vicious.
There comes a time, however, when he is unable to continue the deception even though he visualises the danger of dismounting the tiger’s back he has been riding on. The true way as Biten has said, “is one of struggle, struggle against fear.” He resolves to kill the tiger of lie if he cannot dismount it. On the day of Yagna ceremony when his daughter is going to be installed formally as the Mother of Sevenfold Bliss, he throws off his disguise and makes a clean breast of his fraud before the throng of worshippers. Unable to contain her exultation, Lekha says to her father, “ babba, after this , whatever happens to us, wherever we go, we can never be again unhappy or defeated.” As Kalo and lekha come out of the temple, Biten meets them on the way and in an impassion murmur remarks, “What you have done just now will steal the spirit of hundreds and thousands of us. Your story will be a legend of freedom, a legend to inspire and awaken.” Though on the social scale again a destitute, Kalo is morally elevated. The novel is thus an allegory of the victory of human spirit over degrading material temptations.