The Axe by R.K. Narayan: A Complete Study

About the author of The Axe:

The Axe is a very popular story. It has been written by R.K. Narayan (Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan). He is perhaps the most reputed of Indian English writers today. He was born on 10 October 1906 in a south Indian Brahmin family in Madras (the present Chennai). After graduation he devoted himself to writing. His first novel Swami and Friends appeared in 1935. It was well appreciated in England and elsewhere. Among his more famous novels are Mr. Sampath, The Financial Expert, The Guide, The Man-Eater of Malgudi and The Dark Room, The Bachelor of Arts, The English Teacher, Waiting for the Mahatma etc. His most famous collection of short stories is Malgudi Days. Narayan's novels and stories emanated from his own regional experience. A fictitious town Malgudi is always at the centre of his writing. The description of Malgudi is natural and full of realism. He wrote simple stories about common man. He presented life as he saw it.

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.’

Source: English Language and Scientific Temper, Madhya Pradesh Hindi Granth Academy Bhopal

I. Summary of the Axe

The Axe is a beautiful story by R.K. Narayan. It is a story about a man named Velan. Eventually he reaches Malgudi. He gets a job of a gardener. He starts looking after the garden of his master. Velan labours hard and develops that garden as an excellent garden. Time passes by. Velan grows old. His master dies. One day the property is sold to a builder. The builder decides to cut off the trees and flowers. Velan is given a notice to vacate the place. One day when he is sleeping in the afternoon, he listens to the sound of an axe. He gets up and finds that the employees of the builder are cutting the trees and plants of the garden. He tries to stop them but they continues. The fall of the axe on his beloved plants hurts him. Very soon he leaves the place. It seems that the story puts forward the strong idea of conservation. The story teller wants to convey a message that man is disturbing nature. Through the character of Velan the storyteller wants to say that we should love and protect trees. He wants to emphasise that without trees there will be no life at all.

II. Objective Type Questions:

1. The Axe has been written by:
a. R.N. Tagore
b. R.K. Narayan
c. Mulk Raj Anand
d. Raja Rao
Ans: b. R.K. Narayan
2. The Axe is:
a. An essay
b. A poem
c. A One act play
d. A story
Ans: d. A story
3. What is the name of Velon's village:
a. Rampur
b. Lalgudi
c. Koppal
d. Malgudi
Ans: c. Koppal
4. Who foretold that Velan would live in a big house:
a. Father
b. Villagers
c. Astrologer
d. Friend
Ans: c. Astrologer
5. At what age did velan leave home:
a. Sixteen
b. Seventeen
c. Eighteen
d. Twenty
Ans: c. Eighteen
6. In Velon's opinion, big mansion existed only in:
a. Heaven
b. Hell
c. Swarga Loka
d. Zannat
Ans: c. Swarga Loka
7. Which tree was most dear to Velan:
a. Banyan
b. Pipal
c. Margosa
d. Neem
Ans: c. Margosa
8. The Axe is written by:
a. R.K. Narayan
b. Amrit La Nagar
c. Prabhakar Rao
d. Rabindrnath Tagore
Ans: a. R.K. Narayan
9. Velan's father worked on other people's land:
a. True
b. Partly true
c. Partly false
d. False
Ans: a. True
10. Which is a famous work of R. K. Narayan:
a. Gora
b. Animal Farm
c. The Guide
d. Coolie
Ans: c. The Guide
11. After leaving the village where did Velan reach:
a. Rampur
b. Lalgudi
c. Koppal
d. Malgudi
Ans: d. Malgudi

III. Say whether the Statements given below are True or False:

1. Velan left home because of the villagers - False
2. Velan reached Malgudi after he left home - True
3. When old man became ill, Velan became the chief gardener - True
4. The house was called the ghost house - True
5. Velan eas happy to leave the garden - False
6. Velan's father worked on other people's land for he had mortgaged every bit of his property - True
7. Velan left his home at the age of eighteen - True
8. In Malgudi Velan was first employed by an old man to assist him in laying out a garden - True

IV Short Answer Type Questions

Q1. What was the prediction of the astrologer regarding Velan?
Ans: Regarding Velan the prediction of the astrologer was that he would live in a three-storeyed house surrounded by many acres of garden.
Q2. Why did Velan leave home?
Ans: Velan left home because his father slapped his face one day for coming late with the midday-meal.
Q3. What was the weekly income of Velan's father?
Ans: The weekly income of Velan's father was a few annas.
Q4. Who later became the sole occupant of Kumar Baugh?
Ans: It is Velan who became the sole occupant of Kumar Baugh.
Q5. At what age did Velan leave home?
Ans: Velan left home at the age of eighteen.
Q6. Where did Velan arrive at last?
Ans: Velan arrived in Malgudi at last.
Q7. What work was assigned to Velan by the old man?
Ans: The work of lay out  was assigned to Velan by the old man.
Q8. Name some of the summer flowers that grew in the garden.
Ans: The summer flowers that grew in the garden were hibiscus, chrysanthemum, Jasmine, roses and canna.
Q9. Why was Velan proud of his position?
Ans: Velan was proud of his position because he was the chief gardener of an excellent garden.
Q10. What did Velan request the tree cutters in the end?
Ans: In the end Velan requested the tree cutters not to cut the trees till he was far away from that place.
Q11. Why did the people make fun of Velan after the prediction of the astrologer?
Ans: The people made fun of Velan after the prediction of the astrologer because Velan had no ancestral property at all.
Q12. What had Velan's father done?
Ans: Velan's father had mortgaged every bit of his property he had.
Q13. What was the immediate reason for Velan's withdrawal from his father's house?
Ans: The immediate reason for Velan's withdrawal from his father's house was that one day his father slapped Velan's  face.
Q14. What was the main business of Velan when he was employed as a gardener?
Ans: When Velan was employed as a gardener his main business was to destroy all the unwanted vegetation he saw.
Q15. What did Velan do with the unwanted plants?
Ans: Velan tore up the unwanted plants by hand.
Q16. Name the flowers grown by Velan in the front part of Kumar Baugh.
Ans:  The flowers like hibiscus, chrysanthemum, Jasmine, roses and canna were grown by Velan in the front part of Kumar Baugh.
Q17. On which occasions did Velan go to his ancestral village?
Ans: Velan used to go to his ancestral village on the occasion of Pongal, New Year and Deepavali.
Sandal S Anshu, Satna


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