By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Blind Dog’ is a story from Malgudi Days, the short-story collection by the Indian writer R. K. Narayan (1906-2001). This short tale is about a blind beggar who is befriended by a stray dog; the man puts the dog on a lead and uses him to navigate his way around the town, but this robs the dog of its freedom.
As Jhumpa Lahiri points out in her informative introduction to the Penguin edition of Malgudi Days, ‘Malgudi’ is Narayan’s coinage, an imaginary town thought to be located somewhere in southern India, near the city of Chennai (formerly Madras), where Narayan was born, although there are also echoes of Mysore, the town where he lived for much of his adult life
Let’s start with a brief summary of the story. ‘The Blind Dog’ is about a man, a beggar, who is blind. Every day he goes to the same part of the city, where various vendors set up their stalls and ply their wares, and sits with his begging bowl, asking passers-by for alms. He lives with an old woman who lets him live with her.
One day, a dog befriends the blind beggar and the dog helps the man out. For instance, when a boy who turns up every Thursday taunts the beggar and tries to steal the money in his begging bowl (something he does every week), the dog bites the boy’s wrist, causing him to run away. When the old woman who looks after the beggar dies, the dog takes her place, and at the suggestion of one of the market-vendors, the beggar puts the dog on a lead and uses him to navigate his way around the town.
This is great for the beggar, who now has a pair of ‘eyes’ in the form of the dog, which can lead the man around the town. As a result, the beggar starts to make more money, since he encounters far more of the townsfolk.
But this arrangement comes at the cost of the dog’s freedom. It is now tied to the man at all times, and cannot go where it pleases. The blind man starts to mistreat the dog and pull it violently about the place, kicking it when it fails to do what he wants.
The market traders dislike seeing the man treating the dog like this, so one day one of them takes a pair of scissors and cuts the lead, freeing the dog from the beggar. The dog promptly runs off, delighted by its newly regained freedom. The beggar, without the dog to lead the way for him, stops making money and is on the brink of dying.
But then the dog shows up again, starving from lack of food, and the man forgives it before replacing the old lead with a steel chain, to ensure the dog cannot escape this time. There is little sign the man will treat the dog any better, prompting one of the vendors to comment that only death will help the dog now.
‘The Blind Dog’ is a story about mutual interdependence: just as the dog relies on the blind man for food, so the blind beggar relies on the dog to be his guide dog and help him to move around the town. But the blind man abuses the privilege of having such a helper, mistreating the dog and driving it away from him when it has an opportunity to escape. It is only extreme starvation that leads the dog (reluctantly, one guesses) to return to its master.
We might analyse ‘The Blind Dog’ as an allegory for capitalism and for the worker-employer relationship. The blind man is the employer, who restricts the dog’s freedom, keeping it on a lead, much as an employee is ‘bound’ to his employer. In exchange for this servitude, the dog receives some food and doesn’t starve, while the blind man, the employer, grows rich from the labour of the worker (the dog).
This analogy makes even more sense when we reflect on the setting for the story, which is among the markets, traders, and vendors of the town: it is literally a story of the marketplace.
When the bond is cut and the dog is free, it cannot survive for long on its own, and ends up coming back to its enslaver, the blind man, for fear of starvation.
Of course, if we pursue this allegory further, we can remark on the fact that the employer, the blind man, exploits this relationship of mutual dependence. A company is nothing without its workers, yet most business owners are reluctant to share their profits with their employees. They think their workers should be grateful for any scraps they receive: mere survival and protection against starvation should be enough for them.
But of course, all companies and all business owners need their workers. They are ‘blind’ without them: that is, they cannot operate or circulate amongst society, much as the blind man cannot freely walk the streets and make money from begging without the dog to lead him.
But if the dog in the story can see, and it is the beggar who is blind, why then does Narayan title his story ‘The Blind Dog’? Perhaps he is recalling the old proverb about ‘the blind leading the blind’: the dog is ‘blind’ in the sense that it cannot live independently, just as the blind man cannot survive on his own because of his disability.