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A Horse and Two Goats
R. K. Narayan
R. K. Narayan, a prominent Indian author writing in English, is best known for his fourteen novels, many of which take place in the fictional town of Malgudi. A Horse and Two Goats, one of the few of his stories not set in Malgudi, presents an amusing dialogue between Muni, a poor Tamil-speaking villager, and an affluent English-speaking businessman from New York. Through the conversation in which neither can understand the other’s language, R.K. Narayan humorously projetcs the conflicts between the rich and the poor, and between Indian and Western culture.
Against the backdrop of probably the smallest of countless Indian villages, Kritam, the story A Horse and Two Goats begins with the depiction of the poverty in which Muni, the central character, lives. There are around thirty houses in the village but only one, the Big House, is built of brick. The others are mud huts of bamboo thatch. The village has neither running water nor electricity. Muni and his wife were not always so poor. Once, he regarded himself well-off as he had a flock of forty sheep and goats. But years of drought, a famine, and an epidemic affected his flock and now he is left with only two scrawny goats. Being a low caste, Muni was not allowed to go to school or to learn a craft. Since Muni and his wife have no children, their only income is from the odd jobs his wife gets at the Big House.
Daily Muni’s wife cooks their typical breakfast of a fistful of millet flour over a fire in a mud pot. On this day, Muni has managed to get six drumsticks from the drumstick tree in front of his house. He demands his wife to cook them for him in a sauce. She agrees and asks him to get the other ingredients which they do not have in the house.
Muni has run through his credit at all the shops in the village, and today, when he asks a local shopman to give him the items his wife requires, he is disgraced and dismissed by the shopkeeper.
There is nothing else in the house and hence, Muni’s wife sends him away telling him to fast till the evening. Muni takes the goats to their usual patch: a grassy spot near the highway. Here, sitting in his favourite place, the shade of the pedestal of a horse and a warrior, Muni observes trucks and buses passing by.
As he waits for the time to return home, a yellow station wagon comes down the road and pulls over. A flushed American man dressed in khaki steps out and asks Muni about the nearest gas station. He looks at the statue and is instantly attracted to it. When he sees the khaki-clad foreigner, Muni’s initial instinct is to flee thinking that the foreigner must be a policeman or a soldier. However, Muni is too old to run and moreover, he cannot abandon the goats. Presently, the foreigner and Muni carry on a conversation, neither understanding the other. The American greets Muni using his only Indian word Namaste and Muni responds with the only English he knows-Yes, no.
The American is a New York based businessman. After lighting a cigarette, he offers one to Muni. Then he gives Muni his business card, and Muni is terrified that it is a warrant. Muni commences a lengthy explanation to establish his innocence. The American presumes that Muni is the owner of the statue and expresses his wish to buy it. In between, he tells Muni about an awful day at work when he was compelled to work for hours without elevators or electricity. He seems blithely unaware that Muni lives this way every day.
The two strangers chitchat, each about his own life. Muni recalls his father and grandfather remarking about the statue and attempts to enlighten the American of the myth behind it. Muni explains to the foreigner that the statue is the guardian of the village and that at the end of this world, the Redeemer will come in the shape of a horse. The American is charmed by the rhythm of chaste Tamil as Muni recollects his grim and poverty-stricken childhood. The American does not understand a single word but assures Muni that the horse will have the best home in the U.S.A.
At last, the American shoves one hundred rupees into Muni’s hand and is certain that he has bought the horse, and Muni thinks that he has just sold his goats. Muni runs home to give the money to his wife. The American stops a truck, gets help to remove the horse off its pedestal, and drives away with his new acquisition. Muni’s wife considers Muni’s story to be a deliberate fib, and her misgivings are confirmed when the goats return home. As the story ends we find the miserable Muni facing the ire of his shrieking wife.
The most important theme in A Horse and Two Goats is the clash of cultures, specifically the clash of Indian and Western cultures. Using humour, instead of anger, Narayan demonstrates just how different the two worlds are. The two main characters in this story could not be more different: Muni is poor, rustic, illiterate, brown; the American is rich, city-bred, educated, white. Each man is completely ignorant of the other’s way of life.
It is essential to fathom R.K Narayan’s humour that is affectionate and sympathetic to humanity and human foibles in understanding the story, A Horse and Two Goats. The statue of the horse, once glorious and elegant but now tatty and wretched, amusingly alludes to the present impoverished and irrelevant state of the village Kritam. When R.K Narayan creates the laughable characters of Muni and the American, the “two goats”, he jests at them softly and sympathetically, but never severely.