After setting the scene in Kritam, a tiny South Indian village, the story introduces old Muni and his wife, a poor, childless couple: “She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.” The two have been married since he was ten and she eight: “He had thrashed her only a few times in their career, and later she had the upper hand.” At one time Muni was a relatively prosperous herdsman, with “a flock of forty sheep and goats.” He sold the sheep’s wool and sold the animals for slaughter to a town butcher, who brought him “betel leaves, tobacco, and often enough some bhang.” However, those high old times are past. Now Muni’s flock, struck by “some pestilence” (though Muni suspects a neighbor’s curse), has dwindled to two goats. Still, Muni follows his daily routine of taking the animals to graze near the highway two miles away, where he sits on the base of an old clay statue and watches the world go by.
Normally Muni’s wife starts the day by boiling him some millet for breakfast, then sending him on his way with a ball of leftover millet and a raw onion for lunch. This morning, however, there is no food, so Muni goes out of the hut, shakes the drumstick tree, and gets six drumsticks. His wife offers to boil them with salt, but Muni hankers for something richer—a drum-stick curry. His wife agrees to satisfy his “unholy craving” for “big things,” provided that Muni can gather the ingredients: “a measure of rice or millet. . . . Dhall, chili, curry leaves, mustard, coriander, gingelley oil, and one large potato.” When Muni goes to the village store, however, the shopman refuses him further credit (he already owes the store “five rupees and a quarter”) and belittles the old man in front of other villagers. Muni returns home defeated, and his wife sends him off to graze the goats and to fast for the day. His hope is that she will earn enough money somewhere for an evening meal.
As he passes through the village each day with his two goats, people talk about his diminished status, and Muni quietly hangs his head. Only when he reaches the statue near the highway can he relax and enjoy a little peace. Here Muni sits all day in the shade of the statue—a horse rearing next to a fierce warrior—and watches his goats and an occasional passing vehicle. The vehicles are something to tell his wife about when he goes home at night.
Today Muni will have much to tell, for as he sits enjoying his somnolence, the big world abruptly intrudes. A strange vehicle—a van or station wagon—suddenly runs out of gas and coasts to a stop in front of Muni. Out steps “a red-faced foreigner” dressed in khaki. He asks Muni about gas stations, then sees the statue. He is transfixed by the clay horse, which he immediately desires to own. Muni, meanwhile, is terrified by the official-looking foreigner, who he thinks has come to arrest him. Thus begins one of the most hilarious negotiations in literature, the foreigner speaking only English; Muni, only Tamil.
Muni asserts his ownership of the two goats, despite what his slanderous neighbors might say. In turn, the foreigner smiles, takes out his silver cigarette case, and offers Muni a smoke. Surprised, Muni happily accepts: “Muni drew a deep puff and started coughing; it was racking, no doubt, but extremely pleasant. . . . No need to run away from a man who gave him such a potent smoke.” Still cautious, however, Muni shuns the foreigner’s business card, thinking that it is a warrant. He disavows any connection with a recent murder, blames it on Kritam’s neighboring village, and promises to apprehend any suspicious character and “bury him up to his neck in a coconut pit if he tries to escape.”
Observing that the deal must be conducted at a leisurely pace, the foreigner sits beside Muni and relates how he...
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