The Role of Women in A Horse and Two Goats

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1761

When Muni the Indian peasant and the redfaced American meet and converse in ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats,’’ the differences between them are immediately apparent, and these differences inform the main idea of the story, the clash of cultures. One of the few things the two men have in common is kept in the background of the story, but resurfaces frequently—each has a devoted wife on the sidelines, making it possible for them to keep going.

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To begin to understand Narayan’s sense of women, it would be useful to look briefly at how Indian and Hindu culture has perceived and shaped women’s lives. It is believed that the ancient Tamil societies may have been matriarchal, that is, ruled and guided by woman. The great Indian epics, composed approximately two thousand years ago, contain stories of several important female characters, including two that Muni mentions: the goddess Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, and Sita, wife of Rama. In their roles as nurturers and storytellers, woman have been revered because they have kept the culture alive.

In practical terms, however, the life of a woman in India as recently as one hundred or two hundred years ago was almost unimaginable today, even in comparison to the restrictions placed upon American women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hindu law and tradition dictated that women were under the protection of their fathers, and then of their husbands. In fact, wives were the legal property of their husbands and had no right to own property, to be educated, to divorce, or to speak in public. Under the custom of sati, a woman whose husband died would throw herself onto his funeral pyre and be burned alive, thus showing her utter devotion to him.

In 1829, sati was declared illegal by the British colonialists, although it never completely disappeared. At the end of the nineteenth century, when Muni and his wife were wed, it was still common for a woman to be married off at a very young age, often to an adult man whom she had never met. In fact, although Muni has never kept track of his age, ‘‘He was told on their day of wedding that he was ten years old and she was eight. During the wedding ceremony they had had to recite their respective ages and names.’’ This is the tradition under which Muni had grown up. Women were honored on the one hand, and subordinate on the other—no more simple or straightforward than gender roles in any society.

Narayan is a bit younger than Muni, perhaps fifteen years, and his upbringing was different from Muni’s. Narayan was raised by his grandmother, who taught him the legends and stories from the traditional literature. Muni learned most of his lore from other men, including the story behind the statue: ‘‘I was an urchin this high when I heard my grandfather explain this horse and warrior, and my grandfather himself was this high when he heard his grandfather, whose grandfather. . . .’’ Narayan and his wife chose each other—over the objections of their families—and married when they were in their twenties. Sadly, her early death kept them from growing old together.

During his lifetime, Narayan saw many changes in the lives of Indian women. During the struggle for independence from Great Britain, women were active leaders and participants in the long years of civil disobedience. One of these women, Indira Gandhi, the daughter of the movement’s leader Mahatma Gandhi, remained politically active and decades later became prime minister. With Indian independence in 1947, women became full citizens for the first time and acquired property rights and the right to vote. In 1955, about the time Narayan was writing ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats,’’ a new Hindu Marriage Act raised the minimum age for marriage to fifteen for females and eighteen for males and gave women the right to seek a divorce if their husbands took additional wives. The next year, women won the right to inherit property from their fathers on equal terms with their brothers.

What does this mean for ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats?’’ Muni and his wife were married in a traditional ceremony at a young age and have lived together nearly all their lives. His expectations for their roles in relation to each other, based on tradition, have not been met. He remembers that ‘‘he had thrashed her only a few times in their career.’’ The tone here is casual, without regret; thrashing is what husbands do when wives get out of line. But the balance of power did not hold, at least not in Muni’s eyes: ‘‘later she had the upper hand.’’ Critics have tended to accept Muni’s view of this, agreeing that Muni’s wife is controlling, even domineering. But is she?

In the opening, the narrator shows the town and a typical day. ‘‘His wife lit the domestic fire at dawn, boiled water in a mud pot, threw into it a handful of millet flour, added salt, and gave him his first nourishment of the day. When he started out, she would put in his hand a packed lunch, once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday.’’ It is a spartan meal, the most nutrition for the least money, but there is no mention of her preparing anything for herself. Is the narrator simply not interested in her diet, or does she skip the morning meal to leave more for Muni? ‘‘She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.’’

Muni heads for the highway, where he grazes his two useless goats. They are thin, and the other villagers think he would be better off eating them than moving them back and forth each day. For the rest of the day, according to his usual schedule, he will sit in the shade of a statue, watch the goats and the passing cars, and daydream about his former prosperity. At this time in their marriage, he is not contributing much in the way of subsistence. His primary duty today is to ‘‘be careful not to argue and irritate’’ his wife, whom he seems to find unreasonable and difficult. His sixty-eight-year-old wife, on the other hand, ‘‘would somehow conjure up some food for him in the evening. . . . She was sure to go out and work—grind corn in the Big House, sweep or scrub somewhere, and earn enough to buy foodstuff and keep a dinner ready for him in the evening.’’ If ‘‘her temper was undependable in the morning but improved by evening time,’’ who could blame her?

The American’s wife is even more on the periphery of the main action than Muni’s wife; in fact the action could go along just as smoothy without her even being mentioned. But Narayan has a reason for introducing her. The American’s wife’s name is Ruth, the name of an Old Testament figure who stands in Judeo-Christian tradition as a model for wifely loyalty. The Biblical Ruth is loyal to her dead husband’s family; the Ruth in ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ is loyal to her husband and stands by to prop him up when he is about to do something offbalance. Although he speaks of her with an impatient tone, surely she would be right to ‘‘disapprove’’ of a full-sized horse statue in the living room and right to hang on to her plane ticket instead of throwing it away to accompany the statue on a ship. She seems to be a good sport, to support her husband’s whims: ‘‘Next day she called the travel agent first thing and told him to fix it, and so here I am.’’

Having a loyal, grounded wife gives each of the husbands the freedom to move out into the world. Muni goes to the highway each day so he can ‘‘watch the highway and see the lorries and buses pass through to the hills, and it gave him a sense of belonging to a larger world.’’ Later, he will describe the vehicles to his wife, whose duties do not permit her to move about so freely. Ruth has come to India with her husband, but he tells Muni that she is ‘‘staying back at Srinagar, and I am the one doing the rounds and joining her later.’’

There are other wives in the story. Muni remembers that in his youth he was often chosen for the women’s roles in the plays the community performed. Sometimes he was the Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu. Lakshmi is one of the most popular goddesses in India, and countless people pray to her for wealth and good luck. She is a nurturer and a model for devoted wives. It is her obedience to Vishnu that gives her power. Muni also played the part of Sita, another incarnation of Lakshmi and the wife of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. Sita is another exemplary wife, who remains loyal to Rama in spite of many trials.

A possible reason for Muni’s memories of these plays may lie in town gossip. To the delight of the men in town, the postman’s wife has run off to the city with another man. The postman ‘‘does not speak to anyone at all nowadays. Who would if a wife did what she did? Women must be watched; otherwise they will sell themselves and the home.’’ Men should keep an eye on their wives, because if they leave, the husbands lose their grounding.

In this speech, Muni comes as close as he ever will to stating the truth about wives: it may be annoying when they stay, but it is devastating when they leave. As Muni drives his goats out to the statue in the beginning of the story, he reflects on his age. ‘‘At seventy, one only waited to be summoned by God. When he was dead what would his wife do?’’ In fact, his wife would be lonely, but she is the one in the family with survival skills. The real question is what would Muni do without his wife if she were summoned by God? Where would a man be without a loyal wife?

Source: Cynthia Bily, ‘‘An Overview of ‘A Horse and Two Goats’,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. Bily has a master’s degree in English literature and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Common Themes in Narayan's Fiction

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

‘‘A Horse and Two Goats,’’ by R. K. Narayan appeared, in a somewhat different form, in The New Yorker in 1965. It was first published in its present form in the collection A Horse and Two Goats A Horse and Two Goats (1970), and was later included in Under the Banyan Tree, a selection of Narayan’s stories to 1984.

Narayan is admired as a writer whose novels and stories are remarkably consistent in quality. Yet one or two works do stand out—like the novel The Guide (1958) and the short story ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats.’’ To many, Narayan is best known as the creator of Malgudi, one of literature’s most enduring and endearing fictional worlds, so it is somewhat ironic that ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ is one of only a handful of Narayan’s stories not to be set in the brilliantly-realised world of Malgudi. Nevertheless, it is a tale that perfectly displays his mastery of the short story form.

Muni, the central character of the story, is a typical Narayan hero who has achieved little, and who feels he has been dealt with unsympathetically by the world around him, and by fate. Unlike most of Narayan’s heroes, though, he is a lower-class village peasant, rather than the usual middle-class Malgudi-dweller, and he is very poor, as the appalling conditions of his life, always present behind the humour of the story, attest. Indeed, on one level this tale provides the non-Indian reader with a glimpse of the type of poverty and hardship that must be endured by the millions of Indians who, like Muni, have barely enough food to keep them alive:

His wife lit the domestic fire at dawn, boiled water in a mud pot, threw into it a handful of millet flour, added salt, and gave him his first nourishment of the day. When he started out, she would put in his hand a packed lunch, once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday.

Narayan has, on occasions, been criticized for focussing on middle-class urban India in his stories, thereby excluding the poor of rural India who continue to make up the vast majority of the Indian population. But Narayan’s purpose as a storyteller has never been to educate the non-Indian reader about India. So although we can learn specific things about village life in India from this story, it isn’t about Indian problems or about Indian sensibilities as such. While what happens in ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ is accurate to the particular of the Indian experience, it deliberately deals with themes that are quintessentially human, also. William Walsh has suggested it is a story about misunderstanding, a story about the gap between supposed and real understanding, a story about the element of incomprehension in human relationships.

‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ is typical of Narayan’s pre-Modernist, village storyteller style of writing. In a deceptively simple, linear narrative Narayan unfolds the story of Muni, an old goatherd. In keeping with his usual narrative formula, Narayan carefully follows Muni as he goes about his daily, frequently humiliating existence—eating his meagre breakfast, visiting the local shopkeeper in a typically unsuccessful attempt tot get a few items of food on credit, and then taking his two scraggy goats to graze near the foot of the horse statute at the edge of the village. He spends the rest of his day crouching in the shade offered by the clay horse, or watching the traffic pass on the highway.

Once the nature of Muni’s world has been established, both the plot and the comedy of the story hinge on the disruption of that routine (as they do with the arrival of Vasu in The Man-Eater of Malgudi, or Tim in The World of Nagaraj). This is a formula Narayan uses frequently, and always with consummate skill. In ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ the seemingly timeless routine is interrupted when a car stops and a ‘‘red-faced foreigner,’’ an American whose vehicle has run out of petrol, asks for directions to the nearest gas station.

This is where the comedy of misunderstanding takes over. After initially thinking he is being questioned about a crime by the khaki-clad foreigner, whom he assumes must be either a policeman or a soldier, Muni concludes that the man wants to buy his goats. Meanwhile the red-faced American, assuming the Tamil peasant owns the clay horse statute, which to the villagers, as Muni explains, ‘‘is our guardian, it means death to our adversaries,’’ sets about trying to buy it, so he can take it back to the United States to decorate his living room: ‘‘I’m going to keep him right in the middle of the room . . . we’ll stand around him and have our drinks.’’

The humour and the irony of this tale lies in the total benign incomprehension that exists between the two, not only in the way neither understands the other’s language, but also in the absolute contrast of their cultural and economic backgrounds, emphasised by the way each values the clay horse. Much of this is conveyed through the wonderful double discourse that makes up a significant part of the story, with each of the characters happily developing his own hermetically-sealed interpretation of the other’s words and gestures. The story’s charm lies in the way Narayan refrains from passing judgement.

Source: Ralph J. Crane, ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats,’’ in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.

The Craftmanship of R. K.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3144

Since writing last about Narayan’s art as a novelist and, especially, after meeting him and conversing with him, the conviction has grown in me that he is a creative writer who has come to terms with himself and has no fierce quarrel with man, society or God. Narayan’s novels reveal a creative intelligence enjoying inner harmony evolved rather early in life, though not without struggle and suffering. The house of fiction that Narayan built is built on the bedrock of his faith (Whatever happens India will go on, he told Naipaul). This, I thought, was my complaint against Narayan: he is unique, human and not so accessibly human. The distance between the world immediate to me and that of Narayan’s later novels is the distinction between the Inferno and the Purgatory. I, of course believe that the Inferno—the world of Narayan’s Dark Room—is too much with us. But I give credit to Narayan for his achievement: he makes his Purgatory credible (if not acceptable) to us of the Pit, both in the East and in the West. There is a muted contradiction in Narayan’s later novels, between the humour which is humanizing and the grand Narayan vision which is so far above the merely human.

Then Narayan’s A Horse and Two Goats and Other Stories, appeared, a slender collection of five stories. I believe that two stories in this volume are among the best written by an Indian in English. It is in these stories—the title story, ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ and ‘‘Annamalai’’—that Narayan truly evokes memories of the great Russian master, Chekhov. They are to me a marvellous re-affirmation of Narayan’s (at) oneness with man; an orchestration of the merely human, inevitably rooted in the actual. I offer below an analysis of ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ in a small bid to peep behind the curtains and see Narayan at work.

The opening lines:

Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of India, in which the majority of India’s five hundred million live, flourish and die, Kritam was probably the tiniest, indicated on the district survey map by a microscopic dot, the map being meant more for the revenue official out to collect tax than for the guidance of the motorist, who in any case could not hop to reach it since it sprawled far from the highway at the end of a rough track furrowed up by the ironhopped wheels of bullock carts. But its size did not prevent its giving itself the grandiose name Kritam, which meant in Tamil ‘‘coronet’’ or ‘‘crown’’ on the brow of this subcontinent. The village consisted of less than thirty houses, only one of them built with brick and cement. Painted a brilliant yellow and blue all over with gorgeous carvings of gods and gargoyles on its balustrade, it was known as the Big House. The other houses, distributed in four streets, were generally of bamboo thatch, straw, mud, and other unspecified material. Muni’s was the last house in the fourth street, beyond which stretched the fields. (Italics mine)

We notice the easy, unselfconscious narrowing down of the focus from seven hundred thousandvillages and five hundred million (lives) to Kritam, the tiniest village, and Muni the least of its villagers. The phrase live, flourish and die is not as much of a cliche as it appears; there is an unsuspected, seemingly endless agony between flourish and die: Muni in the story has had his halcyon days and is yet to die—we are going to witness him caught in that infernal suspension when living ends without death. Further there is the casual motorist; it is going to be a chance motorist that sets up ripples in the stagnant pond of Muni’s life. And we also notice the touch of humour in the comment on the name Kritam; and as Muni is the least of the villagers his hut is the last in the last street of the village. (This is about two-thirds of the opening paragraph of the story. Further in the same paragraph we are also introduced to the ‘‘horse’’ of the title; we are told that the horse is, unexpectedly, made of clay. The horse is a ‘‘horse.’’)

So Muni is poor. A definition of his poverty follows, in the second para of the story:

His wife lit the domestic fire at dawn, boiled water in a mud pot, threw into it a handful of millet flour, added salt, and gave him his first nourishment for the day. When he started out, she would put in his hand a packed lunch, once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday. She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.

This seems as good an account of Indian poverty as any (isn’t Indian poverty a prime export item for many of our novelists in English?). But let us pause at the packed lunch. To commuters in India it might evoke associations of tiffin carriers; for westerners it could mean a nice fat carton of selective (watch your calories) snacks. We have already been told that Muni’s first nourishment could not be more than a handful of millet flour; and when we are told that Muni’s wife put in his hand a packed lunch it might conceivably rouse our expectations for Muni. But having roused our expectations, Narayan dashes them in the very next breath (just with the interruption of a comma): once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday. And this is poverty pared of sentimentality because it is illustrationally, the definition of Muni’s poverty; but here is how, to cap it, Narayan concludes his statement:

. . . She was old, but he was older and needed all the attention she could give him in order to be kept alive.

This is a sudden lighting up; coming through the old woman’s point of view, it is her casually muted, endearingly cynical expression of her love for her old man. This unobtrusive surfacing of the love between this old man and this old woman, the beauty of their relationship, in spite of the enormity of their indigence, is what gives the entire passage the sound of being merely factual and unsentimental; neither shutting his eyes to the presence of the wolves at the door nor spurning sentiment within the hut, Narayan gives character and dignity to the couple’s poverty. The last sentence breaks through the crust of the preceding lines even as their humanity does through their sub-human living.

Narayan’s invention moves ahead to illustrate and dramatize, to root his characters and their setting firmly in the actual. Here is the second half of the next paragraph:

. . . And so the two goats were tethered to the trunk of a drumstick tree which grew in front of his hut from which occasionally Muni could shake down drumsticks. This morning he got six. He carried them in with a sense of triumph. Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow.

First, Narayan has initiated action with This morning he got six. For these six precious drumsticks Narayan sends Muni a little later to the shopman of the village who helps reveal a new dimension of Muni’s poverty. And meanwhile there is the last sentence. Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow. This is the drumstick tree. I believe that Narayan could have planted with equal facility any other vegetable tree or plant here; for example, a jack fruit tree or a gourd creeper. But it has to be the drumstick tree; for of course any South Indian with half Muni’s weakness for drumstick sauce will know that a drumstick tree, as trees go, casts pretty little shadow; its small sparse leaves don’t help, unlike say a banyan tree, shelter anybody that ‘‘lives’’ in its shadow. We normally have to take the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, but I think in the given context it acquires literal overtones. Thus we see that Narayan’s invention is very economical—the crafty artist not only makes use of the drumsticks but also the drumstick leaves.

When Muni asks his wife for drumstick sauce, she orders him out to somehow procure the groceries for making the sauce; and Muni approaches the village shopman. The shopman helps Narayan throw light on Muni in a couple of ways. First we come to know of the ‘‘daughter.’’

‘‘I will pay you everything on the first of the next month.’’ ‘‘As always, and whom do you expect to rob by then?’’ Muni felt caught and mumbled, ‘‘My Here of course is the daughter has sent word that she will be sending me money.’’

‘‘Have you a daughter?’’ sneered the shopman. ‘‘And she is sending you money! . . .’’

The Munis have no children, as a little later on we come to know. In the Indian context even if one has many daughters (not a welcome proposition) one rarely expects to receive monthly allowance from any one of them—where’s your self-respect? But even daughters will do for Muni, childless, would very much like to have some.

He recollected the thrill he had felt when he mentioned a daughter to that shopman; although it was not believed, what if he did not have a daughter?—his cousin in the next village had many daughters, and any one of them was as good as his; he was fond of them all and would buy them sweets if he could afford it. Still everyone in the village whispered behind their backs that Muni and his wife were a barren couple. . . .

The non-existent daughter thus adds a new dimension to Muni’s poverty; he is not only poor in money and material possessions, he is also utterly poor—in progeny. This sort of freckles Muni’s character, this old man, and he is insinuated fully into our sympathy.

Muni may be poor but he still has vestiges of dignity and self-respect. Here is the conclusion of his unsuccessful mission to the shopman who indulges in Muni-baiting giving him nothing but mockery and scorn.

. . . Muni thought helplessly, ‘‘My poverty is exposed to everybody. But what can I do?’’

‘‘More likely you are seventy,’’ said the shopman. ‘‘You also forget that you mentioned a birthday five weeks ago when you wanted castor oil for your holy bath.’’

‘‘Bath! Who can dream of a bath when you have to scratch the tankbed for a bowl of water? We would all be parched and dead but for the Big House, where they let us take a pot of water from their well.’’ After saying this Muni unobtrusively rose and moved off.

He told his wife, ‘‘That scoundrel would not give me anything. So go out and sell the drumsticks for what they are worth.’’

Muni may not have got much out of the shopman but Narayan has. Narayan’s art is rich in the invention of the actual. But let us now move on to the farcical scene that is central to the action of the story. This is the scene between Muni and the foreigner. Basically Narayan is exploiting a device from the slapstick drama of our popular theatre. It is the humour of situation and dialogue that two deaf people create when they encounter each other in earnest business.

. . . Now the other man (the foreigner) suddenly pressed his palms together in a salute, smiled and said, ‘‘Namaste! How do you do?’’

At which Muni spoke the only English expressions he had learnt, ‘‘Yes, no.’’ Having exhausted his English vocabulary, he started in Tamil. . . .

And while ‘‘The foreigner nodded his head and listened courteously though he understood nothing,’’ he is anxious that the Indian should understand him; he has already set his heart on the statue. He is puzzled that Muni doesn’t understand English. He says:

‘‘. . . I have gotten along with English everywhere in this country, but you don’t speak it. Have you any religious or spiritual scruples against English speech?’’

Not an incapable man. But with Muni he seems to be getting nowhere; the two are on two different wavelengths. Here is more evidence of Narayan’s shrewd exploitation of the linguistic curtain between the two:

Noting the other’s interest in his speech. Muni felt encouraged to ask, ‘‘How many children have you?’’ with appropriate gestures with his hands. Realizing that a question was being asked, the red man replied, ‘‘I said a hundred,’’ which encouraged Muni to go into details. ‘‘How many of your children are boys and how many girls? Where are they? Is your daughter married? It is difficult to find a son-in-law in your country also?’’

So they go on, representatives of two civilizations, failing to establish contact except by the sheerest accident when the result as in the climax, is comic catastrophe.

The foreigner followed his look and decided that it would be a sound policy to show an interest in the old man’s pets. He went up casually to them and stroked their backs with every show of courteous attention. Now the truth dawned on the old man. His dream of a lifetime was about to be realised. He understood that the red man was actually making an offer for the goats.

Thus Muni and what’s-his-name. But what is the foreigner’s name? He is unnamed. He is the redfaced foreigner, the red man, the foreigner without a name. But how marvellously Narayan invents the American with the very quirk and tang of the American’s speech:

‘‘. . . I assure you that this will have the best home in the USA. I’ll push away the bookcase, you know, I love books and am a member of five book clubs, and the choice and bonus volumes mount up to a pile really in our living room, as high as this horse itself. But they’ll have to go. Ruth may disapprove, but I will convince her. The TV may have to be shifted too. We can’t have everything in the living room. Ruth will probably say what about when we have a party? I’m going to keep him right in the middle of the room. I don’t see how that can interfere with the party—we’ll stand around him and have our drinks.’’

This is expert literary ventriloquism and it helps superbly concretize the image of the American. Still, this is a case of a character being endowed with more than a local habitation—and that without a name: purposely. His speech, his manner and his actions typify him as a westerner (and who is more western in modern times than a New Yorker?); and the elision of his name, perfectly natural in the situation, is just the deviation to endow him with more than ordinary significance. He had told his wife in America, ‘‘We will visit India this winter, it’s time to look at other civilizations.’’ The unnamed foreigner is a typical representative of his civilization. He is the westerner.

The other civilization is India and of course who more true to her than Muni? To begin with he comes from probably the tiniest village of India. Narayan has always believed that India is her villages. (We remember The Guide; it is the rural India that traps Raju and positively sublimates him.) Narayan has already indicated this in his opening line. ‘‘Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of India, in which the majority of India’s five hundred million live . . .’’ Not simply quantitatively; even qualitatively India is her villages. The tiniest (and microscopic dot) is thus microcosmic and the name Kritam with that selective touch of humour Narayan honours it with emphasizes the same symbolic value, with the four streets as likely standing for the four chief castes of the traditional Indian society. Muni may not know more than ‘‘Yes, no’’ of English (the only one who knows English in Kritam, the postman, has not prospered much—he is fighting shy of the shopman to whom he is indebted and his wife has run away with somebody); but he has imbibed the puranas through the oral tradition, and the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha and the legends of the land, can talk no end of them. He is poor and dignified; unlettered and well-drilled in the country’s rich lore. Muni is as Indian as one in the centre of the society can realistically wish. He is the Indian delegate; he represents India for Narayan.

Here of course is the East-West encounter, so dear to our writers and critics—with a vital difference: it is offered to us through the prism of Narayan’s vision, humanized by his humour.

But that is not the end of the story’s potential for significance. The statue of the horse and soldier too is subject to just that accretion of meaning which marks it out as a metaphor. Narayan’s careful and elaborate description of the statue—running into 24 lines—is supported by Muni’s attempt at estimating its ancestry:

‘‘. . . I was an urchin this high when I heard my grandfather explain this horse and warrior, and my grandfather himself was this high when he heard his grandfather, whose grandfather. . . .’’

In the heightened context of the encounter between India and the West, the Horse stands for India’s ancient heritage. But there is no sentimental mushing up here. We come back to the title, ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats.’’ A Horse made of clay; Muni sees no value in it; though he has moved in its shadow ever since he can remember, he is not aware of any special value attached to it; but the appreciative American businessman is eager to possess it— even if he has to build his cocktail parties around it. Two Goats; made of poor (metaphorical) clay, probably far below the stipulations of a Chicago butcher. The gawky goats are Muni’s only property, his only capital and not the horse; the American of course has no use for them, except to ingratiate himself with—for he has concluded they are Muni’s pets. Each thinks the other values what he himself values; each doesn’t value what the other does. In the event both leave with an absurd sense of business well—and hardly—done.

Source: V. Panduranga Rao, ‘‘The Craftmanship of R. K. Narayan,’’ in Indian Writing in English, edited by Ramesh Mohan, Orient Longman, Ltd., 1978, pp. 56-64.

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Critical Overview