A Horse and Two Goats

by R. K. Narayan

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Historical Context

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Colonial India
Indian culture is more than five thousand years old. Its great epics were composed before the year A.D. 200, and magnificent art and architecture were created in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. Beginning in the 10th century, Muslim raiders attacked and weakened the Buddhist kingdoms, and for the next several hundred years a series of Muslim kingdoms controlled what is now called the Indian subcontinent. By 1500, Europeans were also competing for control of Indian trade. In 1857, India became subject to British rule. Like South Africa, Indians found themselves governed by a white minority from another country and culture, whose governance was guided by racism and religious intolerance. India remained a British colony until 1947, when a long campaign of peaceful civil disobedience led by Mohandas Gandhi persuaded Britain to return control of the country to its own people. India was divided into two separate nations: India, a secular state populated mainly by Hindus, and Pakistan, a Muslim state. The late 1940s were marked with great violence and eventually war between Muslims and Hindus. Thus, the world from which Narayan was writing in the 1950s was both old, rich in tradition and legend, and new, struggling for identity.

Independent India
Immediately after achieving independence, India’s government, under Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, began planning and taking action to bring peace and prosperity to all Indian citizens. The task was daunting: although there was a will to provide education for all, there were not enough teachers; the need to grow more food and distribute it was apparent, but the technology and skills were not available. Although there was a change in the air, there was no real change in the day-to-day lives of poor people like Muni and his wife for many years. ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ takes place less than a decade after independence, little enough time that Muni has realized no tangible benefits from living in a sovereign nation, and that he still shrinks from a white man wearing khaki, who he assumes must be a British authority figure.

For Narayan, independence made it possible for him to move more freely on the world stage, but he continued in his lifelong tendency to avoid politics in his personal life and in his writing. It should be noted that choosing to write and publish in English, his second language, was an artistic, not a political, decision. He was raised a Brahmin, a member of the highest Hindu caste, and he had enjoyed a good education and a life of relative ease. He had learned English in school, and as he developed his writing skills he found that the English language—as Indians speak it—was ideal for expressing his ideas and images clearly. But by writing in English, he was choosing to write for an audience that lived mostly outside India, since most Indians, like Muni, did not speak or read English. As a journalist, and then as something of an international figure, Narayan had seen more of the world than Muni ever could. He understood the conflicts between Indian culture and Western culture as few people did, because he had created a life for himself that forced him to move through both worlds.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Narration ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats ’’ is narrated in the third person by an omniscient narrator who reports clearly and objectively on the characters’ words, actions, and memories, but who does not comment or judge. The narrator describes Kritam’s erosion and Muni’s decline dispassionately, without regret; conversations between Muni and his wife, or Muni and the...

(This entire section contains 577 words.)

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shopman, are told from Muni’s perspective, but with his calm acceptance of whatever fate brings him. This restraint is important to the understated humor of the dialogue between Muni and the American; Narayan trusts the reader to interpret the absurd conversation without his having to say through his narrator, ‘‘Notice that this response has nothing to do with the question asked,’’ or ‘‘See the irony in this remark.’’ When the two men leave the place where they met, each taking away something of value, neither has been accused by the narrator— nor by the reader—of foolishness or evil. By creating a narrator who tells the story without judging it, Narayan presents two believable characters with human flaws, but two characters for whom the reader can feel compassion and sympathy nonetheless. The conflict is between two likeable characters, or two worthy cultures, not between good and evil.

Setting The story takes place in Kritam, ‘‘probably the tiniest’’ of India’s 700,000 villages. Its four streets are lined with about thirty mud and thatch huts and one Big House, made of brick and cement. Women cook in clay pots over clay stoves, and the huts have no running water or electricity. A few miles away, down a rough dirt track through dry fields of cactus and lantana bushes, is a highway leading to the mountains, where a large construction project is being completed. The meeting between Muni and the red-faced man was intended to take place between about 1945, when televisions became generally available to Americans, and 1960, when the story was published, but the date is not central to the story. Even today there are many villages in the world without modern technological conveniences, and many travelers who do not realize that not everyone lives as they do.

Realism Narayan’s fiction is often noted for its realism, its simple and accurate presentation of common, everyday life as it is lived by identifiable characters. In ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ Narayan pays careful attention to the small details of Muni’s life: where he lives, what he eats, how he coughs when he smokes his first cigarette. Although many of the small details, like the drumstick tree and the dhoti where Muni puts his hundred rupees, are particularly Indian, they are also basic enough to human experience that they are easily understood by an international audience. Narayan’s characters and stories are read not so much as regional literature but as universal.

Humor Humor is an important element in ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats,’’ and understanding Narayan’s humor is important to understanding his world view. Humor, which is affectionate and sympathetic to humanity and human foibles, is often distinguished from wit, which looks more harshly on human fallibility. For Narayan, who looks at the world through the lens of his Hindu faith, weakness and strife are to be accepted and transcended, not railed against. When he creates the comic characters of Muni and the American (likely candidates for the roles of the ‘‘two goats’’ in the title), he laughs at them gently and kindly, not critically.

Compare and Contrast

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1947: One of the goals of the new Constitution in India is to provide free and compulsory education for Indian children. In 1951, approximately 80 percent of the adults in India, like Muni, are illiterate.

1990s: Approximately 52 percent of the adult population is considered literate (64 percent of the men and 39 percent of the women).

1951: Approximately 80 percent of Indian adults live in poverty. The percentage is higher for children. Few of these people have access to clean water.

1997: Due to the spread of technology and a growing educated class engaged in international trade, only one-third of India’s population lives below the poverty line. Most villages have access to safe drinking water.

1950s: One hundred rupees is enough money for Muni to think about building a small thatched roof and opening a small food stand. It is twenty times his debt to the shopman.

1998: One hundred rupees is equivalent to approximately $2.35 in American dollars.

1950s: Agricultural yields are low, and insuffi- cient to feed India’s 400 million people. Monsoons in 1951 and 1952 add to the country’s food deficits. By 1960, food grain production is increasing.

1990s: India grows enough food to feed its 935 million people, and also produces its own steel, computer software, and nuclear energy.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Ramana, P. S. Message in Design: A Study of R. K. Narayan’s Fiction, New Delhi: Harman Publishing House, 1993, pp. 131-32.

Shack, Neville. A review of Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, in Times Literary Supplement, October 18, 1985, p. 1168.

Taliaferro, Frances. A review of Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, in Book World—The Washington Post, July 28, 1985, pp. 7, 13.

Trivedi, H. C., and N. C. Soni. ‘‘Short Stories of R. K. Narayan: An Estimate,’’ in Perspectives on R. K. Narayan, edited by Atma Ram, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1981, p. 191.

Walsh, William. R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 100.

Further Reading Johnson, Gordon. Cultural Atlas of India, New York: Facts on File, 1996. A thorough introduction to the rich cultural and political history of the Indian subcontinent, featuring detailed maps and many illustrations showing the area’s ethnic and religious diversity.

Kain, Geoffrey, editor. R. K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993. Nearly all of the essays in this collection focus on Narayan’s novels and his short fiction of Malgudi, but they provide useful insights into his overriding themes and techniques. The volume includes John Lowe’s interview with Narayan, in which the writer reveals himself to be strangely and fascinatingly uninterested in his own writing processes.

Narayan, R. K. My Days: A Memoir, New York: Viking, 1974. This award-winning autobiography covers Narayan’s first 67 years and first 17 books in under 200 pages. His stories of life in India, and the influence of his family on his work, read like the best of his fiction.

Walsh, William. R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Although no longer up to date, this is the most readable overview of Narayan’s life and work. It includes an insightful biography and an interpretation of ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats.’’


Critical Essays


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