A Horse and Two Goats


R. K. Narayan

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The story opens with a short description of the village of Kritam, a tiny village among India’s thousands. Kritam is home to the story’s protagonist, Muni. The village’s name means “coronet” or “crown” in Tamil and consists of a cluster of about 30 thatched huts, the only exception to these humble dwellings being “The Big House,” a grand residence that allows the villagers to retrieve water from its well and rents out pens for livestock to the village’s farmers. One morning, Muni wakes up with a craving for something more sumptuous than the balls of cooked millet and raw onion he eats for his daily meal. Outside of his humble hut, he picks some drumsticks (i.e., seed pods) from a tree and asks his wife to make a curry with them. Ridiculing her husband’s taste for “rich” meals despite his poverty, she nevertheless agrees to make him a curry provided he can go to the local shop and buy the necessary ingredients for it.

Muni assents but, despite his attempts to charm the shopkeeper by laughing at his jokes and engaging in gossip, the shopkeeper refuses to allow him to purchase the items on credit, as Muni has no money. The shopkeeper humiliates Muni in front of his other customers and declares him an old liar and a scoundrel for failing to pay back an “ancient debt.” Feeling desperate, Muni lies and says that his daughter will soon give him money for his fiftieth birthday to purchase the ingredients and pay back the debt, but the shopkeeper refuses to believe him. Dejected, Muni returns home to inform his wife of the bad news. She exasperatedly orders him out of the house to graze his two goats, which are all he has left of a once large and healthy herd of sheep and goats that was afflicted by a pestilence. Muni’s wife realizes she will have to perform some odd jobs in the village and sell the drumsticks to purchase food for their evening meal.

As Muni walks toward the highway with his two scraggly goats, he hangs his head, imagining all the negative tittle tattle about him circulating in the village. Once he arrives at his favorite spot, an area beside the highway that is the site of an old and grandiose statue of a warrior and a horse, his mood gradually improves. The statue has stood in this exact spot since Muni was a child, and he fondly remembers his forefathers handing down tales about it. Suddenly, a foreigner in a yellow station wagon comes barreling down the highway, only to stop abruptly in front of Muni after running out of gas.

A “red-faced foreigner” lumbers out of the car, questioning Muni as to whether there is a gas station nearby, but the two men are unable to communicate as the foreigner (an American tourist) speaks only English and Muni speaks only Tamil. The foreigner repeatedly questions Muni and expresses dismay and surprise that Muni speaks no English, as he has relied on it exclusively thus far in his travels throughout India. The foreigner tells Muni (although Muni has no idea what he is saying) that he decided to travel to India on a whim with his wife Ruth after having experienced what he considers a “life-changing” and monumental torment: having to work without air conditioning on a hot summer day during a brownout in New York City, where he works as a coffee trader in the Empire State Building. He states that it was during this brownout that he experienced an “epiphany” of sorts that he must “look at other civilizations.” Muni is initially afraid of the foreigner, and he assumes he must be a policeman due to his khaki clothing (similar to the clothing worn by British policemen in the days of colonialism); Muni insists that he has no knowledge of a murder that occurred recently near his village, asserting that the culprit must live in the next village over.

With the foreigner’s offer of cigarettes, Muni becomes gradually more relaxed and appreciative of his generosity. Later, he becomes expansive, telling the foreigner about his childhood as a stage actor performing plays based on mythological stories. Muni explains the mythological and religious significance behind the horse statue on whose pedestal he sits. He tells the foreigner, who appears interested in the statue, that it represents Kalki, the final avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, who will return at the end of the Kali Yuga (or the darkest age of humanity) as a messiah to destroy a hopelessly benighted world and reset the cycle of time. Uncomprehending, the foreigner becomes increasingly restless and states that “we have come to the point where we should be ready to talk business.” He reveals that he is interested in buying the statue from Muni, whom he assumes to be its owner. Muni again fails to understand him and, when the foreigner pets his goats, surmises that he is offering him one hundred rupees for the goats themselves, rather than the statue. Initially misunderstanding the offer of money as a request for change, Muni advises the foreigner to approach the village moneylender. After a while, Muni understands that the money is indeed for him. Taking the money, Muni walks off, leaving his goats to the foreigner.

Muni returns home triumphant, informing his wife that he has managed to sell his goats that had proven to be a curse to him as a constant reminder of how far he had fallen in the world. His wife initially assumes that he must have robbed someone, as the sum of 100 rupees is a small fortune. However, Muni’s elation does not last long as, soon enough, he hears the bleating of goats at his door. The goats have, predictably, followed their owner back home. Meanwhile, the foreigner confusedly waits beside the statue, assuming that Muni has gone to get help to hoist the statue of the horse off its pedestal so that he can put it in his car. After waiting a while on the side of the highway, the foreigner manages to stop a truck passing by and pays the drivers to help him maneuver the statue into his car. He then pays them to allow him to siphon gas from their truck to restart his station wagon. The story ends with both men utterly oblivious to what the other had attempted to convey.