The narrator begins by stating that, of the thousands of villages in India, Kritam was “probably the tiniest,” and noting that its presence on the map was more for the benefit of tax collectors than motorists, since the village is far from the highway. Despite its modesty, Kritam means “crown” in the language of Tamil. The village consists of less than thirty thatch houses and one majestic brick construction called the Big House. Muni lives in one of these thatch houses, and in more prosperous times owned a flock of 40 sheep and goats, which he would take each day to graze near the highway while he sat, watching them, at the foot of a clay statue of a horse and warrior. Muni’s wife takes care of him by cooking him breakfast and lunch each day: a ball of cooked millet and sometimes a raw onion. The couple are elderly, and Muni depends entirely on his wife’s care to “be kept alive.”
The village’s name, Kritam, seems to be an allusion to historical conceptions of India as a “jewel in the crown” of Britain’s colonial possessions. Thus, the village’s proclamation of its status as a “crown” in its own right may be read as a challenge to this colonialist conception of India. The author, who uses dramatic irony throughout the story as a source of humor, establishes an ironic contrast here between the village’s grandiose name and its tiny size and insignificance. The author also describes the village’s insularity in terms of its inaccessible location, far from the highway, thereby creating an association between the highway and the rest of the world—an association which proves important as the highway becomes one of the story’s main symbols.
Over time, Muni’s fortunes have dwindled. His once large flock now consists of only two goats, and he can no longer afford to rent a pen at the Big House, so he keeps them tied to a “drumstick (seed pod) tree” in front of his house from which he occasionally harvests drumsticks. This particular morning, he is able to shake down six, and brings them home triumphantly to his wife. Muni’s wife takes care of him each day by waking at dawn to light the domestic fire and cooking his breakfast and lunch. Instead of his usual humble fare of cooked millet and a raw onion, he asks her to make a sauce with the drumsticks. She assents to satisfying his “unholy craving” for such a fancy meal if he brings her the necessary ingredients. Muni agrees and sets off.
With this passage, the narrator provides evidence of this couple’s crushing poverty. Muni’s wife has total control over the domestic arena, as it is she who performs all the cooking and other chores. Thus, despite the patriarchal setting of the story, Muni’s wife has power over her husband in the sense that he depends on her for daily sustenance, whereas she does not depend on him in the same way. Muni’s “big ambitions” (an extension of which is his desire to escape the insularity of the village and experience the world beyond) are hinted at in this part of the story when he craves a rich curry rather than his daily fare of boiled millet.
Muni goes to the local store and attempts to charm the shopkeeper by laughing at his jokes and engaging in gossip about the traveling postman’s wife, who ran away to the city with another man. Although the shopkeeper enjoys hearing ill of the postman, who cheated him, he nevertheless refuses to allow Muni (who has no money) to purchase the items on credit. The shopkeeper humiliates Muni in front of his other customers and declares him an old liar (the shopkeeper even asserts that Muni must be seventy years old although Muni doesn’t know his exact age) 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 off the debt, but the shopkeeper refuses to believe him.
For the first time in the story, readers get a sense of how the other villagers perceive Muni. Muni refers to the itinerant postman’s wife, who ran away with another man to the city, in an effort to manipulate the shopkeeper, who hates the postman for being a cheat. Narayan hints that, despite highly restrictive patriarchal norms, daring women such as the postman’s wife can still make their own choices in life and alter their futures. Furthermore, with this piece of gossip, Muni draws an unintentional contrast between himself and the shopkeeper, who are stuck in their tiny village, and the postman, who is able to escape the censure of the other villagers because he must travel for his job. Unlike the postman, Muni, a poor shepherd who owes the shopkeeper money, feels afflicted by the villagers’ negative opinions of him, as when the shopkeeper asserts that Muni “must be at least seventy.”
Dejected, Muni returns home to inform his wife of the bad news; she exasperatedly orders him out of the house to graze his goats and fast until evening. Muni’s wife realizes she will have to perform odd jobs in the village and sell the drumsticks, as per Muni’s order, to purchase food for their evening meal. As Muni walks toward his favorite spot by the highway with his two scraggly goats, he hangs his head, imagining all the negative gossip about him circulating in the village. En route to the highway, Muni reflects on his glory days when a famous, out-of-town butcher would buy his sheep and ponders bitterly that his once large herd began to dwindle due to a pestilence. He wants to be rid of his two remaining goats, as they only serve as a reminder of how far he has fallen in the world.
Despite Muni’s imperious demand that his wife sell the drumsticks to get money for food, Muni is not as powerful as he may at first appear. He relies on his wife to work outside the home to earn money, and his wife is thus the primary breadwinner in the family. Hence, despite the patriarchal norms of the village, Muni’s wife clearly has power over her husband. In Muni’s journey through the village, he is unwilling to engage with his small-minded and judgmental neighbors and seems to hold his breath until he can experience the freeing atmosphere of the highway.
As Muni approaches the highway, he feels defeated by the shopkeeper’s assertion that he must be “at least seventy” and surmises that death is close at hand. This leads him to worry about what his wife will do when he dies, as they have been married since they were children. Although he had beaten her a few times early in their marriage, she developed more authority over him later. Their lack of children is a source of shame and regret for Muni. Once Muni arrives at his favorite spot, an area beside the highway that is the site of an old and grandiose statue of a horse and warrior, his mood gradually improves as he finally feels “a sense of belonging to a larger world.” The narrator describes how the statue used to look even more opulent, although no one in the village, not even Muni, remembers its former appearance.
Muni feels hemmed-in by the other villagers’ negative opinions of him, as evidenced by his devastation at the shopkeeper’s assertion of his age. As someone who has lived in Kritam all his life and has no hope of leaving, he is particularly vulnerable to his neighbors’ negative opinions. When Muni arrives at his favorite spot, his mood improves and perspective shifts, reflecting his ambitions to see beyond the confines of the suffocating world of his tiny village.
Suddenly, 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. Abruptly, the foreigner looks up at the horse statue and becomes utterly entranced by it, exclaiming “Marvelous!” repeatedly. Muni is afraid of the foreigner, who is wearing khaki like colonial policemen and soldiers used to wear, and contemplates edging away but realizes he won’t be able to flee due to his “advanced” age. After gazing at the statue some more, the foreigner suddenly greets Muni directly, and Muni responds with the only English expressions he knows: “yes, no.”
Here, the narrator introduces a major source of irony around which much of the story’s humor revolves: the language barrier between the two men. The foreigner immediately gives more focus to the statue than to Muni, treating it as an enthralling and “exotic” object, thus revealing his materialism. Muni’s fearful reaction to the foreigner suggests Muni’s own negative, firsthand experiences with colonialism. This story was originally published in 1960, only 13 years after India achieved independence, meaning that colonialism is still a very recent and relevant history to this nation and its people. Muni’s grasp of only two English words––yes and no––may suggest the ambivalent attitude of some Indians toward the English language in general as a language of exploitation as well as a language that provides access to global wealth and power.
Muni, not understanding the foreigner’s English, asserts defensively that the two goats nearby are indeed his, although many slanderous people in his village might argue otherwise. The foreigner, equally puzzled by Muni’s Tamil, politely offers him a cigarette, and Muni becomes a bit more relaxed at this friendly gesture. Then, the foreigner says that he comes from New York and offers his business card, which Muni mistakes for an arrest warrant. Thinking he is in trouble, Muni states that he knows nothing about a recent murder that took place on the border of Kritam and the adjoining village, Kuppam. The foreigner continues with an unrelated conversation, asserting that Muni must know when the horse statue was made and expressing dismay and surprise that Muni speaks no English as he has relied on it exclusively thus far in his travels throughout India.
Muni’s defensive assertion of his ownership of his goats again suggests his entrapment in the other villagers’ negative views of him. Later, the foreigner’s offer of cigarettes to Muni is the first time readers see friendliness and understanding in the interaction between the two men. However, when the foreigner produces a business card, Muni reverts to fearfulness as he mistakes the card for an arrest warrant, which speaks volumes of his negative experiences with colonialism. Muni’s comparisons of the foreigner to a colonial official, with his khaki clothing, business card/arrest warrant, and reliance on English, draws attention to the continuities between British colonialism and the American-led era of neocolonialism. In addition, the foreigner’s reliance on English during his travels in India hints at the colonial legacy of English in India. The foreigner makes an ignorant assumption that a poor, Indian shepherd would speak English, alluding to the global hegemony of English as a neocolonial language of economic power and cultural capital.
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.”
The minor discomfort of working for four hours without air conditioning motivates the foreigner to “look at other civilizations,” but he appears to engaged in an at-best superficial attempt to appreciate other cultures, without any real desire to broaden his worldview or appreciate others’ perspectives and ways of life. The foreigner’s comfortable life of taken-for-granted wealth and access to modern amenities contrasts sharply with the life of Muni, who lives in a hut with no money to his name and barely enough to eat every day.
Muni tries to make an excuse to leave, thoroughly mystified by the foreigner’s conversation, but the foreigner detains him, questioning him as to whether the statue belongs to him; the foreigner assumes that Muni is “like other souvenir sellers in this country presiding over their wares.” Gesturing toward the statue, the foreigner suggests that Muni sell it to him. Muni, finally understanding the foreigner’s interest in the statue, begins to narrate legends about it, which have been passed down for generations in his family. Listening to Muni’s long speeches, the foreigner becomes increasingly restless and more assertive about buying the statue quickly, saying “I don’t want to seem to have stopped here for nothing.”
In this passage, the foreigner assumes that Muni must be like any other Indian peddler who is desperate to sell a valuable “handicraft” to a rich Westerner. In this way, the foreigner makes an assumption about Muni based on his appearance: Muni, a poor man from a poor country, must want to avail himself of the foreigner’s American wealth. The fact that Muni is more multifaceted than the materialistic foreigner becomes apparent as he spends much of his time talking about his memories, religion, and spirituality, while the foreigner seems fixated on acquiring the statue as quickly as possible to avoid wasting time. While Muni describes the statue by referring to it as a subject of legends in his family, the foreigner understands the statue in materialistic terms as a pretty object that can be acquired for a price. Lastly, the foreigner’s preoccupation with “not wasting time” suggests that he views time as a precious and scant resource like money, whereas Muni reveals later that he views time as something that endlessly renews in cycles.
The foreigner marvels at Muni’s Tamil as one would take delight in a sideshow attraction. Yet, the foreigner assumes that Muni’s chatter is just “sales talk” to promote the horse statue, which the foreigner assures Muni is not necessary. Muni explains apologetically to the foreigner that he was not allowed to go to school in his youth, as only Brahmins were permitted access to education at that time. Instead, from a very young age, Muni had to work from dawn till dusk in the fields, which is why he doesn’t know the foreigner’s “parangi” or “foreign” language. He adds that only learned men and officers know English in India. The foreigner continues with an unrelated monologue about how he could sell the statue better than anyone.
Although the author uses the men’s language barrier as a source of humor, there are several less humorous implications to the foreigner’s exoticization of Muni’s language and his insistence that he must somehow know English. Rather than respectfully appreciating Muni’s language, the foreigner marvels at it in a similar way to how he marvels at the horse statue: as an exotic object that is appreciated for its superficial attributes rather than its deeper cultural and historical significance. The foreigner further imposes his view of Muni as a poor man from a poor country who must be desperate to make money off a wealthy foreigner when he assumes that he must be trying to sell the statue to him. This assumption lays bare the foreigner’s own materialism.
Once again misunderstanding the foreigner’s reference to the statue that stands beside the highway, Muni begins to explain its mythological and religious significance. He tells the foreigner 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 at Satya Yuga, the age of truth.
With Muni’s explanation of the Kalki statue’s significance, readers may begin to appreciate the symbolic value of this statue, especially in its opposition to the neighboring highway, a powerful and opposing symbol in the story. The Kalki statue is a symbol of tradition, history, cyclical time (in that the Hindu legend of Kalki relies on the notion of cyclical time) and spirituality, and stands in opposition to the highway, which represents modernity, development, linear time, and materialism. The deterioration of the statue and Muni’s decline in fortunes parallel the deterioration of people and the environment that occurs during the Kali Yuga. Yet, like Muni’s decline in fortunes, the statue’s own deterioration has occurred gradually and without attracting attention, suggesting that perhaps the villagers, in the depths of Kali Yuga, have become progressively more blind to the values that the statue represents.
Ignorant of the meaning of Muni’s speech and the religious and cultural significance of the statue, the foreigner begins outlining a plan to rearrange his other material possessions, such as piles of books and a TV, and place the statue in the middle of his living room so that it can function as a conversation piece at cocktail parties. Muni obliviously begins narrating the other avatars of the Hindu God Vishnu and telling of his childhood as a stage actor performing plays based on mythological stories.
Here, the author again emphasizes the stark contrast between the two men: while Muni spends much of his time reminiscing and talking about his religion and spirituality, which depend on the notion of cyclical time, the foreigner speaks only of the possessions he owns and how he will have to rearrange them to accommodate his newest acquisition: the horse statue. The foreigner clearly sees the statue as a pretty object with no other value beyond its ability to facilitate conversation at a party. Regardless of the foreigner’s attempts to make himself sound cultured and well-read by referring to the number of books he owns, his exaggerated materialism becomes evident through this relentless discussion of his possessions.
The foreigner, becoming even more restless, states that “we have come to the point where we should be ready to talk business” and flourishes 100 rupees for the statue in front of Muni. Muni has never seen so much money in his life. Thinking that the foreigner is asking for change, Muni recommends that he visit the village moneylender. When Muni mentions the moneylender’s dislike of him and his goats, whom the moneylender once accused of stealing pumpkins, the foreigner pets his goats hoping that this will speed up the transaction. Seeing this, Muni surmises that the foreigner is offering him one hundred rupees for the goats, rather than the statue. Muni is ecstatic that he is finally getting rid of the goats, that served only as a reminder of his impoverished state, and will be able to use the money to open a small shop along the highway. Taking the money, Muni walks off, leaving his goats to the foreigner.
This grand misunderstanding is the end result of the men’s unintelligibility to one another. The fact that Muni did not previously foresee any financial transaction is a testament to his preoccupation with his inner life, especially when compared to the foreigner, who seems to think only of “time as money” and acquiring material possessions. In this passage as well, Muni’s more relaxed attitude toward time as an abundant resource stands in stark contrast to the foreigner’s rush to buy the statue and his view of time as a limited resource that must not be wasted. Muni’s reflections on his dream to open a shop near the highway may seem like a modest ambition to some, but for Muni it would be a chance to reinvent himself, become more prosperous, and escape the suffocating village atmosphere.
Muni returns home triumphant, informing his wife that he has managed to sell his goats. The foreigner continues to wait confusedly by the highway, assuming that Muni has gone to fetch help. Eventually, the foreigner flags down a passing truck and pays the laborers therein to pry the statue from its pedestal and place it in his car; he also pays them to siphon gas from their truck to restart his engine. Back in the village, Muni’s elation does not last long as, soon enough, he hears the bleating of goats at his door—the goats have followed their owner back home. His wife assumes that he must have robbed someone to get so much money, and threatens to flee to her parents’ home should the police come.
The misunderstanding that occurs between Muni and the foreigner exemplifies their conflict of perspective: although the foreigner tries to learn about other civilizations by traveling to India, he fails to see the deeper significance of Indian civilization because he remains stuck in his own money- and time-obsessed mindset that enables him to flourish as a coffee trader in New York. Similarly, although Muni desperately wishes to escape the narrowmindedness of the village and experience a larger world, he is unable to understand the foreigner because, language barrier aside, his perspective is limited by his life as an impoverished and uneducated shepherd. Thus, neither man is able to broaden his perspective enough to encompass another’s worldview. The foreigner’s actions amount to a defacement and theft of the statue, and are thus emblematic of the destruction and commodification of the cultural, historical, and spiritual heritage that the statue represents.