Both Muni and the Red-Faced Foreigner struggle with preoccupations over possessing material objects. The foreigner struggles more with materialism as he is more prosperous and thus has more possessions than Muni, but this preoccupation figures, albeit to a lesser extent, in Muni’s life as well. Unlike the foreigner, however, Muni revels in recounting his past and in discussing his spirituality in the form of mythological tales, which is shown to be at odds with the foreigner’s obsession with material objects and financial matters. The foreigner is thus emblematic of the time- and money-obsessed capitalist society of which he is a part. These petty preoccupations prevent the foreigner from appreciating Muni’s spiritual narrative—not only because of the language barrier, Narayan suggests, but because of their differing cultural perspectives. In this story, Narayan presents materialism and a preoccupation with ownership as obstacles to engaging with the spiritual dimension of life.
The spiritual narrative that underlies the entire story and features in Muni’s dialogue is the story of Kalki (literally “Destroyer of Filth”), the messiah or savior and final avatar of the Hindu Lord Vishnu who is prophesied to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga holding a flaming sword atop a white horse. In this form, Kalki will trample the sinners, save the good people, and restart the cycle of time to arrive again at Satya Yuga (or the Age of Truth). In keeping with this underlying narrative, Muni recounts his own gradual decline in fortunes as his flock goes from a bountiful, healthy herd to two scraggly goats. Muni’s personal hardships and his gradual decline in fortune parallels the decline that characterizes the Kali Yuga: a dark age of ignorance and sin in which people cheat, lie, and commit needless acts of violence against one another.
Although Muni himself is not prosperous and therefore does not have many possessions, he prides himself on the few possessions he does have, such as his two goats and the tree to which he ties his goats, of which he says, “although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his because he lived in its shadow.” Muni must worry about who owns the tree because almost everything, even in his small and insular village, is owned and assigned a price (such as the pen at the Big House, which he used to rent out for his flock). Others’ fixation on ownership prevents Muni from focusing on the more spiritual matters with which an elderly man in Hindu society is supposed to concern himself. The fact that Muni does not follow the system of “varnashramadharma” (or the assignment of certain tasks and behaviors according to one’s age and caste) is again indicative of Kali Yuga, a dark age in which even the elderly do not commit themselves to the holy tasks that would gain them admittance into Swarga (or “heaven”) and release them from the cycle of rebirth (“samsara”). Even the shopkeeper from whom Muni requests food on credit connects materialism to spirituality when he states, “If you could find five rupees and a quarter, you would pay off an ancient debt and then could apply for admission to Swarga.” This ridiculous connection between materialism and spirituality prevents the shopkeeper and Muni from recognizing how relatively petty these materialistic matters are and that spirituality has little to do with profit.
The horse and warrior statue is a powerful symbol in the story, as it portrays Kalki, the final incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who will arrive at the end of the Kali Yuga to return the world to a time of prosperity and truth. The grandiosity of the statue, making it stand out in the otherwise barren environment, is also suggestive of a “former time” of greater prosperity, as Muni suggests when he states that his ancestors have been telling tales about this statue for generations. The description of the horse “flourishing its tail in a loop” is suggestive of the cyclical nature of Hindu time. Muni insists that he had once seen the beads on the warrior’s chest sparkle like gems. The deterioration of these beads on the warrior’s chest into misshapen blobs of mud again evokes the decline of the Kali Yuga as contrasted with the prosperity and beauty of the former time in which the statue was made. Yet “none in the village remembered the splendor as no one noticed its existence,” and even Muni, who sits on the statue’s pedestal every day, fails to notice its state, again alluding to the end days of the Kali Yuga, in which people become blind to the value of spirituality. That the village well has dried up, the land around the village bakes in the relentless sun, and the village itself has moved “away” from the statue similarly suggest that the village is moving deeper into Kali Yuga. The fact that the statue is now close to the highway—a place of frenetic change and movement—suggests the statue’s own association with the imminent future, in which the world will be destroyed so that it may begin anew.
The foreigner’s sudden appearance in a strange, yellow vehicle midway through the story seems to parallel the arrival of Kalki as the messiah on a white horse at the end of the world. Yet, this foreigner is not so much a heavenly messiah as a symbol of materialism, capitalism, and neocolonialism. The foreigner’s attempts to assign a price to anything and his assumption that Muni owns the statue on which he sits “like other souvenir-sellers in this country presiding over their wares” is not only condescending, but grotesquely materialistic. This materialism and obsession with the concept of “time as money” (he offers to buy the statue because he doesn’t “want to seem to have stopped here for nothing”) blind the foreigner to the significance and meaning of the statue. Thus, the true value and meaning of the statue—and the traditions behind it—are obscured by materialism. Ultimately, Narayan presents a vision of the world much like the world of the Kali Yuga—in which striving for material possessions has blinded people to the value of spirituality.
Materialism vs. Spirituality ThemeTracker
Materialism vs. Spirituality Quotes in A Horse and Two Goats
“You see, last August, we probably had the hottest summer in history, and I was working in shirt-sleeves in my office on the fortieth floor of the Empire State Building. We had a power failure one day, you know, and there I was stuck for four hours, no elevator, no air conditioning. All the way in the train I kept thinking, and the minute I reached home in Connecticut, I told my wife Ruth, ‘We will visit India this winter, it's time to look at other civilizations.’”
“I don’t want to seem to have stopped here for nothing. I will offer you a good price for this," he said, indicating the horse. He had concluded without the least doubt that Muni owned this mud horse. Perhaps he guessed by the way he sat at its pedestal, like other souvenir-sellers in this country presiding over their wares.
"This is our guardian, it means death to our adversaries. At the end of Kali Yuga, this world and all other worlds will be destroyed, and the Redeemer will come in the shape of a horse called 'Kalki'; this horse will come to life and gallop and trample down all bad men… [T]he oceans are going to close over the earth in a huge wave and swallow us—this horse will grow bigger than the biggest wave and carry on its back only the good people and kick into the floods the evil ones.”
“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…the TV may have to be shifted too… 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.”
“Lend me a hand and I can lift off the horse from its pedestal after picking out the cement at the joints. We can do anything if we have a basis of understanding” … He flourished a hundred-rupee currency note… The old man now realized that some financial element was entering their talk. He peered closely at the currency note, the like of which he had never seen in his life… He laughed to himself at the notion of anyone coming to him for changing a thousand- or ten-thousand-rupee note.