In R. K. Narayan’s story, the main character, Muni, craves the stimulation and freedom he can experience near the highway, where he sits at the foot of a clay statue and watches his goats graze. This stands in contrast to the stifling atmosphere of the village, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and most people seem to have a long memory for Muni’s misdeeds—alleged and actual. Somewhat similarly, the “Red-Faced Foreigner,” whom Muni encounters when he runs out of gas along the highway, travels to India with his wife on a whim, seemingly bored of his mundane life: the foreigner works in New York City and lives in Connecticut and thus desires to “look at other civilizations.” Both men have ambitions that strain the boundaries of their familiar worlds, yet Narayan calls into question their ability to transcend the cultural milieu of their places of origin. In the end, Narayan suggests that travel or migration alone is not enough; if one hopes to transcend one’s cultural milieu, one must also learn to expand one’s mind to accommodate another’s world view.
Narayan hints at the isolation and insularity of Muni’s village when he states that it “sprawled far from the highway.” After the highway was built, the village and its people migrated away from it, seeking to distance themselves further from the outside world’s frenetic pace of change. These details clue the reader in to the cloistered nature of Muni’s village and thus help to explain his desire to escape it. But what Muni’s daily migration cannot do is change his mindset, which has been shaped steadily over many years of living amongst the same people.
One aspect of Muni’s village that highlights its insularity from the larger world is that its residents’ favorite pastime is exchanging gossip about each other. Muni uses this knowledge to his advantage to attempt to manipulate the shopkeeper into giving him food on credit. In mentioning the postman whose wife ran off with another man, Muni draws an implicit contrast between himself and the shopkeeper, on one hand, and the postman and his wife, on the other. Muni and the shopkeeper are stuck in this village indefinitely, without the means to travel beyond the small and at times suffocating world they inhabit. In fact, Muni is so hemmed in by others’ opinions of him that he begins to believe the shopkeeper’s pronouncement that he is seventy years old and thus acts accordingly, even though he does not know his own birth date. By contrast, the postman is “itinerant,” so even though everyone in the village knows his private business, he can slip away most days and avoid their judgment. Muni, on the other hand, is stuck with the reputation of being a scoundrel, a failure, and an impoverished man with no children, and he must face the public censure that comes with that. His ability to “reinvent” himself and alter his fortunes is thus extremely limited. Although he seems not to be aware of it, the judgments of his neighbors have negatively influenced Muni’s self-perception and his worldview, limiting him even further.
The caste system that shapes life in Muni’s village only reinforces the limiting nature of village life. Muni is a Shudra, the lowest rung in the caste system. He is a shepherd and states that he did not receive an education because only Brahmins were educated when he was a child. Thus, not only does Muni’s caste work against him, but everyone else’s knowledge of it and the importance they grant to it restricts him to a certain occupation and level of prosperity in life. Not only is Muni restricted to a sub-grouping of society, but he is also unfavorably compared to others in this grouping as the “poorest fellow” among them. Again, others’ judgment of Muni based on his caste affects not only his own view of himself but his ability to transcend this worldview that sorts everyone into groupings from birth that are impossible to escape in one lifetime.
The allure of the highway for Muni becomes clear when the narrator describes how it gives Muni relief from the humiliation of being judged unfavorably by the other villagers: “Only on the outskirts did he lift his head and look up,” the narrator explains. From his spot overlooking the highway, he could “see the lorries and the buses pass through the hills, and it gave him a sense of belonging to a larger world.” In this way, Muni realizes that the problems with which he is burdened in the village are petty in comparison with the vast and mysterious world beyond the village limits. Muni’s favorite spot on the side of the highway provides him with relief from the judgments of his neighbors, a more expansive perspective on life, and a sense that the world outside the village is changing at a rapid pace. Yet, despite Muni’s daily peregrinations to this spot—and despite the broader perspective it affords him—he is still unable to transcend his own limited worldview and appreciate that of another when he encounters the foreigner. For example, Muni projects his own negative experiences with colonialism onto the foreigner rather than seeing him as a unique individual when he assumes that the foreigner must be a policeman because he is wearing khaki (like British colonial policemen). Later, with the offer of cigarettes, Muni begins to relax and attempts to regale the foreigner with stories of his past and mythological tales, thinking that he is entertaining his new friend when, in fact, the foreigner demonstrates little actual interest in (or understanding of) his tales. The biggest misunderstanding, however, occurs when Muni believes the foreigner is offering him money in exchange for his goats rather than the Kalki statue on which he sits. This naïve assumption that the foreigner would be interested in buying two scraggly goats reveals that Muni is interpreting the meeting with the foreigner in terms of his own cultural milieu as a poor shepherd in rural India who has had very little contact with the outside world. Muni thus interprets his meeting with the foreigner on his own terms rather than attempting to expand his mind to accommodate the foreigner’s differing disposition, individuality and cultural norms.
In a somewhat similar manner to Muni, the “red-faced” foreigner wishes to escape the dull regularity of his routine as a businessman working in the Empire State Building and living in Connecticut. This man states that, despite his country’s modernity and wealth, all the comforts of American life failed him one day when he was stuck in the office during a power failure. This simple failure of one of the most taken-for-granted comforts in America (that is, electricity) provides the impetus for this man to want to “look at other civilizations,” thereby broadening his own perspective. However, despite having travelled halfway around the globe to a place very different from home, the man is unable to appreciate anything beyond its face value. This can be seen when the foreigner approaches the Kalki statue as only a salesman would, saying, “I could give a sales talk for this better than anyone else […] This is a marvelous combination of yellow and indigo.” To the foreigner, the cultural and historical significance of this statue do not matter. The most important consideration to the foreigner is how much the statue will cost and how he can deliver it to his living room, where it will serve as a conversation piece at parties. His behavior is self-absorbed, culturally-blinkered, and materialistic. Thus, despite these characters’ ambitions to escape their everyday lives and experience something new, Narayan shows that they are ultimately unable to transcend their places of origin, set as they are in their own world views.
Perspective 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.’”
“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.