A Horse and Two Goats by R. K. Narayan, 1970

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by R. K. Narayan, 1970

"A Horse and Two Goats," by R. K. Narayan appeared, in a somewhat different form, in The New Yorker in 1965. It was first published in its present form in the collection A Horse and Two Goats (1970) and was later included in Under the Banyan Tree, a selection of Narayan's stories to 1984.

Narayan is admired as a writer whose novels and stories are remarkably consistent in quality. Yet one or two works do stand out—like the novel The Guide (1958) and the short story "A Horse and Two Goats." To many Narayan is best known as the creator of Malgudi, one of literature's most enduring and endearing fictional worlds, so it is somewhat ironic that "A Horse and Two Goats" is one of only a handful of Narayan's stories not to be set in the brilliantly realized world of Malgudi. Nevertheless, it is a tale that perfectly displays his mastery of the short story form.

Muni, the central character of the story, is a typical Narayan hero who has achieved little and who feels that he has been dealt with unsympathetically by the world around him and by fate. Unlike most of Narayan's heroes, however, he is a lower-class village peasant, rather than the usual middle-class Malgudi dweller, and he is very poor, as the appalling conditions of his life, always present behind the humor of the story, attest. Indeed, on one level this tale provides the non-Indian reader with a glimpse of the type of poverty and hardship that must be endured by the millions of Indians who, like Muni, have barely enough food to keep them alive:

His wife lit the domestic fire at dawn, boiled water in a mud pot, threw into it a handful of millet flour, added salt, and gave him his first nourishment of the day. When he started out, she would put in his hand a packed lunch, once again the same millet cooked into a little ball, which he could swallow with a raw onion at midday.

Narayan has on occasion been criticized for focusing on middle-class urban India in his stories, thereby excluding the poor of rural India who continue to make up the vast majority of the population. But Narayan's purpose as a storyteller has never been to educate the non-Indian reader about India. Thus, although we can learn specific things about village life in India from this story, it is not about Indian problems or about Indian sensibilities as such. While what happens in "A Horse and Two Goats" is accurate to the particular of the Indian experience, it deliberately deals with themes that are quintessentially human. William Walsh has suggested that it is a story about misunderstanding, a story about the gap between supposed and real understanding, a story about the element of incomprehension in human relationships.

"A Horse and Two Goats" is typical of Narayan's premodernist, village storyteller style of writing. In a deceptively simple, linear narrative Narayan unfolds the story of Muni, an old goatherd. In keeping with his usual narrative formula, Narayan carefully follows Muni as he goes about his daily, frequently humiliating existence—eating his meager breakfast, visiting the local shopkeeper in a typically unsuccessful attempt to get a few items of food on credit, and then taking his two scraggy goats to graze near the foot of the horse statute at the edge of the village. He spends the rest of his day crouching in the shade offered by the clay horse or watching the traffic pass on the highway.

Once the nature of Muni's world has been established, both the plot and the comedy of the story hinge on the disruption of that routine (as they do with the arrival of Vasu in The Man-Eater of Malgudi or of Tim in The World of Nagaraj). This is a formula Narayan uses frequently, and always with consummate skill. In "A Horse and Two Goats" the seemingly timeless routine is interrupted when a car stops and a "red-faced foreigner," an American whose vehicle has run out of fuel, asks for directions to the nearest gas station.

This is where the comedy of misunderstanding takes over. After initially thinking that he is being questioned about a crime by the khaki-clad foreigner, whom he assumes must be either a policeman or a soldier, Muni concludes that the man wants to buy his goats. Meanwhile, the red-faced American, assuming that the Tamil peasant owns the clay horse statute, which to the villagers, as Muni explains, "is our guardian, it means death to our adversaries," sets about trying to buy it so yhat he can take it back to the United States to decorate his living room, "I'm going to keep him right in the middle of the room … we'll stand around him and have our drinks."

The humor and the irony of this tale lies in the total, benign incomprehension that exists between the two, not only in the way neither understands the other's language but also in the absolute contrast of their cultural and economic backgrounds, emphasized by the way in which each values the clay horse. Much of this is conveyed through the wonderful double discourse that makes up a significant part of the story, with each of the characters happily developing his own hermetically sealed interpretation of the other's words and gestures. The story's charm lies in the way Narayan refrains from passing judgment.

—Ralph J. Crane

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A Horse and Two Goats by R. K. Narayan, 1970

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