First published in the Madras, India, newspaper The Hindu in 1960, ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ did not achieve a wide international audience until 1970 when it became the title story of R. K. Narayan’s seventh collection of short stories, A Horse and Two Goats and Other Stories. It reached an even wider audience in 1985 when it was included in Under the Banyan Tree, Narayan’s tenth and best-selling collection. By this time Narayan was well established as one of the most prominent Indian authors writing in English in the twentieth century.
The story presents a comic dialogue between Muni, a poor Tamil-speaking villager, and a wealthy English-speaking businessman from New York. They are engaged in a conversation in which neither can understand the other’s language. With gentle humor, Narayan explores the conflicts between rich and poor, and between Indian and Western culture. Narayan is best known for his fourteen novels, many of which take place in the fictional town of Malgudi. Many of the stories in his thirteen short story collections also take place in Malgudi, but ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ does not.
This accounts for the fact that the story has attracted very little critical commentary; however, all of the attention it has drawn has been positive. The story is seen as a fine example of Narayan’s dexterity in creating engaging characters and humorous dialogue, but it is not considered one of his greatest works. A Horse and Two Goats Summary Set in Kritam, ‘‘probably the tiniest’’ of India’s 700,000 villages, ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ opens with a clear picture of the poverty in which the protagonist Muni lives.
Of the thirty houses in the village, only one, the Big House, is made of brick. The others, including Muni’s, are made of ‘‘bamboo thatch, straw, mud, and other unspecified materials. ’’ There is no running water and no electricity, and Muni’s wife cooks their typical breakfast of ‘‘a handful of millet flour’’ over a fire in a mud pot. On this day, Muni has shaken down six drumsticks (a local name for a type of horse radish) from the drumstick tree growing in front of his house, and he asks his wife to prepare them for him in a sauce.
She agrees, provided he can get the other ingredients, none of which they have in the house: rice, dhall (lentils), spices, oil and a potato. Muni and his wife have not always been so poor. Once, when he considered himself prosperous, he had a flock of forty sheep and goats which he would lead out to graze every day. But life has not been kind to him or to his flocks: years of drought, a great famine, and an epidemic that ran through Muni’s flock have taken their toll.
And as a member of the lowest of India’s castes, Muni was never permitted to go to school or to learn a trade. Now he is reduced to two goats, too scrawny to sell or to eat. He and his wife have no children to help them in their old age, so their only income is from the odd jobs his wife occasionally takes on at the Big House. Muni has exhausted his credit at every shop in town, and today, when he asks a local shopman to give him the items his wife requires to cook the drumsticks, he is sent away humiliated