Of the seven hundred thousand villages dotting the map of
India, Kritam was probably the tiniest, indicated on the district survey map by
a microscopic dot. But its size did not prevent its giving itself the grandiose
name Kritam, which meant in Tamil “coronet” or “crown” on
the brow of this subcontinent. The village consisted of less than thirty houses,
only one of them built with brick and cement. Painted a brilliant yellow and
blue all over with gorgeous carvings of gods and gargoyles on its balustrade,
it was known as the Big House. The other houses, distributed in four streets,
were generally of bamboo thatch, straw, mud and other unspecified material.
Muni’s was the last house in the fourth street, beyond which stretched the
fields. In his prosperous days Muni had owned a flock of forty sheep and goats
and sallied forth every morning driving the flock to the highway a couple of
miles away. There he would sit on the pedestal of a clay statue of a horse
while his cattle grazed around. He carried a crook at the end of a bamboo pole
and snapped foliage from the avenue trees to feed his flock; he also gathered
faggots and dry sticks, bundled them, and carried them home for fuel at sunset.
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 for 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.
His fortunes had declined
gradually, unnoticed. From a flock of forty which he drove into a pen at night,
his stock

had now
come down to the two goats, which were tethered to the trunk of a drumstick
tree which grew in front of his hut and from which occasionally Muni could
shake down drumsticks. This morning he got six. He carried them in with a sense
of triumph. Although no one could say precisely who owned the tree, it was his
because he lived in its shadow.
His wife said,
“If you were content with the drumstick leaves alone, I could boil and
salt some for you.”
“Oh, I am tired
of eating those leaves. I have a craving to chew the drumstick out of sauce. I
tell you.”
“You have only four teeth in your jaw, but your
craving is for big things. All right, get the stuff for the sauce, and I will
prepare it for you. After all, next year you may not be alive to ask for
anything. But first get me all the stuff, including a measure of rice or
millet, and I will satisfy your unholy craving. Our store is empty today.
Dhall, chilly, curry leaves, mustard, coriander, gingelley oil, and one large
potato. Go out and get all this.” He repeated the list after her in order
not to miss any item and walked off to the shop in the third street.
Muni sat patiently on an upturned packing case below the
platform of the shop. The shop man paid no attention to him. Muni kept clearing
his throat,. coughing, and sneezing until the shop man could not stand it
anymore and demanded, “What ails you? You will fly off that seat into the
gutter if you sneeze so hard, young man.” Muni laughed inordinately, in
order to please the shop man, at being called “young man.” This
completely won the shop man over; he liked his sense of humour to be
By thus humouring the shop man, Muni could always ask for
one or two items of food, promising repayment later. Some days the shop man was
in a good mood and gave in, and sometimes he would lose his temper suddenly and
bark at Muni for daring to ask for credit.
The shop man said, “If you could find five rupees and
a quarter, you will have paid off an ancient debt. How much have you got
“I will pay you
everything on the first of the next month.”
“As always, and
whom do you except to rob by then?”
Muni felt caught and mumbled, “My daughter has sent
word that she will be sending me money.”
“Have you a
daughter?” sneered the shop man. “And she is sending you money! For
what purpose, may I know?”
“Birthday, fiftieth birthday,” said Muni
quietly.” “Birthday! How old are you?”
Muni repeated weakly, not being sure of it himself,
“Fifty.” He always calculated his age from the time of the great
famine when he stood as high as the parapet around the village well, but who
could calculate such things accurately nowadays with so many famines occurring?
The shop man felt encouraged when other customers stood around to watch and
“More likely you
are seventy,” he said to Muni. “You also forget that you mentioned a
birthday five weeks ago when you wanted castor oil for your holy bath.”
At this Muni
unobtrusively rose and moved off.
He later told his wife, “That scoundrel would not give
me anything. So go out and sell the drumsticks for what they are worth.”
He flung himself down
in a corner to recoup from the fatigue of his visit to the shop. His wife said,
“You are getting

no sauce today, nor
anything else. I can’t find anything to give you to eat. Fast till the evening,
it’ll do you good. Take the goats and be gone now,” she cried and added,
“Don’t come back before the sun is down.” He knew that if he obeyed
her she would somehow conjure up some food for him in the evening, only he must
be careful not to argue and irritate her. Her temper was undependable in the
morning but improved by evening time. She was sure to go out and work— grind
com in the Big House, sweep or scrub somewhere, and earn enough to buy
foodstuff and keep a dinner ready for him in the evening. Unleashing the goats
from the drumstick tree, Muni started out, driving them ahead and uttering
weird cries from time to time in order to urge them on. He passed through the
village with his head bowed in thought. He did not want to look at anyone or be
accosted. A couple of cronies lounging in the temple corridor hailed him, but
he ignored their call.
The shop man had said
that he was seventy. At seventy, one only waited to be summoned by God. When he
was dead what would his wife do? They had lived in each other’s company since
they were children. He had been told on their day of wedding that he was ten
years old and she was eight. Progeny, none. Perhaps a large progeny would have
brought him the blessing of the gods.
Only on the outskirts did he lift his head and look up. He
urged and bullied the goats until they meandered along to the foot of the horse
statue on the edge of the village. He sat on its pedestal for the rest of the
day. The advantage of this was that he could watch the highway and see the
lorries and buses pass through to the hills, and it gave him a sense of
belonging to a larger world. The pedestal of the statue was broad enough for
him to move around as the sun travelled up answered, “Yes, no.”
Whereupon the red-faced man took a cigarette and gave it to Muni, who received
it with surprise, having had no offer of a smoke from anyone for years now.
He had always wanted to smoke a cigarette; only once did
the shop man give him one on credit, and he remembered how good it had tasted.
The other flicked the lighter open and offered a light to Muni. Muni felt so
confused about how to act that he blew on it and put it out. The other, puzzled
but undaunted, flourished his lighter, presented it again, and lit Muni’s
cigarette. Muni drew a deep puff and started coughing; it was racking, no doubt,
but extremely pleasant. When his cough subsided he wiped his eyes and took
stock of the situation, understanding that the other man was not an Inquisitor
of any kind. Yet, in order to make sure, he remained wary. No need to run away
from a man who gave him such a potent smoke. His head was reeling from the
effect of one of those strong American cigarettes made with roasted tobacco.
The man said, “I come from New York,” took out a wallet from his hip
pocket, and presented his card.
Muni shrank away from the card. Perhaps he was trying to
present a warrant and arrest him. Beware of khaki, one part of his mind warned.
Take all the cigarettes or whatever is offered, but don’t get caught. Beware of
khaki. He wished he weren’t seventy as the shop man had said. At seventy one
didn’t run, but surrendered to whatever came. He could only ward off trouble by
talk. So he went on, all in the chaste Tamil for which Kritam was famous. He
said, “Before God, sir, Bhagwan, who sees everything, I tell you, sir,
that we known nothing of the case. If the murder was committed, whoever did it
will not escape. Bhagwan is all-seeing. Don’t ask me about it. I know
nothing.” A body had been found mutilated and thrown under a tamarind tree
at the border between Kritam and Kuppam a few weeks before, giving rise to much
gossip and speculation. Muni added an explanation. “Anything is possible
there. People over there will stop at nothing.” The foreigner nodded his
head and listened courteously though he understood nothing.
“I am sure you
know when this horse was made,” said the red man and smiled
Muni reacted to the
relaxed atmosphere by smiling himself, and pleaded, “Please go away, sir,
I know nothing. I promise we will hold him for you if we see any bad character
around, and we will bury him up to his neck in a coconut pit if he tries to
escape; but our village has always had a clean record. Must definitely be the
other village.”
Now the red man
implored, “Please, please, I will speak slowly, please try to understand
me. Can’t you understand even a simple word of English? Everyone in this
country seems to know English. I have gotten along with English everywhere in
this country, but you don’t speak it. Have you any religious or spiritual
scruples against English speech?”
Muni made some
indistinct sounds in his throat and shook his head. Encouraged, the other went
on to explain at length, uttering each syllable with care and deliberation.
Presently he sidled over and took a seat beside the old man, explaining,
“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/ Next day she called the travel agent first thing and told him to
fix it, and so here I am. Ruth came with me but is staying back,at Srinagar,
and I am the one doing the rounds and joining her later.”
Muni looked
reflective at the end of this long oration and said, rather feebly, “Yes,
no,” as a concession to the other’s language, and went on in Tamil,
“When I was this high”—he indicated a foot high—”I had heard my
uncle say…”
No one can tell what he was planning to say, as the other
interrupted him at this stage to ask, “Boy, what is the secret of your
teeth? How old are you?”
Muni forgot what he had started to say and remarked,
“Sometimes we too lose our cattle. Jackals or cheetahs may sometimes carry
them off, but sometimes it is just theft from over in the next village, and
then we will know who has done it. Our priest at the temple can see in the
camphor flame the face of the thief, and when he is caught…” He gestured
with his hands a perfect mincing of meat.
The American watched his hands intently and said, “I
know what you mean. Chop something? Maybe I am holding you up and you want to
chop wood ? Where is your axe ? Hand it to me and show me what to chop. I do
enjoy it, you know, just a hobby, We get a lot of driftwood along the back­water
near my house, and on Sundays I do nothing but chop wood for the fireplace. I
really feel different when I watch the fire in the fireplace, although it may
take all the sections of the Sunday New York Times
to get a fire started.” And he smiled at this reference.
Muni felt totally confused but decided the best thing would
be to make an attempt to get away from this place. He tried to edge out,
Saying, “Must go home,” and turned to go. The other seized his
shoulder and said desperarely, “Is there no one, absolutely no one here,
to translate for me?” He looked up and down the road, which was deserted
in this hot afternoon. The stranger almost pinioned Muni’s back to the statue
and asked, “Isn’t this statue yours? Why don’t you sell it to me ?”
The old man now
understood the reference to the horse, thought for a second, and said in his
own language, “I was an urchin this high when I heard my grandfather
explain this horse and warrior, and my grandfather himself was this high when
he heard his grandfather, whose grandfather…”
The other man
interrupted him. “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 on its pedestal; like other souvenir sellers in
this country presiding over their wares.
Muni followed the
man’s eyes and pointing fingers and dimly understood the subject matter and,
feeling relieved that the theme of the mutilated body had been abandoned at
least for the time being, said again, enthusiastically, “I was this high
when my grandfather told me about this horse and the warrior, and my
grandfather was this high when he himself…”
Tamil that Muni spoke was stimulating even as pure sound, and the foreigner
listened with fascination. “I wish I had my tape-recorder here.” He
said, assuming the pleasantest expression, “Your language sounds
wonderful. I get a kick out of every word you utter, here”—he indicated
his ears — “but you don’t have to waste your breath in sales talk. 1 appreciate
the article. You don’t have to explain its points.”
“I never went to a school, in those days only Brahmin
went to schools, but we had to go out and work in the fields morning till
night, from sowing to harvest time … and when Pongal came and we had cut the
harvest, my father allowed me to go out and play with others at the tank, and
so I don’t know the Parangi language you speak, even little fellows in your
country probably speak the Parangi language, but here only learned men and
officers know it.”
The foreigner laughed heartily, took out another cigarette,
and offered it to Muni, who now smoked with ease, deciding to stay on if the
fellow was going to be so good as to keep up his cigarette supply. The American
now stood up on the pedestal in the attitude of a demonstrative lecturer and
said, running his finger along some of the carved decorations around the
horse’s neck, speaking slowly and uttering his words syllable by syllable,
“I could give a sales talk for this better than anyone else… This is a
marvellous combination of yellow and indigo, though faded now… How do you
people of this country achieve these flaming colours?”
Muni, now assured that the subject was still the horse and
not the dead body, said, “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.”
While he was brooding on this pleasant vision, the
foreigner utilized the pause to say, “I assure you that this will have the
best home in the U.S.A. I’ll push away the book case, you know I love books and
am a member of five book clubs, and the choice and bonus volumes mount up to a
pile really in our living room, as high as this horse itself. But they’ll have
to go. Ruth may disapprove, but I will convince Muni continued his description
of the end of the world. “Our pundit discoursed at the temple once how the
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—plenty of them about—”
he said reflectively. “Do you know when it is going to happen?” he
The foreigner now
understood by the tone of the other that a question was being asked and said,
“I am not a millionaire, but a modest businessman. My trade is
Amidst all this
wilderness of obscure sound Muni caught the word “coffee” and said,
“If you want to drink ‘kapi’, drive further up, in the next town, they
have Friday market, and there they open ‘kapi-otels’— so I, learn from
The foreigner said,
“I repeat I am not a millionaire. Ours is a modest business; after all, we
can’t afford to buy more than sixty minutes of T.V. Time in a month, which
works out to two minutes a day, that’s all, although in the course of time
we’ll maybe sponsor a one-hour show regularly if our sales graph continues to
go up…”
Then the visitor,
feeling that he had spent too much time already, said, “Tell me, will you
accept a hundred rupees or not for the horse? I’d love to take the whiskered
soldier also but no space for him this year. I’ll have to cancel my air ticket
and take a boat home, I suppose. Ruth can go by air if she likes, but I will go
with the horse and keep him in my cabin all the way if necessary.” And he
smiled at the picture of himself voyaging across the seas hugging this horse.
He added, “I will have to pad it with straw so that it doesn’t
“I have my station wagon
as you see. I can push the seat back and take the horse in if you will just
lend me a hand with it.”   .  ‘                          .       ■’        •
“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.”
At this state the mutual mystification was complete, and
there was no need even to carry on a guessing game at the meaning of words. The
old man chattered away in a spirit of balancing off the credits and debits of
conversational exchange, and said in order to be on the credit side, “Oh,
honourable one, I hope God has blessed you with numerous progeny. I say this
because you seem to be a good man, willing to stay beside an old man and talk
to him, while all day I have none to talk to except when somebody stops by to
ask for a piece of tobacco. But I seldom have it, tobacco is not what it used
to be at one time, and I have given up chewing. I cannot afford it nowadays.”
Noting the other’s interest in his speech, Muni felt encouraged to ask,
“How many children have you?” With appropriate gestures with his
hands. Realizing that a question was being asked, the red man replied, “I
said a hundred,” which encouraged Muni to go into details. “How many
of your children are boys and how many girls? Where are they? Is your daughter
married? Is it difficult to find a son-in-law in your country also?”
In answer to these questions the red man dashed his hand
into his pocket and brought forth his wallet in order to take immediate
advantage of the bearish trend in the market. He flourished a hundred-rupee
currency note and said, “Well, this is what I meant.”
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 knew
the five and ten by their colours although always in other people’s hands,
while his own earning at any time was in coppers and nickels. What was this man
flourishing the note for? Perhaps asking for change. He laughed to himself at
the notion of anyone coming to him for changing a thousand or
ten-thousand-rupee note. He said with a grin, “Ask our village headman,
who is also a moneylender; he can change even a lakh of rupees in gold
sovereigns if you prefer it that way; he thinks nobody knows, but dig the floor
of his puja room and your head will reel at the sight of the hoard. The man
disguises himself in rags just to mislead the public. Talk to the headman yourself
because he goes mad at the sight of me. Someone took away his pumpkins with the
creeper and he, for some reason, thinks it was me and my goats… that’s why I
never let my goats be seen anywhere near the farms.” His eyes travelled to
his goats nosing about, attempting to wrest nutrition from minute greenery
peeping out of rock and dry earth.
The foreigner
followed his look and decided that it would be a sound policy to show an
interest in the old man’s pets. He went up casually to them and stroked their
backs with every show of courteous attention. Now the truth dawned on the old
man. His dream of a lifetime was about to be realized. He understood that the
red man was actually making an offer for the goats. He had reared them up in
the hope of selling them some day and, with the capital, opening a small shop
on this very spot. Sitting here, watching towards the hills, he had often
dreamt how he would put up a thatched roof here, spread a gunny sack out on the
ground, and display on it fried nuts, coloured sweets, and green coconut for
the thirsty and famished wayfarers on the highway, which was sometimes very
busy. The animals were not prize ones for a cattle show, but he had spent his
occasional savings to provide them some fancy diet now and then, and they did
not look too bad. While he was reflecting thus, the red man shook his hand and
left on his palm one hundred rupees in tens now, suddenly realizing that this
was what the old man was asking. “It is all for you or you may share it if
you have a partner.”
The old man pointed
at the station wagon and asked, “Are you carrying them off in that?”
“Yes, of
course,” said the other, understanding the transportation part of it.
The old man said,
“This will be their first ride in a motor car. Carry them off after I get
out of sight, otherwise they will never follow you, but only me even if I am
travelling on the path to Yama Loka ” He laughed at his own joke, brought
his palms together in a salute, turned round and went off, and was soon out of
sight beyond a clump of thicket.
The red man looked at
the goats grazing peacefully. Perched on the pedestal of the horse, as the
westerly sun touched off the ancient faded colours of the statue with a fresh
splendour, he ruminated, “He must be gone to fetch some help, I suppose!”
and settled down to wait. When a truck came downhill, he stopped it and got the
help of a couple of men to detach the horse from its pedestal and place it in
his station wagon. He gave them five rupees each, and for a further payment
they siphoned off gas from the truck, and helped him to start his engine.
hurried homeward with the cash securely tucked away at his waist in his dhoti.
He shut the street door and stole up softly to his wife as she squatted before
the lit oven wondering if by a miracle food would drop from the sky. Muni
displayed his fortune for the day. She snatched the notes from him, counted
them by the glow of the fire, and cried, “One hundred rupees! How did you
come by it? Have you been stealing?”
“I have sold our goats to a red-faced man. He was
absolutely crazy to have them, gave me all this money and carried them off in
his motor car!”
Hardly had these
words left his lips when they heard bleating outside. She opened the door and
saw the two goats at her door. “Here they are!” she said.
“What’s the meaning of all this?”

He muttered a great curse and seized one of the goats by
its ears and shouted, “Where is that man? Don’t you know you are his? Why
did you come back ?” The goat only wriggled in his grip. He asked the same
question of the other too. The goat shook itself off. His wife glared at him
and declared, “If you have thieved, the police will come tonight and break
your bones. Don’t involve me. I will go away to my parents…”

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