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Miscommunication in R.K. Narayan's short stories: "A Horse and Two Goats", "The Watchman", and "The Evening Gift"

By pmoss Jan 22, 2007 1676 Words
In many of R.K. Narayan's short stories, miscommunication between people leads to an open ending. Examples of this can be particularly seen in A Horse and Two Goats, The Watchman, and The Evening Gift. In A Horse and Two Goats, miscommunication is conveyed through a language barrier; In The Watchman, it is brought about by an age difference; and in The Evening Gift it is illustrated through drunkenness. The three situations of miscommunication lead to an open ending, in which the story isn't completely resolved, and we don't completely know the protagonist's outcome.

In A Horse and Two Goats, the miscommunication becomes evident relatively later on in the story. An old Indian man, Muni, was sitting on the pedestal of a horse statue with his two goats. Two foreigners approached with intention of buying the statue, which was property of the municipality. He thought they wanted to buy his goats. The old man spoke only Tamil, while the men from New York obviously spoke English:

The stranger was completely mystified by the gesture. For the first time he said, "I really wonder what you are saying because your answer is crucial. We have come to the point when we should be ready to talk business."

A long conversation followed, with neither party understanding the other's viewpoint. Obviously talking business was out of the question since neither of the parties understood the other's language. Eventually Muni took the money which he thought was for the goats, leaving them behind and going home to his wife:

"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 [Muni's wife] opened the door and saw two goats at her door. "Here they are!" she said. "What's the meaning of all this?"

Muni was puzzled by what had occurred and got angry at the goats. He thought that they didn't want to go with the foreigners and that they had returned to him. He didn't realize that the 'red-faced man' didn't want the goats at all, but the horse statue, which did not belong to him.

In terms of the story itself, it ends abruptly without the reader knowing what has become of many of its elements.

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...."

We are left with ambiguity about what happens to Muni. On the one hand he did sell something which wasn't his, but on the other hand it was unintentional. In addition, earlier in the story it was said that nobody had really cared for the statue. We are not told if he ever figures out the misunderstanding that occurred, or if he gets in trouble for his mistake, let alone if anyone notices the missing statue. We are also not told what becomes of his wife, whether he is able to convince her to stay or not, or whether she would stay if she found out the truth. With all these floating questions, it becomes clear that the initial misunderstanding between Muni and the New Yorkers leads to an open ending in the story.

In The Watchman there is similarly a misunderstanding, but it arises from a vast age gap between the two characters rather than a language barrier. The story is about a girl who wants to commit suicide, but the 65 year-old watchman sees her, and tries to convince her otherwise. The fact that watchman doesn't fully understand her situation leads him to act as an ineffective counsellor. The girl's mother had died when she was young and her father remarried. But soon after, her father also died, leaving the girl's stepmother to take care of her.

"Your stepmother's house is all right from what you say. She is good to you."

"But why should I be a burden to her? Who am I?"

"You are her husband's daughter," the watchman said, and added, "That is enough claim."

"No no. I won't live on anybody's charity."

Following her father's death, she was hoping to earn a scholarship so that she could afford college tuition and become a doctor, but she found out that she did not make it.

"And when they [stepmother and stepbrothers] come to know of this, they will try to arrange my marriage. Someone is coming to have a look at me tomorrow."

"Marry him and may God bless you with ten children."

"No, no," she cried hysterically. "I don't want to marry. I want to study."

The watchman thought she was making a big deal of nothing, and ceased to feel any pity for her. But to the girl, it was obviously a very big deal, important enough for her to commit suicide, or at least consider it.

He felt irritated. "You are making too much of nothing. You should not be obstinate-"

"You don't know my trouble" she said.

The girl felt that the watchman didn't understand the graveness of her situation; she felt hapless. At the same time, the old watchman was getting irritated with the girl whom he felt was exaggerating about her plight.

"If you are going to be so obstinate, I'll leave you alone. No one can blame me." He paused for a moment, looked at her, and went up the steps; not a word passed between them again.

In this story, it was the watchman who didn't understand the young girl. He did not understand that college was the most crucial goal in her life. He thought she could just get married and lead a normal life, but obviously that was the last thing she wanted to do. Had the watchman been younger and in a similar situation, he might have understood her better.

Before the end of the story the watchman wakes up: "I am responsible for at least on suicide in this tank." He makes this remark despite the fact that the author doesn't make it clear that the girl actually committed suicide. To make the ending even more open, the author accounts an experience of the watchman later in life. He sees a woman who looks much like the girl, accompanied by a man and three children; he becomes very excited and salutes her with curiosity and passion, but she gives the watchman an indifferent glance and passes on. "Probably this is someone else" the watchman muttered. This all adds to further confusion of the reader. The reader is never sure of what actually becomes of the girl, but the author in some ways allows us to judge for ourselves.

In The Evening Gift, the miscommunication is caused by one of the two characters being intoxicated. Sankar, the protagonist of the story, earned thirty rupees a month for accompanying a wealthy drunkard. He had to make sure he would reach home safely every night. They must also leave the café sharp at nine. The master often gives Sankar trouble when he is drunk, but Sankar ignores him and convinces him to leave; the master returns to his good mood the next day. But one time, the master was very drunk and dismissed Sankar from his job.

"You have got to get up now, sir." "Get out of my service-" shouted his master. He rang the bell and shouted for the waiter: "Get me another-" Sankar protested to the waiter. "Get out of here-" cried his master. "You think I'm speaking in drink. I don't want you. I can look after myself. If you don't leave me, I will tell the waiter to neck you out-" Sankar stood baffled.

The master gave Sankar four months salary, 120 rupees, and fired him. Sankar was very pleased, he was going to use the money to pay off his family's mortgage, but unfortunately, the master was in fact 'speaking in drink'. The master woke up bruised and didn't know where he was with his wallet empty; he assumed that Sankar had robbed him. He reported him to the police, who quickly arrested him. The inspector obviously didn't believe Sankar: the master's wallet was empty, he was bruised, and Sankar had his money. "Inspector, after the formalities are over you may send me the seized amount tomorrow, thank you very much...." said the master. Sankar tried to explain to both his former master and the inspector what had happened, but obviously they could not believe him. "You could have asked me for the money instead of robbing me by force," he added. The master was certainly convinced that Sankar had robbed him and felt betrayed, but it is not clear whether Sankar knew if the master was drunk or not.

This miscommunication is momentarily followed by an open ending. We are not told if the master ever discovers the truth or whether Sankar finds another job. We are also oblivious about the condition of the family mortgage, an important factor for Sankar accepting the money. Following the incident, Sankar starved for two days, and wandered about the street without a place for his head or trunk. It means that following the incident, Sankar briefly lived in poverty. Sankar then took the bus for his village and back to all the ancient never-ending troubles of family life.

The three stories discussed, A Horse and Two Goats, The Watchman, and The Evening Gift shared several ingredients. The common element in all the three is inadequate communication among the characters. This miscommunication presented itself in many forms, a language barrier, an age difference, or drunkenness. Each of the stories also ends with an open conclusion that leaves the readers with uncertainty allowing them to pause, think, and judge

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