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The Tale of the Melon City – Vikram Seth

The Melon City represents any nation whose policies are based on superstitions, beliefs and age old convictions. The king is said to be a placid (peace loving) one but soon we realize how hollow/ironic that claim is. He wished to establish peace by eliminating anyone who committed a trifle of mistake. Looking at the way he is passing orders to execute innocent people, we can easily get this. Looking at the way how the convicts escape the law, too, we can see how how people benefited from the nation’s policies.

The order of orders
  • Chief of builders
  • Workmen
  • Mason
  • Architect
  • The king blamed for the amendments in the plan
  • The Arch
  • Any man who fits the height of the noose
  • The king was finally killed.
1. The King order his workmen to construct an Arch!

In the city of which I sing
There was a just and placid King.
The King proclaimed an arch should be
Constructed, that triumphally
Would span the major thoroughfare
To edify spectators there.

  • The poet tells a very interesting story through this poem. The story is about a nation, its people and its peace-loving king. The king had the habit of edifying or meeting his subjects from the thoroughfare/entrance.
  • One day the king ordered his workforce to construct an arch over the thoroughfare. Good idea, it is very hot at times!
  • Of which I sing – About which I am writing this poem
  • Just – Fair
  • Placid – Not easily disturbed; composed
  • Proclaimed – Announced
  • Arch – A curved, symmetrical structure above a tower or under a bridge, etc.
  • Triumphantly – Proudly
  • Span – Extend from side to side
  • Thoroughfare – The main road to the main entrance of the fort/palace
  • Edify – Instruct (The king used to instruct his people)
  • Spectators – Visitors; audience
  1. How does the poet describe the king’s character?
    The poet describes the king’s character as one quite calm and composed. He ruled his people without any kind of unfair or unjust tactics. He wanted justice equally done to everyone including himself. Besides, like a good father to his sons, the king used to instruct his people.
  2. What for did the king proclaim the construction of an arch?
    The King proclaimed the construction of an arch that would proudly span the major thoroughfare from where the king used to instruct his people.

The workmen went and built the thing.
They did so since he was the King.
The King rode down the thoroughfare
To edify spectators there.
Under the arch he lost his crown.

  • It was the king’s order so very soon the arch was built.
  • The next time when the king rode on horseback or on a chariot, his crown banged the side of the arch and fell from his head. Sheer shame!
  1. What ‘thing’ did the workmen make?
    The workmen made the arch that would span the thoroughfare where the king came to edify the spectators.
  2. They did so since he was the King. What does it tell about the difference between the king and his workmen?
    This statement tells that the workmen were far more sensible than the king himself. They constructed the arch only because the king had ordered to do so.
  3. What misadventure happened as the king rode to the arch?
    The king’s crown fell from his head as it touched the arch.

The arch was built too low. A frown
Appeared upon his placid face.
The King said, ‘This is a disgrace.
The chief of builders will be hanged.’
The rope and gallows were arranged.

  • The ‘peace-loving’ king lost his peace in an instant and ordered to hang the chief of the builders.

The chief of builders was led out.
He passed the King. He gave a shout,
‘O King, it was the workmen’s fault’
‘Oh!’ said the King, and called a halt
To the proceedings. Being just
(And placider now) he said, ‘I must
Have all the workmen hanged instead.’

  • When the rope and gallows were arranged and the culprit was led to the gallows, the innocent chief of the builders cried out that he was not responsible for the instance. He placed the blame upon the workmen.
  • The king was very ‘wise,’ too, so he asked to halt the hanging and ordered to hang the workmen – how many, may be ten or twenty – instead. See, the king was a peace-lover!

The workmen looked surprised, and said,
‘O King, you do not realise
The bricks were made of the wrong size.’
‘Summon the masons!’ said the King.
The masons stood there quivering.
‘It was the architect…’, they said,
The architect was summoned.

  • The workmen were brought to the gallows to be hanged.
  • The crowd watched the proceedings. When they were under the gallows, the workmen cried out that the fault was not theirs! They blamed the masons who made the wrong bricks.
  • Again the king had to halt and decide. When the mason was brought to the gallows, he put the blame on the architect who made the plans. Well, the mason escaped and the architect was called to the gallows.

‘Well, architect,’ said His Majesty.
‘I do ordain that you shall be
Hanged.’ Said the architect, ‘O King,
You have forgotten one small thing.

You made certain amendments to
The plans when I showed them to you.’

  • The architect was smarter than the rest of him.
  • He was so bold that he blamed the king for having made a little changes in the plan that he drew for the arch.
  • Everyone turned to the king!!!

The King heard this. The King saw red.
In fact he nearly lost his head;
But being a just and placid King
He said, ‘This is a tricky thing.
I need some counsel. Bring to me
The wisest man in this country.’

  • The king saw that he had brought him into chaos.
  • Being wise, he ordered his men to bring the wisest man to advise him.
  • Quite strangely, the people of this country believed that very old people are old – no matter he is sensible or mad!

The wisest man was found and brought,
Nay, carried, to the Royal Court.
He could not walk and could not see,
So old (and therefore wise) was he —
But in a quavering voice he said,
‘The culprit must be punished.

Truly, the arch it was that banged
The crown off, and it must be hanged’.

  • The wise man judged that the king was not guilty, but the arch. Having knocked the king’s crown, the arch was to be hanged now.
  • Well, a wise man is to be respected. The king, having made a narrow escape, ordered the arch be hanged.

To the scaffold the arch was led
When suddenly a Councillor said —
‘How can we hang so shamefully
What touched your head, Your Majesty?’

‘True,’ mused the King. By now the crowd,
Restless, was muttering aloud.

  • While being carried to the gallows, the arch didn’t cry out for help, but someone else remarked it was unjust.
  • How can you hang an arch that touched the king’s crown! The crowd listened.

The King perceived their mood and trembled
And said to all who were assembled —
‘Let us postpone consideration
Of finer points like guilt. The nation
Wants a hanging. Hanged must be
Someone, and that immediately.’

  • The king saw all eyes turning to him once again for it was his turn again and this time it would fix him forever.

The noose was set up somewhat high.
Each man was measured by and by.

But only one man was so tall
He fitted. One man. That was all.

He was the King. His Majesty
Was therefore hanged by Royal Decree.

  • An idea struck the king’s brain and it was soon decided that anyone whose height matches that of the noose – noose is the rope that hangs the culprit.
  • Everyone was brought to the gallows, his height was checked with the noose but none so accurately fitted as the one whose turn was the final one and the unfortunate one was, again, the king!
  • The king was hanged. Long live the king!

‘Thank Goodness we found someone,’ said
The Ministers, ‘for if instead

We had not, the unruly town
Might well have turned against the Crown.’

‘Long live the King!’ the Ministers said.
‘Long live the King! The King is dead.’

  • The ministers heaved a sigh of relief after hanging the king but a new crisis was encountered – who will be the next king?

They pondered the dilemma; then,
Being practical-minded men,

Sent out the heralds to proclaim
(In His [former] Majesty’s name):

‘The next to pass the City Gate
Will choose the ruler of our state,

As is our custom. This will be
Enforced with due ceremony.’

  • Ministers and counselors came to this decision – the next man who passed the city gate will choose the king.

A man passed by the City Gate.
An idiot. The guards cried, ‘Wait!

Who is to be the King? Decide!’
‘A melon,’ the idiot replied.

This was his standard answer to
All questions. (He liked melons.) ‘You

Are now our King,’ the Ministers said,
Crowning a melon. Then they led

(Carried) the Melon to the throne
And reverently set it down.

  • And there came that man, an idiot. The guards stopped him and asked whom he chose the next king and his reply was – a melon!
  • We don’t know why he replied so yet this changed the history of the country. A melon was soon brought to the throne and was declared king.

This happened years and years ago.
When now you ask the people, ‘So —
Your King appears to be a melon.
How did this happen?’, they say, ‘Well, on
Account of customary choice.
If His Majesty rejoice
In being a melon, that’s OK
With us, for who are we to say
What he should be as long as he
Leaves us in Peace and Liberty?’

The principles of laissez faire
Seem to be well-established there

General Questions
  1. Do you think that the king was indeed a placid king? Support your answer with evidences from the poem.
    No, the king was not a placid king. In fact he was a furious, short-tempered and cruel king. It is very evident from his sentencing his workers for a very insignificant fault on their side. Not only that he was arrogant, he was too thoughtless and reckless.
  2. The poem is a satire. What is a satire? What does the poem satirize?
    A satire is a poem or story that uses humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices. The target people are usually rulers, politicians, religious leaders, etc.
  3. How did the king nearly lose his head?
  4. How did the king temporarily escape death?
  5. Why was the wise man carried to the king?
  6. Why was the arch sentenced to hanging?
  7. How did justice finally hang the king?
  8. How did the melon become the king?
  9. How did the melon king’s reign turn out to be a better one than the previous king’s?

What do you think?

Oh, I wish I had looked after my Teeth – Pam Ayres

Keeping Quiet – Pablo Neruda