The Tale of the Melon City
By Vikram Seth
About the Author
Vikram Seth is an Indian novelist and poet. He has written several novels and poetry books. He has received several awards including Padma Shri, Sahitya Akademi Award, Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, WH Smith Literary Award and Crossword Book Award.
Vikram Seth was born on 20 June, 1952 in Kolkata, West Bengal. His father, Premnath Seth, was an executive of Bata Shoes and his mother, Leila Seth, a barrister by training, became the first female Chief Justice of Delhi High Court.
He studied at St. Michael’s High School, Patna and at the The Doon School in Dehradun. He also studied at St. Xavier’s High School, Patna. Later he moved to London and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He then pursued a Ph.D. in Economics at Stanford University. After graduating from Doon, Seth went to Ton bridge School, England to complete his A-levels.
Having lived in London for many years, Seth now maintains residences near Salisbury, England, where he is a participant in local literary and cultural events, having bought and renovated the house of the Anglican poet George Herbert in 1996, and in Jaipur, India.
Vikram Seth has published six books of poetry and three novels. In 1986, Vikram Seth wrote The Golden Gate, his first major work. The publication of A Suitable Boy, a 1,349-page novel, propelled Seth into the public limelight and won the WH Smith Literary Award in 1993. An Equal Music, published in 1999, deals with the troubled love life of a violinist. He was awarded the commander of the order 3 of the British Empire CBE on February 2001.
In 2006, he became a leader of the campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a law against homosexuality. His mother has written about Seth’s sexuality and her coming to terms with it in her memoir.
The tale is humorous even though it is unrealistic and unbelievable. It ridicules the king, the ministers, the wise men and the common people. All of them behave foolishly. No one of them applies his brain. The tone of the poem is satirical.
It is a humorous poem which shows how stupid the king, the ministers and the people of a certain kingdom were. It was, in fact, a kingdom of fools. Once the king ordered the construction of an arch over the main street to impress the onlookers. The arch was made. When the king rode down the thoroughfare, his crown was knocked down. The king at once ordered that the chief of builders should be hanged. While being led to the gallows the victim shouted that the fault lay with the workmen. The king called the proceedings to a halt and ordered that the workmen should be hanged instead. The workmen blamed the masons who in turn blamed the architect. The architect pointed out that it was the king himself who had made certain amendments in the plans. This put the king in a tricky spot and he called for advice from the wisest man. The old man said the culprit was the arch as it had knocked off the king’s crown, so it must be punished. The Councillor expressed his view that something which had touched the king’s head could not be put to so much disgrace. So ultimately the king set aside consideration of guilt and looked for a man who would fit the high noose. The only one tall enough was the king who finally was hanged. It was just as well that this happened as the public might have rebelled against him. The ministers then announced that the person who passed the City Gate next would choose the ruler. An idiot was questioned and he replied that a melon should be the king. Thus the melon was crowned and carried to the throne. People did not bother much about who or what their king was. They only wanted that they should be left to do whatever they desired.
Summary in Points
1. Once there was a king who was just and cool headed.
2. One day the king ordered to construct an arch over the main highway.
3. Soon the arch was built. The next time when the king rode through it, his crown banged the side of the arch and fell from his head.
The ‘peace-loving’ king lost his peace in an instant and ordered to hang the chief of the builders.
4. 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 guilty and placed the blame upon the workmen.
5. The king was very wise, too, so he asked to halt the hanging and ordered to hang the workmen.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. The king saw that he had brought him into chaos. Being wise, he ordered his men to bring the wisest man to advise him. They found a man who was so old that he could neither walk nor see. They thought he was the wisest and carried him to the king.
10. The wise man opinioned that the king was not guilty, but the arch. Having knocked the king’s crown, the arch was to be hanged now.
11. Well, a wise man is to be respected. The king, having made a narrow escape, ordered the arch be hanged.
12. 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.
13. The king saw all eyes turning to him once again for it was his turn again and this time it would fix him forever.
14. 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),would be hanged. 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. The ministers were thankful that someone at last had been found to be hanged. They shouted, “Long live the king! The king is dead”.
15. The ministers heaved a sigh of relief after hanging the king but a new crisis was encountered – who will be the next king?
16. Ministers and councillors came to this decision – the next man who passed the city gate will choose the king 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, because it was his standard answer to all questions. He liked melons so much.
17. A melon was soon brought to the throne and was declared king.
Short Answer Type Questions
Q1. What did the king order to be built? What happened when it was built?
Ans. The king ordered to build an arch across the major thoroughfare of the city as a symbol of triumph—a kind of victory monument. The workmen built it but it was too low. When the king rode under it, his crown struck against it and fell down.
Q2. Why did the King order the chief of builders to be hanged?
Ans. One day the King was riding down the thoroughfare. The arch was so low that it struck against the crown. The crown fell off. The King was angry at this disgrace. He held the chief of builders responsible for this and ordered him to be hanged?
Q3. What did the chief builder say when the king ordered him to be hanged?
Ans. The chief builder said that it was not his fault that the arch had been made low. He said it was the fault of the workmen.
Q4. What did the workmen say in their defence when the king ordered them to be hanged?
Ans. The workmen said that the bricks had been made of the wrong size. Thus it was the fault of the masons and it was they who should be hanged.
Q5. How did the masons save themselves from being hanged?
Ans. They put the blame on the architect and thus saved themselves from being hanged.
Q6. How did the architect plead his case before the king?
Ans. The architect said that the king himself had made some changes in the planning of the arch. Thus it was not his fault that the arch was low.
Q7. What was the King’s reaction when the architect blamed him for the incident?
Ans. When the architect blamed the King for the incident he was confused and nearly lost control over himself. However, being a just and placid King, he said that it was an intricate matter and he need someone’s advice. He ordered to bring to him the wisest man in the country.
Q8. What suggestion did the wise man give to the king?
Ans. At the King’s command the wisest man was found and brought, rather carried, to the Royal Court. In fact, he was so old that he could neither walk nor see. He said that the culprit must be punished. He held the arch responsible for hitting the crown violently and causing it fall. So, according to him, the arch was the real culprit.
Q9. How did the arch escape punishment?
Ans. As advised by the wisest man, the arch was held responsible for hitting the crown and led to the scaffold. Suddenly a councillor said that it would be a shameful act to hang the arch that touched His Majesty’s head. The king thought it was true and spared the arch.
Q10. Describe the circumstances which led to the hanging of His Majesty?
Ans. The crowd was getting restless as the hanging was being delayed. Sensing their mood, the king said that someone must be hanged immediately, as the nation wanted it. A noose was set up. It was somewhat high. Each man was measured turn by turn. There was only one man who was tall enough to fit in the noose, and it was the King. So His Majesty was hanged.
Q11. What was the problem confronted by the Ministers? How did they solve it?
Ans. After hanging of His Majesty the Ministers were confronted with the problem of finding a ruler for their state. To solve this problem they followed their old custom. The heralds were sent out to proclaim that the next person who passes the City Gate would choose the ruler of their state.
Q12. How was a melon crowned as the king of the country?
Ans. The ministers decided that the first man to pass the city gate would choose the ruler of the state. This man happened to be an idiot. When he was asked, he said, “A melon.” Thus a melon was crowned as the king of the country.
Q13. What are the principles of ‘Laissez- faire’?
Ans. ‘Laissez-faire is French for leave alone. It also means the doctrine of avoiding government interference in business. So these principles worked well in the melon city “when a melon’ was made the king and that did not interfere the lives of his subjects. They were happy till the king let them live in peace and liberty.
Q14. What is the significance of phrase just and placid used for the king?
Ans. The phrase ‘just and placid’ is significant because the king in the course of the story turns out to be the opposite of this phrase which means who does justice and can’t be easily excited but the king is quite opposite, whimsical and easily influenced. His exaggerated sense of justice caused even his own death. He used to lose his temper even over a small incident. He was too good to be of any use.
Q15. How according to you, can peace and liberty be maintained in a state?
Ans. It is the duty of the rulers to maintain peace and liberty in the state. There should be rule of the law. Everybody should be equal before the law. The rulers should be wise and just. There should be no exploitation of one class by the other.
Q16. Give examples of humour and irony from the poem ‘The Tale of Melon City’.
Ans. The king takes the bumping off his crown by the arch as a disgrace and summons the builder to be hanged. They go on accusing one another which results in the hanging of the king himself. An idiot chooses the next king. He names a Melon. The crowning of a Melon with respect and ceremony sounds quite humorous and ironical. The irony is that the people care little if they were ruled by a foolish man or a Melon.
Q17. What message does it convey?
Ans. Vikram Seth gives a message that how by thoughtless action people choose irresponsible government and the whole kingdom would turn into a farce. People need to be wise and careful in choosing their governments which in turn should be responsible and transparent to the people.
Long Answer Type Questions
Q1. Describe the circumstances leading to the hanging of the king.
Ans. The king found himself in a difficult situation after hearing the architect’s argument. He said that it was an intricate matter and he needed someone’s advice. He ordered to bring to him the wisest man in the country. The wisest man was found and brought to the Royal Court. He said that the arch was the real culprit. It impudently hit the crown which fell off. So the arch must be hanged. Suddenly a councillor said that it would be a very shameful act to hang the arch that touched His Majesty’s head. It seemed true to the king. He was at a loss what to do. Meanwhile, he saw the crowd was getting restless and they wanted a hanging. So he declared that someone must be hanged. The noose was set up. It was somewhat high. Each man was measured turn by turn. But there was only one man who was tall enough to fit in the noose, and it was the king. His Majesty was, therefore, hanged by Royal Decree.
Q2. How does a melon become the ruler of the State?
Ans. After the hanging of the King, the Ministers are confronted with the problem of choosing the ruler of the state. They follow their old custom. They send out the heralds to proclaim that the next to pass the City Gate will choose the king. An idiot happens to pass the City Gate. The guards stop him and ask him to decide who should be the king. The idiot replies, “A melon”. Actually that is his pet answer to all questions since he likes melons. The Ministers crown a melon and place their Melon king reverently at the throne. So the melon becomes the ruler of the State. The people are quite happy with their Melon king because he does not interefere in their affairs.
Q3. Suggest a few instances in the poem which highlight humour and irony.
Ans. The poem is full of humour and irony from the beginning to the end. There is a king who has a triumphal arch built on the major road of his city. But the same triumphal arch bangs his crown off. The king wants to punish the guilty but in the end gets himself hanged. The king is dead but the ministers make proclamations in the name of the king. All these are examples of irony. And there is humour in the description of each character. The king, the ministers, the wisest man of the city, the councillor and ‘melon idiot’ are all fools. In fact, it is a kingdom of fools. Nothing could be more humorous than a melon being crowned and carried to the throne reverently.
Q4. What impression do you gather of a state where the king was just and placid?
Ans. It was a kingdom of fools. No one in the state had any sense. The king wanted to hang someone because his crown had hit against the arch and fallen down. The king wanted to consult a wise man. The ministers brought a man to the king. He said that the real; culprit was the arch and must be hanged. The king allows himself to be hanged because no other man is tall enough to fit the noose. The king is dead but the ministers make declarations in the name of the king. An idiot says that a melon should be the ruler of the state. The ministers crown a melon and set it down on the throne. Thus we see that it was truly a kingdom of all fools.