The Tale of Melon City by Vikram Seth

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 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.
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 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.’
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.

‘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 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 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’.

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.

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 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

‘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.’

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.’

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.

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.

Introduction

‘The Tale of Melon City’ is a humorous poem. It makes fun of a crazy King who claimed to be just and peace loving. The poem highlights the funny pitfalls of the whole system of governance in a state where custom gets top priority, the ruler is a despot and the ignorant people are docile. Such a country is ruled by a brainless melon King. The people take no interest in who their ruler is as long as they are allowed to live in peace.

Summary

A King ruled over a city. He was a just King and was always cool. He ordered that a triumphal arch should be built across the major thorough fare of his Kingdom. The workmen built the arch as desired by the King.

But, when the King rode through that arch his crown hit against it and was knocked down. At once a frown appeared on the calm face of the King. He felt disgraced.

He ordered the chief of the builders to be hanged. The rope and the gallows were arranged for the hanging. But when the chief of the builders was being led there, he cried out as he passed by the King, “O King! it was the workmen’s fault. The workmen said in self-defence that the bricks were defective, not identical in size. The King then sent for the masons who trembled with fear. They shifted the blame to the architect.

The King ordered the architect to be hanged. The architect then reminded the King that he himself had seen and approved the plan. Now, the King himself was cornered. He stood confused.

He sought the advice of the wisest man in the state. The wisest man was too old to see or walk. His voice was broken. He suggested that the arch itself being the real culprit, must be hanged. The arch had dared to hit the Crown of the King’s head. The arch was taken to the gallows. Just then a councillor submitted that the arch had just touched the head of his majesty respectfully, so it would be shameful to hang a thing that had touched the King’s head. By then the crowd had become restless. They had started grumbling because they had gathered there to see the hanging. On seeing the mood of the crowd the King trembled in fear. He said that the finer points related to guilt could be postponed but someone had to be hanged immediately.

So, the noose was set up a little high. Each man was measured one after the other. There was only one man that was tall enough to fit the noose. And that was the King himself. Therefore the King was hanged by his own orders.

The ministers now faced another problem that the state must have a king urgently. The messengers heralded the royal proclamation, “The next person to pass the city gate will choose the rural of the state”. An idiot passed by the gate. The guards stopped him and asked who was to be the King of the state. The idiot replied “A melon” because it was his standard answer to all the questions. He liked melons so much. The ministers agreed to crown the melon. They set it down on the throne.

This happened many years ago. Now, if anyone asks those people how they came to have a melon as their king. They say that it was the king’s own choice what he wanted to be and they had nothing to do with it as long as their own peace and liberty were disturbed. Thus, the principles of Laissez faire (non-interference with individual freedom) were well established in that state.

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