Introduction

The Tale of Melon City is a long satirical poem written by Vikram Seth about a city full of fools. In the poem, everybody including the king, the ministers, the wise, and the common men are fools. The poet uses various puns to indirectly reveal their foolishness and lack of wisdom.

In this poem, a king whom the poet sarcastically calls just and placid (peaceful), orders to construct an arch over the main street to impress the passerby. The order was executed and an arch was made. However, when the king passed through it, his crown fell as the arch was small for him to pass comfortably.

The so-called just and peace-loving king loses his patience and orders the execution of builders. The builders, in order to save their lives, put blame on workers who further put blame on mesons (for providing wrong sized bricks), the mesons put the blame of architect who finally puts blame on king (as he made some changes to the design.

The king, unable to reach any conclusion calls for wise men of his country. They suggested that the king is innocent while the arch itself is the culprit and recommend its execution! While the arch was taken for hanging, someone from the crowd said that the arch cannot be hanged as it touched the head of the king.

Hence, the king came up with the conclusion that the one whose height matches that of a noose (rope used for hanging), should be executed. Unfortunately, one king fits in the noose and is executed.

Now that, the king is dead, people are worried about who the next king should be. The wise men decide that the first person to cross the city gate will decide the new king. Soon an idiot passes through the gate. The guards ask him who the next king should be. He replies, “Melon” because he loves melons. This way, the melon is made the king.

This poem is long yet easy. So we will try to summarise each part. Though the poem consists of 50+ couplets, I have divided them into ten parts to get the idea easily.

Lines 1-10

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.

The poet says that he is going to talk about a justice-loving and peace-loving king who ordered to build an arch (a curved structure) that would cover a part of the road so as to impress the spectator (those who pass through). The workers built the arch. But when the king rode through the arch (in order to impress the people there, something happened.

Lines 11-20

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

According to the poet, the arch was a little bit short which made the crown of the king fall down. The face of the king grows red and orders that the chief of builders should be hanged for his mistake. Note that the king was described as just and placid in the beginning. However, it was sarcastic because the king becomes angry at such a petty matter.

The rope and gallows are arranged for hanging him and the chief is taken to that place. However, he pleads to the king that it was rather the mistake of workers. The hanging is stopped.

Lines 21-30

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.

Hearing the chief of builders, the king orders the hanging of workers instead. However the workers look surprised over the decision and tell the king that it was the mistake of masons as they made the bricks of wrong size.

The masons are summoned for hanging. However, the masons tell the king that it was the mistake of the architect. Now the architect is summoned.

Lines 31-40

‘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.

The king tells the architect that he is going to hang him (the architect) for his grave mistake. At this, the architect says that the king himself made changes to the plans made by the architect. The king grows red with anger but is unable to reach a conclusion. He sighs saying that it is a tricky situation.

Lines 41-50

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’.

The king summons the wisest man of his country. The orders are followed and the wisest man who can neither walk nor see is taken to the Royal Court. He is old and shivering. He says that it was the mistake of the arch so the arch should be hanged.

Lines 51-60

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

The king agrees and the arch is taken for hanging. But soon, a counselor says that this arch has touched the head of the king so it cannot be hanged. The king agrees. At this the crowd becomes eager. The king, seeing the mood of the public announces that the matter should be postponed.

Lines 61-70

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

However, now that the crowd wants to hang someone, the king has to reach a conclusion. The noose (the rope for hanging) is set up in height. Every man is taken to the noose but no one’s height matches it except the king. Thus the king is hanged. The public finally feels relieved as someone is finally hung.

Lines 71-80

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,

The crowd says that it would be a bad omen if the hanging had not been done. They praise the king (who is no more). Now, they have to choose their new king. So, it is decided that the one who will pass through the City Gate first will choose the ruler of their country.

Lines 81-90

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

This is their custom to choose the king and hence it is decided that the new king will be chosen the same way will full ceremony. Soon, an idiot passes by the City Gate. The guards ask him who their new king should be. He answers, “Melon” because he loves melon. The ministers agree.

Lines 91-104

(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.

So, a melon is made the king. It is taken to the throne and crowned. According to the poet, it happened many years ago. Now the people often ask how a melon can become a king. The poet answers them that it was their customary choice.

If the throne wants a melon to become a king then only a melon would become king as long as he lets the people live in peace and liberty.

The poet further says that the principles of laissez-faire (minimal interference of government) were well established in Melon City.

Further Reading

  1. Play Quiz on the Poem A Tale of Melon City
  2. Questions-Answers of A Tale of Melon City