Vikram Seth

The Tale of Melon City by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth’s famous work, ‘The Tale of Melon City,’ is well-known for being a humorous and almost child-like poem in the uniquely ridiculous nature of its story.

Vikram Seth’s famous work, ‘The Tale of Melon City,’ is well-known for being a humorous and almost child-like poem in the uniquely ridiculous nature of its story. The poem follows the story of its “just and placid king” who tries to be a model for an extremely literal form of justice and largely succeeds, in a most unusual way. The ideas that serve as the driving force of the piece, however, are much more significant, and as an analysis into topics such as governance, laissez-faire, and justice, ‘The Tale of Melon City’ works very nicely as a piece that can be both amusing, and somewhat thought-provoking in its own unique way.


The Tale of Melon City Analysis

Introduction and Background (Stanzas 1-4)

In the city of which I sing
There was a just and placid King.


The workmen went and built the thing.
They did so since he was the King.

The structure of ‘The Tale of Melon City,’ which you can read in full here, is well-designed to match the intended tone of the story. Each verse is set up as a couplet, with each line being eight syllables long and rhyming with the previous line. At face value, the rhythm of the story is easy enough to follow; there is a king who is described as being calm and just, who wants to build an archway over the major road into the city so that those who see it will be impressed and bettered for having seen the archway. The way these facts are presented at face value gives the story its first tinge of an unusual tone — one question a reader might raise immediately might have to do with wondering what exactly is so impressive about an archway over the road. Archways are splendid structures, but “edify” is simply too strong a word to describe what happens when a person looks at an arch.  Fortunately, it becomes clear quickly that this is Vikram Seth’s intention.

The next point of interest appears in the fourth couplet, where Seth mentions, very specifically, that the workmen are building the arch because their king told them to. There is no mention of salary or compensation in any form — the workers are simply following the directives of their monarch. The eight syllables in this particular couplet also stand out, because it contains the first line in ‘The Tale of Melon City’ for which each word is exactly one syllable long, which means it uses eight words to say a very simple thing: “they obeyed the King.” It sounds strange when read aloud, and aids to the mild air of ridiculousness that ‘The Tale of Melon City’ is rapidly picking up.


An Unusual Crime (Stanzas 5-8)

The King rode down the thoroughfare
To edify spectators there.


The chief of builders will be hanged.’
The rope and gallows were arranged.

The story continues and sees the King attempting to impress and inspire his subjects by riding through the archway, adding the impressiveness of the monarchy to its already apparently inspiring construction. Impressiveness and edification aren’t quite what the King gets, however, as the center of the arch is not high enough that his crown, placed upon his head as he rides, isn’t knocked off of his head. Once again, the verses point out to the reader that the King is a placid individual, right before he decides that the logical thing to do is to execute the chief builder in charge of the project. This is a clear oxymoron, and a fairly absurd scenario — execution for a building mishap? It has already been pointed out, however, that the workers of this world are interested in the directives of the monarch above other pursuits, so the execution is arranged anyway.

In the sixth couplet, the unusual structure of ‘The Tale of Melon City’ manifests itself in the form of a sentence that ends mid-line and picks up exactly there: “The arch was build too low. A frown / Appeared upon his placid face.” The structure of the verses means that the couplet lines always end on the eighth syllable, which has to rhyme with the sound from eight syllables ago. Up until this point, each line has ended either with a period, or with no punctuation at all, so each line has had exactly the same length naturally. That is not the case here, where the reader has to essentially ignore the period to keep the flow of ‘The Tale of Melon City,’ which forcefully increases its pace. It seems like a fairly minor point to focus on, but forcing this pace is in fact a very clever way for Seth to maintain the whimsical nature of the work, even as the story itself takes a rather ridiculous turn anyway.


Assigning Guilt (Stanzas 9-18)

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


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.’

Across the next ten verses, the reader gets a better sense of exactly how this just and placid ruler makes the decisions that govern his world. When he summons the chief builder to be hanged, the builder points out that it was actually the workmen who constructed the arch, while he was merely their overseer; if it’s anyone’s fault, he argues, it’s the fault of the people who physically formed the arch to curve too low. Immediately, the King stops the execution and realizes that what he actually needs to do is to execute each of the workers who had a direct hand in the incorrectly-sized structure. The workers, of course, don’t want to be killed either, so they suggest that were the bricks they were using the correct size, the arch would have been perfect. It isn’t difficult to guess what the King does next.

The blame game continues, passing from the stonemasons to the architect before the architect points out that the King himself had a hand in adjusting the plans for the structure, which has some fairly unpleasant implications for this man who seems to just hang whomever he is told to.

If we strip away the absurd nature of this particular scenario, we have a ruler who has decreed that a crime has been committed, and the most reasonable punishment for the criminal is execution. What is happening here is essentially a trial, where a justice of the law is hearing testimonies from suspects and attempting to assign guilt accordingly. The question Vikram Seth seems to be posing, then, has to do with the nature of justice and the proper assignment of blame. After all, the chief builder led the project, and his workers physically committed the crime, using tools they bought from a stonemason and the designs they purchased from an architect. Everyone contributed somewhat to the crime, but everyone can claim that their own contributions are tiny and that someone else should take the blame. So what does the King do? Hang everyone? Hang no one? Assign a lesser punishment? Beneath the ridiculous story is a thematic question that Seth subtly proposes to his readers.


“Wisdom” (Stanzas 19-25)

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.


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 here is described as being placid and just, but is portrayed as being a fairly inefficient ruler. When he assigns blame wherever others suggest it should go, he has no real protection when the architect points the blame at him. After all, he decided the chief builder was to blame in the first place and agreed with each progression from there; he can hardly change his mind now. As such, he is, in theory, the final guilty party in the list, the one who cannot escape blame as the others have. Instead, he proposes that there are men wiser than he is in his country, and wishes to consult one of them instead. To continue the analogy of the trial from earlier, the King has essentially appealed to a higher court of law. More than that, however, the King is now proposing to share his rule with someone else because the case is too complicated for his own judgment. Seth is clearly not trying to create a relatable or appealing monarch here — because if the King cannot judge all crimes, what exactly does he do for his people?

Vikram Seth wastes very few words in his tale; after all, each verse has to be written in a precise length or way, and eight syllables are not many. He clearly intends for the reader to be questioning a great deal about his tale, as it reaches its most absurd plot developments yet: first, that the wisest man in the country is named so because he is the oldest man in the country; and second, that his solution to the dilemma is to hang the arch itself, an inanimate object built by the various builders questioned earlier. The culprit cannot be the archway, and even if it was, the archway cannot be killed. The old man notably speaks in a quivering voice, without confidence, and is clearly not a wise councilor; Seth appears to be inviting the reader to muse on the relationships between age and wisdom, and more than that what constitutes wisdom at all — what would a wise person decree for such a case? Likely it would be to not hang people for constructing a shorter-than-needed structure.


Can’t Hang a Scaffold (Stanzas 26-28)

To the scaffold the arch was led
When suddenly a Councillor said —


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

Now that the King’s councilors (who apparently were not wise enough to intervene earlier) have questioned the necessity of hanging the arch, The Take of Melon City can embrace its first logical plot point: people who are following these events are getting really tired of them. The entire story up until this point has been a series of stalls and postponements, and it is likely that the King’s people are beginning to seriously question his effectiveness as a ruler, as he cannot pronounce guilt nor sentence on what is surely the most simple crime imaginable. By making the common people under the King’s rule a logical-minded group, and keeping the King and his advisors in a state of idiocy, Seth invites the reader to question the necessity and effectiveness of a monarchy as a system of rule. It makes sense to think of ‘The Tale of Melon City’ as being a political commentary in some form, and here is an early indication that it likely is so — the people are beginning to question their ruler, who has decided that because the arch touched his head, it should be immune from retaliation.


Guilt At Last (Stanzas 27-37)

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


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

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

As likely seemed inevitable, the King is finally deposed. Possibly less inevitable-seeming is the way he was deposed. The King realizes that the crowd wants him to make good on his word and hang a culprit, so he orders the hanging of someone, anyone, immediately. Unfortunately for him, by the very virtue that started all of this — his height — he is the only person who fits the criteria for hanging, because only he can fit in the gallows. By weight of his own desperate decree, the King is executed. Vikram Seth uses a distinctly passive voice for the couplet describing the event, never actually assigning blame for the regicide — but of course, assigning blame is what this government does least effectively of all, so the identity of the executioner is hardly an important point. That shortly before his death, the King decides that guilt isn’t really that important a thing to establish is just one more thing to add to the list of things that makes this King a terribly ineffective ruler and concludes Seth’s unhappy portrayal of the monarchy.

With the King dead, his ministers and councilors rejoice, because of their concern that if they had not hanged someone soon, something bad might have happened to the monarchy. The sheer absurdity of their comments stands out strongly, even in this poem — something very bad did happen to the monarchy. In attempting to avoid potential problems, the ministers have created a scenario that is nearly as bad, and call it a blessing. This could be Vikram Seth’s own criticism of ineffectual problem-solving by governments or monarchies in particular, and his extremely simple sample problem makes this a fairly logical conclusion to draw.


A Melon City (Stanzas 38-50)

‘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.’


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.

If the hanging of the King is Seth’s attempt to criticize governmental problem managing, then the following verses are likely a critique of solutions. The next person to enter the city may choose anyone they’d like to rule, now that the royal line has ended. This is described as a “practical” decision, but it should be fairly easy to see how it’s a terrible idea and little more than a band-aid fix. To the ministers of the Crown, having a King is what’s important, and the person’s effectiveness in the role isn’t even an afterthought.

Sure enough, the next person to pass through the city gate can only be described as “an idiot,” and this particular idiot “likes melons.” So when he is asked who the next king of the country should be, he replies, “a melon.” And so, a melon is crowned, and the title of the poem, ‘The Tale of Melon City suddenly makes sense. In the fifth of the above verses appears the word “carried” in brackets, a correction to the idea that a melon could be led anywhere. It is as though the narration is attempting to be reverent and adhere to the due ceremony, but can’t because what it’s suggesting simply isn’t true, because this is an unprecedented absurdity in the soon-to-be-called Melon City.

Perhaps at this point, the reader is hoping for the practical and logical people of the kingdom to be confused and appalled at the notion that their new ruler is a melon, but instead, they are perfectly happy with the decision. If asked about it, they will simply reply that what the King does or wants to be is of no difference to them; their life goes on, the same as it always has, whether the king is a melon or a man. They appreciate the style of government that is built on non-interference (and are perfectly happy not to interfere themselves), and as long as they have their freedoms and their peace, it really is all the same to them.

This is a surprisingly logical conclusion to such an absurd story, and it seems that if Vikram Seth is trying to make one point in all of this, it would be that he doesn’t see the people around him as caring so much about who governs their world, so long as their world can go on. Having a melon for a leader is the same thing as having no leader at all, but the message that ‘The Tale of Melon City’ seems to be trying to convey is that this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Despite having a very whimsical and essentially nonsensical tone, ‘The Tale of Melon City’ is Vikram Seth’s way of taking a serious topic and making it into a more amusing means of discussing that topic. Seth’s political musings here could be interpreted in a number of different ways, but his general disdain for the concept of monarchy, if nothing else, is clear, along with his relative praise of the common person. While the tale of a melon monarch may not seem like the most relatable tale in the world, its themes and core ideas are certain to resonate with a great many people — which, considering the absurd nature of the story itself, is very high praise for Vikram Seth’s skill as a poet.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.
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