By Vinayak Dewan
Title: The Town that Laughed
Author: Manu Bhattathiri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 262 (Hardcover)
Manu Bhattathiri’s latest novel leisurely reveals deep insights into the human mind through its dysfunctional army of sleepily adorable characters.
The cover page of Manu Bhattathiri’s The Town that Laughed depicts the novel’s protagonist-antagonist duo: Yemaan Paachu, a retired former local police chief; Joby, the town drunk that Paachu takes on the job of reforming. Standing true to its promise of being a twenty-first century novel, it does not betray which is antagonist and which protagonist — a complexity that extends to many of the sleepy town’s residents. Instead, they are simultaneously comical and troubled, happy and sad, silly and incredibly intelligent.
The Town that Laughed evokes nostalgia for Malgudi, the titular setting of Malgudi Days (1943), a collection of short stories by Padma Vibhushan winning novelist R. K. Narayan. India has come a long way since 1943, and has, in the process, concocted its own multiple Englishes. As a postcolonial novel, The Town takes a big leap from Malgudi that hesitated to speak English, often italicizing, parenthesizing or poorly translating many aspects of Indian rural life for the western audience — diluting idlis to rice cakes, for instance. The Town, on the other hand, finds an audience situated closer to home and more adept at understanding the novel’s cultural milieu. Dialogues in the vernacular often find no translation or explanation in English. This might sometimes alienate a non-Malayali speaking reader such as me but allows the writer to write his story with confidence.
Provided by a robust toolkit, the omnipresent narrator is kind and funny and honest: ‘… you must be completely honest if you are seeking to give the reader a true picture.’ Bhattathiri is seamlessly able to don the skin of the novel’s diverse characters, revealing insights into their psyche with a heart winning tenderness. A case in point is the aunt-niece duo Sharada and Priya, Yemaan Paachu’s wife and niece respectively.
Sharada is deeply empathetic of her husband, Paachu, whose fragile masculinity often blinds his judgement — a flaw that the narrative voice often tries to pass off as harmless. Sharada, meanwhile, is left with the dirty job of correcting and pleasing her exacting and patriarchal husband who’s already made himself the laughing stock of the rest of the town: ‘She prayed that the townsfolk wouldn’t mock her husband; that they would see the anguish in her heart and forgive her husband for having been a terror.’ Sharada, then, becomes the classic, quiet hero of the story that imbues Yemaan’s actions with sense and sensibility.
Not all heroes of the story are human. Bhattathiri painstakingly narrates two, and sometimes three, alternative versions of rumours: ‘The second theory about Gopalan’s death was scarier.’ The novel often harks back to multiple legends and rumours that characterize Karathupuzha, making it one of the leading characters of the tale by giving it its own story, sometimes independent of its residents.
Karathupuzha is not the only non-human character in the tale. Its spiders and birds and bats and girl-dogs have plenty to say about the incidents happening around them. They become crucial elements that advance the plot and also give the reader a vantage point since they are able to literally and metaphorically fly and climb into places where the typical human eye wouldn’t reach: ‘As the trio moved away from the compound a few of the bats, particularly the younger ones, flew up to another tree further away so they could get a better view.’
Familiar acts such as Joby and Priya making their way to Priya’s school are made unfamiliar, in the words of literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, ‘both by description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature’— the technique of defamiliarization, in which animal and birds’ points of view (rather than a person’s) makes the content of the story seem unfamiliar, fresh, bereft of its usual perspective. These other perspectives remind the characters about the inconsequentiality of their own lives in the larger world they live in. To the other beings around us their most significant moments are mere spectacle, pastime. Once these other beings get bored of a spectacle they quickly move to a different one.
A tale centred on a sleepy, remote town, The Town that Laughed remains a sleepy, remote tale meant for a reader with no hurry to reach a teleological end point. It has a relaxed pace that does not bring many thrilling, dramatic plot points, but its pleasure lies in the mundane drama of the everyday. The novel, just as Karathupuzha, demonstrates with its plot line that it is the drudgery of daily village life that frustrates and bores and is tedious, but it is this sleepy and dysfunctional tedium that is also reassuring, comforting and, to the discerning reader, always entertaining!
Vinayak Dewan is a student of Mathematics and English literature at Ashoka University.