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.