“Contrary to popular belief, rain’s greatest enemy is not the rapid felling of trees. Nor is it rising global temperatures, the burning of fossil fuels, or even that telltale hole in the air up there. The single biggest enemy of rain is a person by the name of Gopi. He still lives in our little town and he still hates the rain.”

The eponymous story in Manu Bhattathiri’s The Greatest Enemy of Rain details one man’s lifelong conflict with rain. When he is seven, Gopi’s first day of holidays is ruined by unexpected rain. He raves and rants, prays to and petitions the gods, starting a feud that becomes the mainstay of his life. He falls in love against the backdrop of rain. His life and all its tragicomedy are punctuated by the rain. When he dies, the narrator tells us, it is sure to rain “big, warm droplets.”

This delightful little story with its humour and whimsey and its dark kernel of social critique is a perfect representation of a collection that brings on inappropriate chuckles in the middle of excoriating discomfort and is as entertaining as it is a brutally bright spotlight on human eccentricities and social behaviour.

Small town ambiguities

Bhattathiri’s stories do not conform to any spatial-temporal fixedness. Many of these are set in small towns but refuse to fall into the tropiness of nostalgia for imagined or lost perfection. There is a definite small-town sensibility of small, inter-connected communities, but no great joie de vivre is found inside of them.

“These New-Fangled Ways” goes back into an ancient, yet eerily familiar past, positing that the more things change, the more they remain the same. “The Answer”, confronting religion and theology, is located somewhere in an imminently recognisable future. In “The Singing Butterflies of Duabaag”, there is a magic garden that seems, for the most, outside of time. In frames that are largely realistic, there is much urban decay, filth, and squalor. In “Shravan Kumar’s Last Day”, the protagonist lives in a second-floor apartment, overlooking a dried lakebed, and breathing in brittle air, knowing, as he looks out of his window, that the lakebed will soon be occupied by defecating labourers.

Scatological images dot the narrative. Humans defecate, dogs defecate, and in “The Shit of the Seraph”, there is the dubious promise of literal gold in faeces. The reader experiences these frissons of shocked sensibility ever so often. Time shifts in these stories, as does space. What remains constant is conflict, a push-and pull, and ambiguities.

The greatest triumph of the fourteen stories in this collection is their cast of always believable and almost always eccentric characters with peculiarities that render them deliciously alive. There is Gopi, who plays passive-aggressive mind games with the rain. In “Days Without Teacher”, Saroja Teacher’s husband, known only by his relationship to her, alternates between trying to re-live his youth with a series of terrible choices and fitting into the persona of the respected old man the community wants to see in him.

Mr D’Souza, the eponymous “Difficult Customer”, is willing to get cosmetic surgery to make his new haircut fit his face better. Radhamma, the self-declared oracle of “The Woman Who Loved to Be Right”, believes implicitly in her prophetic skills.

A serving of satire

Bhattathiri sketches interesting relationships between his characters and by far, the richest of these are those between husbands and wives. It would be the easiest thing for the narrative to slip into casual sexism seeing as how jokes centred on the marital relationship are embedded deeply in the social spaces of all patriarchal societies. However, Bhattathiri effortlessly steers clear of this trap. He delves into the discontents, the silences, the unspoken resentments, the contests for control, the gaps in both communication and expectation, particularly in older couples, and sometimes, just sometimes, perfect synergy, to paint a somewhat desolate picture of marriage, not far removed from the truth of modern-day romance. Our writer is not cynical; only realistic.

Bhattathiri’s tone is humorous, with a generous side of satire. “Shravan Kumar’s Last Day” is a study in brutal social critique. A young man lies dying and no help is forthcoming because none of the many people who come across him can rid themselves of either apathy or selfishness. The administrative red tape Shravan Kumar encounters might well be the everyday oppressions of the dispossessed, those in need of Aadhar, and identity papers and other bureaucratic means of validating their insignificant existences.

“Duabaag” opens up yet another problematic space between aesthetic appreciation and oppression, forcing the reader to confront the ethics of consent and the ease with which the powerful exploit the disadvantaged. “The Sound” and “The Answer” work as companion pieces, both exploring the fears and the challenges of the unknown.

One of my personal favourites is “These New-Fangled Ways” where a young woman, Mista, forges her own way ahead at the cost of parental approval. In a pre-historic world, Mista breaks down patriarchal authority, one morsel of cooked meat at a time. The story is barely a few pages long, and the politics is subversive, cleverly hiding behind the surface, waiting to sucker punch the unsuspecting reader.

Subversion and commentary

The stories in The Greatest Enemy of Rain are impossible to box into genre or style classifications. “The Answer”, with its underpinnings of theology and the ineffable crisis of the god question, might well be science fiction. “The Sound” functions somewhat as a parable, in a realm similar to Easterine Kire’s Spirit Nights. The small gods, mentioned only once, and yet, bringers of disruption in “The Woman Who Loved to Be Right” are unnamed and chaotic and reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s fantasy.

Bhattathiri draws on folklore and mythology, often bringing a sleight of hand to both. Indra, in “Greatest Enemy”, is demoted from the lightening wielding warrior of mythology to not even “a full-fledged god but more a kind of angel (…) in control of this stupid phenomenon.” There is magic and incantations and just a smidge of magic realism in other stories. There is even a ghost story, a man’s encounter with an apparition, that turns into a brilliant exercise in re-visiting the rules of horror fiction.

Flavours abound. Much reader-expectation is subverted. There is humour and there is wit, as promised by the blurb, but hiding in plain sight is also social and political commentary, a tongue in cheek study of not just human behaviour and its peculiarities but also the overlaps between religion and capitalism, capitalism and political power, political power and manipulation of human behaviour. The personal might not always be political in these stories, but the social always is.

The Greatest Enemy of Rain, Manu Bhatthathiri, Aleph Book Company.