Book review

Stories from a nowhere village that can take place anywhere, everywhere

Veena Muthuraman both reminds you of and removes you from a Malgudi state of mind.

To the question “Where is Malgudi?”, its creator, the writer RK Narayan would say, “If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India I shall only be expressing a half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal.”

Edinburgh-based writer Veena Muthuraman evokes Narayan’s small town aesthetics for her own imaginary village: Ayyanarpatti, somewhere in Tamil Nadu, where her debut collection of stories, A Place of No Importance, plays out. (There is also a mini reference thrown in to Macondo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude.) But that’s just geography. Ayyanarpatti is its own world, having been insulated for long, gradually letting in the air lying beyond its periphery, the grime and the shine, city lights casting long shadows periodically.

Tales for an entire year

Thirteen stories unfold in this village, set in each month of the Tamil calendar, a neat device, certainly, every tale wrapped around a season, the rains, the harvests, and most notably, the festivals. The villagers may not be able to control the harsh winds of environmental change that play havoc with the rains, their harvest, their livelihood, but they still get to wield control over their festivals – so what if the reasons to celebrate cease to exist – in a desperate attempt, if only for a day here, a day there, to hold on to the past, and what is left of the familiar.

In the heart of Ayyanarpatti, we encounter again and again a motley group of villagers who are learning the ropes of a “globalised world” that is becoming increasingly hard to shoo away. Where do they fit in?

There’s the street-smart college-going Nithya, surrounded by stifling regressive structures but determined to do her own thing atop a cycle (or her father’s motorcycle when he isn’t looking), who finds herself in the middle of a variety of dramatic episodes. There’s councillor Muthu, the cocky wannabe politician who’s got a suspiciously sizeable stake in the goings-on in the village, often up to little good, but who turns a surprise when it comes to a matter of the heart. There’s Kanaka Aachi, owner and resident of a vintage Chettinad mansion and the only female real estate broker in town, who has more groundbreaking stuff up her sleeve.

Lives crisscross and collide as Muthuraman builds a very lived-in Ayyanarpatti, a place full of surprises and eccentricities even in its mundane existence, proof of which lies in all the regular twittering about the day’s events at the village’s popular tea stall.

It’s our lives, after all

We begin with the month of Aipasi – mid-October to mid-November – the month of Deepavali, in “A Festive Suicide, Attempted”. A tongue-firmly-in-cheek scenario plays out, with a good-for-nothing drunk resident Arumugam, in a Sholay-like filmesque suicide act, shaking up the village sorely in the need of some drama after running out of crackers and any real entertainment.

The next story, “Possessed”, set in the month of Karthigai, with the onset of winter, goes over the familiar small-town territory of ghosts and exorcism, of believers and city-smartened non-believers. The month that follows, a time inauspicious for festivities, plays out a bit like an amateur detective story in “God’s Own Country”, with the precociously clever Nithya in the middle of all the action, sniffing around what looks like rather shady land acquisition deal by a bunch of city slickers. And so it goes on, month after month, a gentle rhythm of village life oscillating between raucous gossip and complete faith in the divine and the various temples of worship.

This rhythm catches deeper, darker shades in stories like “A House on Upper Street”, about how caste divides a village despite social mobility and appearance of changing times; “Prelude to a Wedding”, about rape and the lack of outrage; “A Love Story, Starring Councillor Muthu”, on chest-thumping family honour and inter-faith love. Muthuraman paints even these with a light touch, not taking away its impact, but keeping a dispassionate distance.

Other than the Malgudi-esque feel to the book, the writer mines cinematic influences as well: there are gentle nods to Satyajit Ray’s classic adaptations of Charulata and Devi. Unlike the films, and indeed the stories behind the films, all the tales in “A Place of No Importance” do not feel well-rounded on their own, though some of them do. So it seems appropriate when Muthuraman states she is more chronicler than storyteller.

When the book was first released on the Juggernaut App, with the option of buying each story separately, I read two of the stories – and later, with the launch of the paperback edition, all of them. I much preferred the sum of its parts. In a sense, the effect of all the stories unravelling one after the other could earn an urban reader an “outsider” tag, as she looks in, feeling a bit rootless, alienated from this web of familiarity among a small community of people, of being close to the soil, of the tangible sense of belonging.

But then, on closer reading, the fog lifts and Ayyanarpatti begins to mirror lives lived everywhere, right now and yesterday. One that really stays with you: Rukkamma, a farmer-landowner in “A New Beginning”, is nowhere to be seen.

“A little boy comes running to his grandparents: ‘Patti!’ Vijay was running towards them like a jallikattu bull. Poomathi stepped aside to avoid the collision. ‘Rukku paatti has disappeared!’”

The bit about the jallikattu bull will not go unnoticed, surely, though it lies here as a subcultural reference without the burden it seems to carry these days. But back to the story – in which, it turns out, Rukkamma has managed much more than a “disappearance”. She has ensured a fresh life for herself away from the rather cruel one her marital home thrust upon her. The milieu may be miles apart but the concerns are no different.

And then the pièce de résistance, which Muthuraman wrote after this book was released (in a digital version) very topically: “Notes Divine”, on how the village of Ayyanarpatti deals with the aftershock of the November 8 announcement of demonitisation. The flower seller, Manian, gives away a lot of his loose change unthinkingly the evening before, little knowing the paralysing effect from midnight. Ayyanarpatti’s tea stall is bustling the next day, but the outrage is missing, for daily battles are enough to deal with, aren’t they, and life goes on.

A Place of No Importance, Veena Muthuraman, Juggernaut.

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