The make-believe village, Karuthupuzha, which Manu Bhattathiri created in his debut Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories was a meticulous tapestry, a vast canvas with diverse characters. As the writer forays into further non-adventures of the languorous kind in his next book, The Town That Laughed, the Karuthupuzha we were introduced to is almost intact. For instance, Dwarf Rappai has not grown an inch, and continues to serve tea at Madhavan Nair’s tea-shop-cum-rumour-mill, and still mindlessly follows the town agenda of gossip. And at the saloon run by Barber Sureshan – the man of limitless compassion – things are as positive as they have always been.
The comparison of Manu Bhattathiri’s imagined universe to RK Narayan’s is an obvious one by now, but as one reads The Town That Laughed, Malgudi certainly pops into one’s mind again. But it’s arguable whether Narayan dwelt upon the non-human protagonists of his books as much as Bhattathiri does, and in such an endearing way. There’s the spider that hangs upside down and views the world beneath, the lizard perched on a branch and gazing through the window, even a line of ants that slow down to glance at certain scenes and nod at one other. And, of course, the line of crows who sit on the high voltage wire, full witnesses of the day and of the people, the market, the river, and nature, with an unending concern for others that borders on voyeurism.
Karuthupuzha is a veritable microcosm of small-town life in Kerala as presented in feel-good Malayalam films directed by Sathyan Anthikkad, with the tea shop and the barber shop being the centre of grapevine county.
But, of course, a town cannot remain entirely unchanged, or so says the narrator, a role the author takes upon himself in the opening scene. There has to be some alteration, at least of the organic kind. He goes on to list these changes, cheerfully flouting the literary rule of “show don’t tell” by taking on an Oriental narrative method, quite like the vidushaka or the chakyar who brings the audience up to date on the backstories.
A familiar space
And so, if you have read Savithri’s Special Room, you will be glad to know the only bus servicing Karuthupuzha has been freshly painted. “The bright new coat of paint came after numerous meetings of the municipal council, urgent letters, strings being pulled, political muscle being flexed, and even some secret bribes paid out of town funds’. Pachu Yeman, the representative of the Law in town and a law unto himself, is now retired, although his “arrogant tuft” still has behavioural issues which can be tamed only by Barber Sureshan. And as “the change sweeping through Karuthupuzha” goes “beyond its human populace”, the once-barren jackfruit tree has “started to bear fruit…after centuries of an incredibly useless existence”.
It seems an ominous beginning, because the story we are about to witness revolves around someone rendered useless by superannuation, and someone whose perennial uselessness is about to be corrected, the act concluding in an unexpected camaraderie down the road.
Bhattathiri has one advantage over Narayan in the time period he documents – the contemporary settings serve the reader who is familiar with, and hungry for, for just this. And just as we read Narayan now for reasons very different from those of earlier readers possibly, Bhattathiri too may be identified as the writer who documented the small-town life of his time.
The writer certainly knows how to turn a phrase. Pareira – a retired man who, of all the businesses he could have picked, has chosen to be sell antique items in Karuthupuzha – has his premises raided by Pachu Yeman & Co. How does he react? “‘Such things are good publicity.’ Pareira told his antiques.”
Bhattathiri’s observations are astute, for instance, about the plight of a man who “increasingly seemed to have nothing to do” and who “actually felt tears threatening to spill…during sentimental scenes” while watching films.
Two lives, one world
The novel revolves around Pachu Yeman’s retirement and his life afterwards, depicting how an entire small town conspires to make it worthwhile in terms of entertainment for themselves. Barber Sureshan, the local medico Purushan Vaidyar, the well-meaning Pareira, Pachu’s wife Sharada, Pachu’s niece Priya, the resident town drunkard Joby and Pachu’s bane “Bubru” the policeman make sure that these episodes take place, although unintentionally. Yeman discovers how useless he is, and how clueless when it comes to arriving at a solution. After forty years of being the Law in Karuthupuzha, he must ensure before he dies that his town knows his worth. His loss of routine is tragic and affects his persona drastically. But he does find his way to peace.
The Town That Laughed is rich in philosophy of the simple, un-selfconscious kind. The sheer contrast in the perspectives of Barber Sureshan and Pachu Yeman as they look out of their windows is a pleasure to understand. These two men are perched at two extreme ends of a spectrum, and demonstrate how varied life can be even within the same habitat. One of them has retired from active service before his dynamism for life subsided, while the other seems to be on duty eternally, with the simplest of routines and no dearth of enthusiasm on any given day.
For instance, Pachu Yeman had “stopped listening to the forecasts. In truth Pachu had simply realised that he had no task to undertake that called for such meticulous planning.” And as the petrichor rose, he “stood clutching the bars of windows of his first floor bedroom, [for he] did not like this smell. The moist, warm smell seemed to make him lethargic.” Barber Sureshan, however, is happy about the smell of wet earth, and, as he smells the abundance of jackfruit, he ‘thanked god… He would sometimes imagine that even if a terrible drought ravaged Karuthapuzha and nothing else grew, this tree would still feed everyone. As he looked out there was a smile on his face.”
As the story comes to a close on rather unexpected lines, there is a feel-good bubble that wells up in the reader.
The Town That Laughed, Manu Bhattathiri, Aleph Book Company.