“The Town That Laughed” A Novel by Manu Bhattathiri, Aleph



The Town That Laughed
Manu Bhattathiri
INR 599/

Karuthupuzha is a cross between a town and a village, with a river running through it. A backwater filled with eccentrics and the conflicts of places where people rub against each other with the intimacy of small neighbourhoods and everyone knows exactly what is going on, or can make a good guess.  Here the only thing that changes is possibly the coat of paint on the town bus and the fact that people listen to forecasts on the radio. Oddly enough though an artist holds his art exhibitions in a place that does not have an antique shop. The characters come from Bhattathiri’s debut short story collection and the opening refers back to them, though it is not necessary to be familiar with the short stories.

Here the clash is between the retired police officer Paachu Yemaan, famous for his iron grip on things and the town drunk, everyone’s buffoon Joby. The barber Sureshan, who does double duty as the town wise man feels that Joby can still be saved from his nights spent in the drains fuelled by arrack. He chooses to confide in Paachu Yemaan’s wife the graceful Sharadha and Sharadha decides that Joby should be hired to take little Priya to school and back – something that Joby used to do once upon a time.

Paachu Yemaan reluctantly gives in – he is certain that the whole town is laughing at him and even his relationship with his adored niece Priya is threatening to go sour. He is at a stage where he can only trick his gut into functioning but putting on his uniform – and if he’s lucky it operates before he reaches his shirt. Joby, on the other hand is eaten by the memory of a lost love and resentful of the way life has treated him. His beautiful wife Rosakutty is an automaton and his only company is his bitch Lisa.

The two men both have to deal with a new way of life – Paachu with his retirement and Joby with his job. Karuthupuzha’s citizens have their doubts about the whole thing but Manu Bhattathiri’s story moves forward with kindness and humour. Both men feel that they are useless though their uselessness is defined in different ways – Paachu through retirement has lost his status and Joby never had any status,

Since the town is so small, people can only be defined in their context to everyday things. Rosakutty for instance insists on putting things on the very edge of shelves and tables. Priya is fascinated by Joby and his dog and loves to tell him about things that happened in school despite the fact that Joby is uncomfortable with the whose aspect of ferrying a child to school after so many years. Like a deft ad man, Bhattathiri throws in some deft one line cameos as well and a few conversational spiders who comment on Inspector Janardan in the police station.

A basic kindness and philosophy lurks at the heart of Karuthupuzha that can be summed up in the battle between the scent of puja incense and arrack in Barber Sureshan’s shop as he tries to work out how to save Joby – the incense wins and makes its point that all will be well, without any overt preaching on Bhattathiri’s side. Perhaps the kindness comes from Bhattathiri’s stint in hospital recovering from stress related collapse – though there is an undercurrent of malice among some of the people of the place.

One could call it Malgudi once more as was most likely intentional – even though the author writes that the village was based on Cherupoika where the his grandparents lived. Like Malgudi, Karuthupuzha accepts sadness as an integral part of life though with a note of optimism thrown in.

Anjana Basu, Kolkata

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