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Tell tail hearts

Sight-seeing An urban legend leaves its ‘witnesses’ befuddled, making readers realise the power of circumstances in life, writes Damini Purkayastha.

books Updated: Jun 05, 2010 00:27 IST
Damini Purkayastha

Monkey-Man
Usha K.R
Penguin Rs 299 pp 259

The cover of this book shows a simian creature climbing through an urban space while the blurb at the back talks about how the ‘creature’ changed someone’s life forever. Thankfully though, Usha K.R.’s latest book is a lot more than a prosaic re-telling of Rakesh Mehra’s film Delhi-6, where the urban legend of the ‘monkey man’ plays a strong part. The elusive monkey, while central to this book’s philosophy, isn’t the focus of Usha’s narrative.

The book opens on the dusty Ammanagudi Street on a January 2000 night. We first meet the ensemble cast as they report their ‘sightings’. The history teacher Shrinivas Moorty, who saw a “nasty, brutish and short” creature — mirroring Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in its natural state — the assistant Neela Mary Gopalrao who thought it was “a giant vampire bat”, the Class 4 employee Sukhiya Ram, who called it a “rakshas” (demon) and the BPO employee Pushpa Rani who thought it was “Yama, the God of Death himself”.

As Bangalore’s No. 1 radio jockey, Bali Brums, prepares to interview the ‘eye witnesses’ on air, the book pans to the past. In subsequent chapters, the past and the present jostle for

narrative space as events lead up to that night. Moorty’s life, his 25 years at the National Trust First Grade College, unfolds before us in a not-so-linear fashion. As he battles against changes his colleague Jairam wants to introduce in the college, we learn that the two were best friends as students.

Through Moorty, the author introduces us to the 70s Bangalore, when boys and girls were rarely friends and people protested against capitalism and Indira Gandhi with the same passion. His blinding idealism as a youth and his refusal to accept a shattering truth as an adult mark him out as stagnant, even as he sees himself as steady and grounded. Through Neela’s story we learn about the exodus of Indian nurses to Dubai, and how much their subsequent earnings altered the position of women within that society.

Usha details her characters’ social circumstances, right down to the makeshift bed and the bumpy ride to work and lets the reader walk a mile in their shoes. Even so, Pushpa Rani seems to be a celebration of capitalism. Her story is featured in a national magazine making her, quite literally, the cover girl for the Call Centre Success Story. And while there are no staid black and white absolutes for anyone, Pushpa gets to marry the man she loves and moves away from Ammanagudi Street. Is the author championing change? Is she advocating a free fall from the past? Just when you think you can neatly accept this binary narrative, Brums gives up his very 21st century job and decides that he “has to get serious”.

Usha’s narrative is soulful. No short cuts, no slang, hers is a celebration of language. Every sentence is pregnant with meaning, the mundane comma could mark a passage of time, and time itself becomes secondary as the narrative leapfrogs back and forth. By the end of the book, the monkey-man mystery is all but solved.

The book ends with a postscript of sightings across India, as the urban legend turns into a national nuisance — as a ‘meteor’ in Orissa, a ‘curly-haired’ entity in Ahmedabad, a ‘face-scratcher’ in Madhya Pradesh.

As if every changing society and burdened mind has happily accepted the crutch of the supernatural to elevate themselves from the everyday.

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The Golem: In Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel, the Golem, a creature that is the physical manifestation of a Jewish ghetto in Prague, becomes central to this study of ‘madness’.