Review: The Town That Laughed by Manu Bhattathiri - Hindustan Times

Review: The Town That Laughed by Manu Bhattathiri

Hindustan Times | ByRevati Laul
Nov 17, 2018 10:35 AM IST

Quite unlike stories set in the city, The Town That Laughed promises to make you hear the cackle of the old grandmother and the lone bicycle bell getting louder as its approaches

262pp, ₹599,
262pp, ₹599,

There is something supremely seductive about a story that confines itself to one village because of the small grandeur of the everyday that it opens up. Given how impersonal and atomised our urban lives tend to be, with gadgets and texting for company on most days, The Town That Laughed promises to make you hear the cackle of the old grandmother and a lone bicycle bell getting louder as it slowly gets closer to the theatre of activity. RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days springs to mind and Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Sholay’. Both classics, comforting in the worlds they open up. You can go to Ramgarh or Malgudi any time you like. Unless of course, the book is handed over to Chetan Bhagat to write or the film given to Rohit Shetty to make. Manu Bhattathiri’s book has exactly that effect. The cast of characters are endearing. The writing is not.

First, there is the absurdity of many of the phrases, descriptions and metaphors that make you laugh for all the wrong reasons. “His belly rounded out the rest of him, hard and stubborn like a non-performing asset.” There’s more. One of the characters in the book is describing a cow in the village like this. “Her udder is the size of a small pillow, I tell you.” There are descriptions like – “He had hair bushing out of his ears,” and “something so delicate it skimmed sadness…hands that were terrifying like “steel covered in hair.”

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Manu Bhattathiri (Courtesy the author)
Manu Bhattathiri (Courtesy the author)

Some of the writing is perplexing because the novel is not in the science fiction or fantasy genre but tends to leap into those incredulous spaces entirely by accident. First there’s a cup of coffee that “in other circumstances would have long gone cold,” but the “blast of anger in its vicinity had kept it warm.” Then there are bats that observe a scene so purposefully that they “nudged the others awake for a very unusual sight.” Another scene is brought to life by observant spiders who somehow know “that Inspector Janardhan is plagued by haemorrhoids so that he cannot sit for too long.” And there is the caricaturing of people in the village. Thambi “the stunningly dirty orphan” or Rappai “the dwarf.”

But underneath the clumsy writing and logic-defying insects is a story worth telling, a fictional town worth inhabiting. The village drunk Joby is killing himself one bottle at a time until a retired policeman – Paachu Yemaan and his wife – Sharada decide to plot together to resurrect him. There are some truly lovely reflections on life and death in the pages of this story and also some micro-observations that do in fact hark back to a Malgudi-type original. There is the hesitation in Paachu Yemaan’s wife Sharada in the way she approaches him on a difficult subject. “After almost a lifetime together,” Bhattathiri writes, “Sharada had still not found an appropriate noun or pronoun to attract her husband’s attention. Sometimes she would begin by saying ‘Actually…’, at other times it would be ‘Here…” and he adds, quite beautifully, this line. “If she was close enough to him, as she was now, she would only need to clear her throat and he would know that she was addressing him.”

Read more: Review of Manu Bhattathiri’s Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories

Or the scene where Paachu Yemaan was too masculine to admit he was crying while watching a movie, so he “made all sorts of loud noises lest a sniffle escape.”

There is this tenuousness in the relationship between Joby, the central character in the book, and a little girl, Priya, who Joby drops to school every day. They escape to a phantasmagoria that holds them together against the cruel world they actually inhabit. In these scenes, we witness the beautiful lament of a lost romance and Joby’s long treatise on the nature of love and it’s fleeting, almost fictional quality.

Finally, there is the interplay between Joby and the village, that collectively drives him over the edge, that is precious. And the emotional arc that Paachu Yemaan crosses as he plays his part. But you have to use a pick-axe to cut through the careless writing and get to it.

Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Context/Westland and in stores from November 30th, 2018

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