CHENNAI: In almost every story of Manu Bhattathiri’s debut short story collection, Savithri’s Special Room & Other Stories, a surprising personification lights up the page.
Like how a jackfruit tree suppresses a giggle on the very first page of the first story, The Cold; or how a bedbug poses a relevant question to The Cold’s protagonist; or how a star cunningly adds ‘a little quirk’ to the thinking of Eeppachan Mothalali, the protagonist in The Wife’s Leg; or how a fly sits on the rim of a glass of tea in A True Liar and greedily ‘rubs its hands together’ — these minor events stand out in the otherwise controlled stories as scintillas of magic, the moments where Bhattathiri deliberately and deftly unshackles our mind from realism and prepares us for the unique atmosphere of his stories.
All nine stories in the collection are based in the fictional town of Karuthupuzha, apparently somewhere in South India. Karuthupuzha signifies a unique sort of Indian middle — it feels neither urban nor rural, neither staid nor frenetic, neither out of pace with the times nor too concerned with the so-called after-effects of modernity. It is, in many ways, a town in a delightful statis, and I use the word in only the positive sense. If the spilling over of characters across stories suggests a restriction of space, bringing to mind a great Indian village, the unique concerns of the characters inform us of the possibility that the Indian countryside might always have been urban in mindset. In the second story of the collection, The Man Who Knew God, a character proposes more than one origination myth apropos the town. This uniquely Indian property — the ability to ground belief in a multitude of stories rather than the cold route of truth — seems to be a simile for the stories at hand.
If the description of Karuthupuzha reminds you of Malgudi — another fictional, South Indian small town — it’s not a surprise. There are many similarities in how we imagine both. The reference to R K Narayan’s Malgudi stories is in fact encouraged by the publisher itself, finding its place on the back cover blurb. But to understand Bhattathiri as a derivative of Narayan would be harsh. Karuthupuzha is an organic creation, and if it resembles Malgudi, it is only because there was something evergreen in Malgudi that persists in a much different shade in Karuthupuzha.
The originality in Bhattathiri’s stories, and the high control that he exhibits, mark a fresh burst in the contemporary scene. Without a doubt, Bhattathiri has raised the bar for Indian debutantes. He has a lightness of touch that makes even a story describing torture (Paachu and the Arrogant Tuft) end in a burst of laughter. The strongest story in the collection, The Wife’s Leg, in which the rice-mill owner Mothalali cultivates his insecurities about his much-younger wife, invites multiple readings.
The book is an award contender. Read it.
(The writer will publish his first novel Neon Noon in July 2016)