Thursday, January 18, 2018

Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories: Manu Bhattathiri: book review

Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories:  Manu Bhattathiri
--review by Divya Dubey

Rs 399

[Published by Hindustan Times: Nov 19, 2016: ]

For a lover of short stories, especially of the traditional variety that harks back to the likes of RK Narayan’s Malgudi tales and the ethos of the mid-twentieth-century India, Satyajit Ray’s characters in Indigo and Stranger stories or the subtle twists in the narratives of Saki and O Henry, Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories is a literary bonanza, which creates nostalgia for an era long gone. This collection tries to resuscitate a genre drowning under the flood of modern fiction set in a modern world in the recent years. Rather unsurprisingly, it has also landed on the ‘Tata Literature Live! First Book Award’ longlist, along with five other nominees – an honour it deserves well.

In this debut collection, Manu Bhattathiri has concocted a delicious yesteryear dish using fresh recipes with tried and tested ingredients: Karuthupuzha – a fictitious ‘sleepy little town in the interiors of south India’ – much like Malgudi, and its entertaining and sometimes idiosyncratic characters caught in extraordinary situations in their ordinary lives.

Usually, it is quite easy to pick a favourite story or two from amongst such a collection, but the task is almost impossible in this one. Each of the nine interconnected tales is a gem with a simple plot that begins in the most innocuous manner. The appeal lies in the way the narrator
builds up the narrative and introduces the subtle turn of events. It transports one to a simple world as it existed before machines took over completely, before humans became semi-automatons themselves in a bid to outdo each other and the pace of life changed completely.

For instance, the first story, ‘The Cold’, introduces Kunjumon – an employee of Eeppachan Mothalali, the owner of a rice mill – who, upon a sudden whim one day, decides to show some charity towards the residents of Chamel’s Old Age Home, except that though his intentions remain noble, procrastination plays the villain.

The story, ‘The Man Who Knew God’ is another entertainer with Murali – a storyteller – for its protagonist. As the narrator mentions, ‘Apart from arriving at exotic points of view, no one knew what Murali really did.’ He goes from being a storyteller at the toddy shop to being perceived as a scholar and a champion of the underdogs in town (including that of Joby – the slipper thief), to being a teacher to the town’s children, to being a universal counselor-cum-psychiatrist – until Destiny intervenes.

The title story, ‘Savirthri’s Special Room’ is about an old couple, Vasu Appooppan and his wife Savirthri Ammoomma – as they live in a dilapidated house, waiting for the annual visit of their son, daughter-in-law and grandson, Kuttan. The story begins with a vivid description of their house: ‘Nature, from all sides, was trying to get in. Moss was slowly, secretively climbing up most of its walls. Weeds grew straight up and stood on their toes to peek in through its windows, as if checking out their future home.’ The relevance of the imagery strikes home later on in the story.

Some of the best stories are perhaps ‘Paachu and the Arrogant Tuft’, ‘The Wife’s Leg’ and ‘The Scandal’. In the first, Inspector Paachu, soon to retire, decides to pump fear into the hearts of the townsmen so that his image is maintained even after he quits the police force, but is beaten by a stubborn tuft of hair on his head that refuses to settle down; in the second, a very jealous Eeppachan Mothalali takes his young wife, Amminikutty, to task – but she has her revenge; and the last in which Shanta, Savithri Ammoomma’s maid, falls victim to a spiteful scandal created by Maniyan, the ‘most evil man’ and a labourer in Mothalali’s rice mill and yet ends up as the winner.

A return to the pre-machine age in terms of setting, characters and stories is also visible in Ali Akabar Natiq’s recent collection, What Will You Give for This Beauty and in Arunava Sinha’s The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told. However, Bhattathiri stands apart because of his sense of humour so subtly woven into his narrative. In some ways he shares it with Kanishk Tharoor, but while Tharoor is still somewhat distant and incisive in style, Bhattathiri is quite indulgent towards his characters. Once can imagine his narrator as a denizen of Karuthupuzha himself.

Manu Bhattathiri
Perhaps the only criticism one can offer is that the women sometimes come across as lesser than men, but that fact can be blamed upon the times the stories are set in and which they realistically reflect. Bhattathiri’s themes steer clear of politics. Instead they focus on the portrayal of the society: human nature, follies or foibles and relationships in a certain cultural context.  His characters are amazingly unforgettable – Mothalali, Chamel (owner of the Old Age Home and seller of porn magazines), the cuckold Kunjumon, Murali, Paachu Yemaan, the singer Acchu and her lover George Kutty, and several others who will probably be remembered as well as – if not better than – RK Narayan’s.  This book is a classic. 

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