Manu Bhattathiri’s first novel is set in the fictional town of Karuthupuzha, untouched by distractions of the technological kind.

The Town That Laughed review A warm funny tale with eccentric characters
Features Book review Tuesday, September 11, 2018 - 14:38

There is something very endearing about Karuthupuzha that immediately reels you in and does not let you go. Filled with eclectic and eccentric characters, this is a town that in its very ordinariness forms the background for some extraordinary stories. Manu Bhattathiri’s first novel The Town That Laughed is set in the fictional Karuthupuzha – named after the river by which it is located – a town untouched by distractions of the technological kind.

First introduced in Bhattathiri’s fabulous collection of short stories Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, we now see that “Over the past few years much has changed in the small South Indian town”, although most changes seem to be minor and cosmetic, to say the least. Like the repainted bus for which “The bright new coat of paint came after numerous meetings of the municipal council, urgent letters, strings being pulled, the political muscle being flexed, and even some secret bribes paid out of town funds” and the fact that “People in Karuthupuzha now listen to forecasts on the radio”.

The story essentially revolves around two characters, the first being Paachu Yemaan, a recently retired police officer who used to “run” the town with an iron fist and commanded the respect of the townspeople. But things are not the same post-retirement – he realises that the people who once used to be scared of him now openly ridicule him or laugh behind his back. This is a man who’s struggling with his new position, or the lack of it, in life and in society. He holds on to the last dredges of his past glory by maintaining foolish rituals, such as wearing his old uniform to the toilet “to fool his gut”, to try to maintain a semblance of routine in his life. He now pins all his hopes on his young niece Priya whom he wants to groom into a police officer, as he firmly believes that only someone from his family can take over the mantle from him and run the police station effectively unlike the “jokers” who were part of the force now.

The other character is Joby, the town drunkard with a chequered past. Often seen sprawled at various locations in the town along with his faithful little companion, a dog named Lily. A man who once had the job of ferrying children to school, but after one failed romance – the one-sided kind and a marriage devoid of love and emotions – he slowly descended into alcoholism and soon became the town buffoon known for his hilarious antics and general drunkenness.

Paachu Yemaan and Joby’s life intersect when the former gives the latter a job, a decision that is met with much mirth and head-shaking from the townspeople. What follows is a tale involving the two men and their struggles with their new roles in life and their standing in society.

Bhattathiri, with his sharp wit and sense of humour, delves into the lives of the two men without sounding overly preachy. What starts off as a humorous tale filled with laugh-worthy moments slowly starts unravelling. The townspeople are a character in their own right, filled with judgemental and constantly prying eyes that keep the rumour mills turning and tongues wagging. They are reminiscent of an over-familiar family member that one cannot avoid whom we grudgingly let into our lives.

The ensemble of characters, such as Sharadha – Paachu Yemaan’s wife, Rosakutty – Joby’s wife, barber Sureshan – a compassionate man and Joby’s old friend, Priya – Paachu Yemaan’s niece and Bubru the policeman, all play an important role in the story. The characters the author creates are well-rounded and he manages to tell their stories by how they deal with the mundane. For example, Rosakutty’s peculiar habit of placing objects on the very edge of shelves and tables, the Sanskrit spouting and inappropriate Inspector Janardhanan or when little Priya tells Joby the story of the blossoming love between her teachers at school. Even the cameos that the author creates are memorable, often painting a picture for the reader with a pithy one-liner.

The Town That Laughed is filled with simple yet profound philosophies and some great writing. Paachu Yeman, who feels he has become useless owing to his retirement, and Joby, who feels the only way for him to live life is by being useless, form two ends of a spectrum but an unusual bond soon forms between them.

The story of Karuthupuzha and its inhabitants is very layered and essentially a study of the human condition, and Bhattathiri manages to do this without making the writing complex, sometimes even lulling the reader into believing that all is well in this sleepy town. But underneath the charming facade is a telling story of how we as humans often get wound up in titles, our position in society and other meaningless things, often at the cost of one’s humanity.

Heart-warming, original and nuanced, this is a captivating read – rest assured that you will enjoy your stay at Karuthupuzha.

Published by Aleph, The Town That Laughed is available in hardcover at Rs 599.

Also read: Reading Perumal Murugan, Volga and other regional writers: Why translations are precious

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