Friday, August 20, 2010



[This has appeared in the current issue of BIBLIO]

Like an experienced angler landing a difficult catch, Usha KR keeps her line taut all the way through this elegantly plotted novel. Not till the end do we get to see the whole thing as it lies panting and struggling, revealed at last in all its oddity, neither a mystery nor a romance but a story of people caught in the embrace of a complex and hairy otherness.

The tale begins in Bangalore, as a fictional account of the real-life events that took place in New Delhi, circa May 2001. Reports began circulating of a mysterious, humanoid creature that attacked innocent citizens during the hours of darkness, causing a fear-psychosis to grip the city. The panic lasted for perhaps six months, resulting in injuries ranging from deep scratches to severe trauma and even death: at least two people were reported to have died as a result of falling down a flight of stairs while trying to escape from the monster. But the creature, such as it was, was never caught either in person or on film. The police released sketches based on eye-wtiness accounts, but ultimately, according to Wikipedia, "the entire incident has been described as an example of mass hysteria".

Usha's retelling of this half-forgotten news story is set in January 2000. A teacher called Shrinivas Moorty forms the heart of the book. Despite a sterile marriage and dead-end career, he has entered his middle-years with a few shreds of his youthful dreams still clinging to him. Next is Neela Mary Gopalrao, the woman bureaucrat at the Centre for Socio-Economic Studies who rules over her private fiefdom of clerks and peons with a rod of petty cruelties: cheques that will be needlessly delayed, inter-departmental letters that will never be delivered, cutting remarks that can never be countered for fear of dismissal. Finally there is Pushpa Rani, the young woman who has powered her way out of the slums and into a call-centre with the tenacity of a peepul-tree seedling growing out of a brick wall.

We are told at the outset that these three lives will be braided together and held in place by that monkey-shaped filament whose name adorns the cover of the book. And we look for the creature, as we enter the opening chapters, wondering from which corner of Ammanaguddi Street, dug up and traffic-clogged as it is, the shadowy being will spring. But the lives of the three characters soon dominate the stage and we are diverted by the unspooling of their histories until suddenly, with a twitch and a stifled scream, yes – there's the creature! Or … wait: what exactly are we looking for, again? Is this a novel about three fictional characters or a documentary about the changing soul of Bangalore? About a city or a country? About you or I? By the time we end the book, we know a little more about what we might have believed when we began it, but we also look reflexively over our own shoulders, wondering about the monkey-shaped spectres that haunt the hidden corridors of all our lives.

Usha K.R.'s gift as a writer is her ability to convince us that even the slighteset of stories is worth caring about. Her characters are so unremarkable that if not for the precision with which she describes them, we would not pay them a second's attention. Moorty, for instance: he has a slight paunch, his hair is thinning, he rides a scooter. Even the elements that make up his tiny inner spark, the love of western rock music, the fondness for good cinema and the Nehruvian socialism that still animates his deepest memories, are hardly very original. The songs and the bands are only too familiar, the socialism has grown so stale and the movies are all a bit passĂ© now. But it is this very ordinariness that makes the portrait so convincing. Like a frog that has been expertly dissected for us by our biology teacher, the fact that it is commonplace is precisely why we value it – because it reveals what is commonplace about all frogs.

Pushpa Rani by contrast, is a character whose real-life counterparts are so recently evolved from the primordial slime of India's social inequalities that her feet as still a little webbed, a little unknowable. None of us has enough data about what lies in the future of all the Pushpa Ranis rising up from the slums and shanty towns of Indian cities and in that sense a literary character created from her clay can be molded to fit almost any role. Neela is more familiar, the petty bureaucrat in the starched cotton sari, but she has some unexpected flourishes too. She is of mixed Hindu-Christian parentage and for that reason is neither wholly respectable nor wholly pariah. She is that stock figure-of-fun, a card-carrying member of the Spinster Party who will nevertheless permit one single pulse-beat of indiscretion to rattle around her veins for the rest of her natural life.

The secondary characters are as well-realized as the principals. They include Neela's underlings such as the brash, good-hearted peon Sukhiya Ram and her single overlord in the official pantheon, the lofty Dr Subramanyam; 'Bali Brums', short for Balaji Brahmendra, the "charismatic and hugely popular radio jockey of the city's brand new and only FM channel, Voices from Heaven"; and Moorty's fragile wife Lily, with her beauty and her childlessness, and Moorty's colleague at work Jairam, with his America-returned born-again capitalism. Pushpa Rani's co-workers and family have a faintly filmi quality to them, as if we have either seen them in BBC documentaries about Call Centres or in commercials about the near-magical properties of skin-fairness creams.

Holding all the characters together is the personality of the street along which so much of the action takes place. "The Ammanagudi Street of [Moorty's] boyhood was a nice mix of cows and men, and of course, the goddess after whom the street was named. Of the old shops, only two remained – a cycle-repair shop and a flour mill, going about their business for more than thirty years – before they were shown up by a fast food "palace" selling hot tomato soup at five rupees per cup and a cyber cafĂ© with twenty-four-hour Internet access … now that he had to go past the temple every day for the past two years, past the potholes filled with the over-runs from the manholes and the plastic bags that floated on the scum and got caught in the foot rests of his scooter every now and then, he had seen for himself how the Mother lived and even become familiar with Her routine. Every morning he did what every other passerby did – turn right to have a glimpse of her face – black stone, freshly annointed with oil, her nose, eyes and mouth outlined in silver, calmy accepting of all that her devotees did to her. A trishula was planted in front of her, lemons impaled fresh every morning on each of the three prongs – marking the bounds of direct access. No one could venture beyond except her priest – an unsmiling young man with a crew cut, the razor-trimmed arc of hair clean and precise against the skin of his neck. Late one morning Shrinivas Moorty had been witness to the priest lighting up a beedi and having a quiet smoke after closing the temple, and then making his way to the self-service joint up Ammanagudi street, presumbaly for an idli-vada … [The Mother] reminded him of his wife – the same mysterious rituals with the unguents and the stoic acceptance of worship. He remembered his mother and sister, who were easier than Lily and the Mother, and whose ablutions too were not as complicated, rubbing on their faces something called Afghan Snow, that came in an icy white glass jar and had a picture melting snow-covered peaks on the outside." (pgs 13 & 17)

Just as the street succumbs to the indignities of being dug up and built over, slowly strangulated with underground cables and wholly choked with a combination of garbage and over-sized cars, so too the human inhabitants succumb to the changes that have stampeded over them. In this twilight of the senses, where all that was once so familiar has been replaced by cement and plastic, the emergence of a "half-man half-beast" that briefly held several Indian cities in the grip of a fear psychosis is perhaps not surprising. As an interesting speculation about a phenomenon that was never properly explained the novel is refreshing and provocative. I look forward to whatever next Usha KR has in store for her readers.


Here's a link to a feature article that appeared in last week's issue of OUTLOOK (i.e., the Aug 15th issue for this year) about FOUR FAMILIES -- North, South, East, West -- each one having travelled a great distance from its origins. Inspirational.

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