The Town that Laughed

JU News Desk
Published: October 2018

Manu Bhattathiri’s debut novel is original, humorous, and entertaining

Karuthupuzha is back in action. The fictional town by the river that enchanted us in Manu Bhattathiri’s debut collection of short stories ‘Savithri’s Special Room’, is now the show stopper in a full-fledged novel by the author.

His first novel, The Town that Laughed has caught the eyes of readers and critics alike.

Karuthupuzha is a sleepy, laidback town where transformation is seeping through whichever pore it can find, and yet somehow it also remains the same. There is an irony to Bhattathiri’s expeditions into changes that are affecting people in the town and in the process are transforming the very air of this once sleepy little place. “Where grandmothers shielded their eyes with withered palms and squinted at the skies to predict rainfall, people now turn to the Meteorological Department.” In the author’s quaint little town, weather no longer has entertainment value.

Bhattathiri has used two of his central characters, Pacchu Yemaan and Joby, to narrate the nuances of life in the small town. Pacchu Yemaan is an epithet rather than a name, earned by Pacchu after serving as the Police Inspector of the town. Yemaan means ‘boss’ or ‘chief.’ He has retired and like many men who retire from a position of power is struggling to come to terms with the boredom and oblivion of his new life.

He lives with his wife Sharada and niece Priya, whom the couple had adopted after the demise of her parents. The former Police Inspector who enjoyed immense power during his tenure tries out weird ways of asserting his power at home. He almost enters into a power struggle with his school going niece Priya. Beyond home, Pacchu also tries to meddle in the affairs of the police station. Soon the man turns into a figure of ridicule from being one of the most feared men in the town.

On the other hand, Joby who has turned to alcoholism keeps sinking to new depths of depression. He is born into the working class. The town does not take a charitable view of the sojourns that took him into the dark alleys during his younger days. Unrequited love, a failed marriage, and a lack of way forward turns Joby into the town’s buffoon. As the author points out, Joby had a lifetime of “trying and failing to find anything that deserved his sobriety.”

Poulose, the grocer; Sureshan, the barber; Chacko, the electrician; Janardhan, the incumbent minister; and Manikanthan, the stationery shop owner are very much like the people we all have somewhere in our everyday lives, especially those of us who have experienced living in small towns. The interactions amongst these characters are not unlike what we see in small communities, where everyone’s business is known to the other. Peppered with a wry humour, they make you smile and frown at the same time. Bhattathiri has captured the nuances of everyday life in a way that calls for a rather unfair but valid comparison with the works of R K Narayan, especially stories penned in the backdrop of the town Malgudi.

Between the two characters, Joby, a symbolism of the unchanged, and Pacchu, a relic of bygone days and a victim of change, Bhattathiri delves into deeper shadows. He explores how collective meanness of people can mar the lives of people in ways that leave them a frail reflection of their real selves. Both Pacchu and Joby suffer at the hands of a community that is closed and rarely forgives.

The best thing about the book is the author’s ability to explore themes in the lives of people with a light touch. With his authentic style and enchanting prose that evoke quite a few laughs, Karuthupuzha comes alive through its people.

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