A gripping narrative with fully fleshed characters ...that sometimes flags for want of focus.
Monkey-Man weaves an intricate patchwork quilt of lives over many decades and political persuasions to hover between a mix of a strange mystery, a tale of old stereotypes and new found opportunities, and modern day India's work centric culture.
It tells a tale of several families as they go through their lives in Bangalore. Their background, childhood friendships and political inclinations are described in copious detail. The book recreates the college scene of the 1970s or 1980s centred around a professor of Marxist leanings called SVK who lights the fire of inspiration and debate. The book recalls the era of Indira Gandhi, the cartoons of R. K. Laxman, famously iconising the common man, and the political savvy that even the street vendor would have back in those times.
Usha K.R. is superb at telling the story of socialistic ideologues of yesteryears, who were raised to believe themselves the “think tanks” of society, and who spent many coffee mornings passionately discussing and defending an ideology they had no idea how to implement. In later years, the book details how Gorbachov's Perestroika sent the much loved and inspirational professor SVK to his grave ( SVK's political fervour carried through all the way to naming his sons Lenin and Stalin). The main protagonist of the story is Shrinivas Moorty, a student of SVK and a close friend of fellow students Jairam and Geeta. Later, Shrinivas Moorty abruptly ends his relationship with ever-present ally and sharp-witted friend, Geeta, to do something uncharacteristically spontaneous and whimsical – marry a little known, beautiful and mysterious woman called Lily.
Each character is developed full blush. The tension and interplay of fortunes of the two college friends – Jairam and Shrinivas Moorty is delicately portrayed and takes up much of the focus of the book. Their interpersonal rivalries, wins/losses which add up sharply with the passing of time are brought to light in stunning detail. The book draws attention to the ironies of how one friend's lost opportunity becomes another friend's stepping stone to success. And how the turning fortunes of a childhood friend can earn the sulking recrimination and covet of one's wife.
Also brought to the fore, is the mean paperwork delaying and petty pay-cheque withholding tactics employed by Neela, the secretary at the Centre for Socio- Economic Studies, in order to maintain an upper hand over her contract staff.
The descriptions in the book sometimes take on a deeply poetic, even philosophical twist - “How diminished were the sky, the stars and the clouds, home only to artefacts as accomplished as the aeroplane and as aesthetic as the paper kite, or the oceans , in which fish and sea horses and anemones and submarines frolicked ….”
The book references the rise of radio stations and their following of loyal female fans. The new gym culture of “lyrca and spandex” and its accompanying casual, easy friendships are brilliantly described.
The new call-centre culture in which PUC fail candidates, such as Pushpa Rani, have an opportunity to rise from the depths of abysmal poverty and family destitution to the ranks of managers and supervisors in the new work ethic, is also a point very well made.
The author is however, unable to mention her characters in isolation and move forward with them. Instead she arches backwards and weaves in old baggage of less happy times, traditional impoverished lifestyles, explaining too much, much like the “peeping tom” old school friend who affords you no privacy, and knows too much about your gawky childhood and embarrassing moments that your new found adult self-assurance had best have left unknown.
For example, Bali Brums, the popular RJ is actually Balaji Brahmendra, the college drop out, whose father is upset at his decision to skip out of engineering college to follow the glamorous life of a radio talk show host.
Lastly, the book is about marital relationships – how the role is relegated to sharing a meal and a home – but not the sharing of common interests or the meeting of minds.
Shrinivas Moorty's wife, Lily, though central to the plot, is not a well developed character in the book. There is an aura of secrecy about her – even a hint of lunacy.
The person with whom she has an adulterous relationship is even less developed – vaguely introduced as a sidekick cousin – encouraged to keep her company. One ends up, instead, befriending the ubiquitous Jairam and getting comfortable with the even more remotely connected Neela. Neela's life is whetted out to the reader in excruciating detail. Right from her conception in her mother's womb, through her high school, her infatuations, fantasies, insecurities and jealousies, this woman whose every detail is painstakingly portrayed, is in the end, is not central to the plot at all.
The underlying theme of the book appears to be “What the MNCs did to Bangalore” – or better yet – “Bangalore then and now”. Usha K.R. seems to be more interested in resurrecting Bangalore, or depicting the lives of the common man, underscoring how life has changed from the demure salwar kameez to the present culture of contour hugging attire.
The actual “monkey-man” whodunit lasts but a few pages of the novel. As one reads on into the deep diving details of lives, the monkey-man becomes a forgotten saga, almost an afterthought, used to hinge together this story. The little mystery of the monkey-man seems incidental to the telling of the rest of the tale.