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We’re all mad here: Review of Manu Bhattathiri’s ‘The Oracle of Karuthupuzha’

A good book can be a window to a world that lies beyond our reach. Sometimes writers build a universe so richly detailed and imbued with personality that the place becomes a character in itself. For instance, in The God of Small Things, the fuming river and the dark trees that bend into it are no less a part of Ayemenem than Rahel or Paradise Pickles.

And then there are novels like Manu Bhattathiri’s The Oracle of Karuthupuzha whose world exists solely through its inhabitants. It is as though Karuthupuzha is a blank canvas — indispensable but inconspicuous in itself — brought to life by the milkman, the toddy-shop owner, the businesswoman, the industrious home-maker, and all their cohorts. In the course of three fictional works including the short story collection Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories (2016), the much-acclaimed novel, The Town That Laughed (2018), and now The Oracle of Karuthupuzha, Bhattathiri has painstakingly built up a quaint and eccentric South Indian town called Karuthupuzha, which is so removed from the modern world that an overseas call demands a trip to the ISD booth. In this town, men still gather in tea-shops and toddy huts to exchange news and gossip; women squat outside their homes to dry pappadams in the sun; and the local provision store gives credit to ‘clean’ regulars.

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Slow burn

So far as the power of world-building goes, Bhattathiri stands shoulder-to-shoulder with giants like R.K. Narayan or William Faulkner. Equally comparable is Bhattathiri’s slow-burning exploration of the tug-of-war between the individual and the collective. How do you get assimilated into a society that you don’t quite like? What do you choose if you have to choose between rationality and belief? Does idealism stand a chance when shrewdness can help you escape poverty?

We’re all mad here: Review of Manu Bhattathiri’s ‘The Oracle of Karuthupuzha’

The last is a question that Nareshan and his wife Kalyani often ponder as they try to wiggle their way out of the world of cheap beedis and pungent cow dung. A poor milkman with four mouths to feed, Nareshan is taken aback one day when his daughter Sarasu is seized with violent fits, which the townies interpret as a blessing from the demon-god Chaathan. Sensing an opportunity, Nareshan anoints himself as Chaathan’s sole interpreter, cleverly setting the stage for a thriving ‘business’. He establishes a new routine, taking care never to step out without smearing turmeric paste and holy ash on his body and wearing rudraksha beads. When in the marketplace, surrounded by crowds, he takes to muttering “vague and lofty phrases”, impressing everyone.

Follies and foibles

Bhattathiri conveys Nareshan’s craftiness in winning over the cynics and rationalists of Karuthupuzha with dry humour and empathy, appealing to the reader’s insecurities and follies. Each cameo (some of which have been picturised in Mohit Suneja’s brilliantly illustrated cover) is memorable — be it the perpetually cheerful Bhargavi, Paramu the Nail Gulper (he gulped over a dozen rusty nails, hence the name), the daredevil bus-driver Mathai, or the newspaper recycler Abu.

The story gathers steam when word of Sarasu’s gift reaches Ponnamma’s ears. A rich widow and mother to a shy young man, Nanu, Ponnamma is convinced that Sarasu will be able to drive out the rakshasa inside him and make him more ‘normal’. Nanu agrees for the Chaathan consultation, not because he thinks anything is wrong with him, but for a simple, heartbreaking reason — he wants someone to listen to him, to understand him.

Quick joke

From a feel-good story, the novel evolves into a satirical exploration of the power dynamics that exists between communities. If The Town That Laughed revolved around Joby, the neighbourhood drunkard, and Paachu Yemaan, the retired policeman mourning his loss of status, it is Nareshan’s relationship with the disgraced Communist leader Dasappan that grabs the spotlight in The Oracle. A running gag in which Nareshan tries to get Dasappan to refer to him as Nareshan mothalali (boss) instead of the familiar Nareshan etta (brother) is absurdly comical and reminiscent of old Malayalam comedies.

Bhattathiri’s unique style serves him particularly well when dealing with darker themes like mental illness, loneliness, and warped ideas of masculinity. Whenever tension builds up over these issues — as they must — it is cleverly diffused with a quick joke or throwaway comment. At the end, as you bid farewell to Nanu, who is no longer misunderstood, it is Nietzsche’s take on perspectivism that lingers: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

The Oracle of Karuthupuzha; Manu Bhattathiri, Aleph Book Company, ₹699

navmi.krishna@thehindu.co.in


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