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Back to Malgudi Days

Former journalist and now adman Manu Bhattathiri’s debut book Savithri’s Special Room and other stories (HarperCollins) has nine short stories located in an imaginary sleepy little town called Karuthupuzha, in the interiors of South India. Bhattathiri’s extraordinary tales about the ordinary town folk hark back to R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days .

Bhattathiri’s wry observations of life in small town India have been spun into tales of protagonists with eccentric attributes that make them and their idiosyncrasies endearing to the reader.

There’s a stingy accountant drawn to philanthropy, a godman with a fetish for stealing slippers and undergarments, a policeman trying to prove himself a tough law-enforcer, an owner of an old-age home trading in pornography, among others.

Yet all the characters have some sterling quality that makes them relatable: the accountant helps a desperate father trying to save his son; the godman never dupes anyone; the tough cop is extremely affectionate to his niece; the pornography-peddler takes care of old people.

The author deftmly etches out the main and attendant characters. And his descriptions of Karuthupuzha and its surroundings create vivid visual imagery. Meticulously and succinctly written, all the stories have plenty of twists and turnss, and a climax catching the reader unawares.

Excerpts from an interview:

On turning to storytelling

My grandfather expressed his love for me through his elaborate storytelling. I would be an ardent listener. Deep into the night he would tell me tales from our mythology, stories of fantastic beings, both good and evil. In the day, I would connect these to the everyday people I saw. I would imagine them as characters in grandpa’s tales, and in those settings. I think, maybe, years later those countless stories might have spurred me to create a few of my own.



On how these stories came into being

We had decided that we would celebrate my mother’s birthday by doing some charity and give away blankets to an old-age home situated nearby. And then, six months later, I remembered that we had given no blankets to anyone. We had simply forgotten the whole thing! That led to the first story, The Cold , which was published in The Caravan . Encouraged when many friends told me that they could ‘see’ the characters and the place described, I wrote three more stories quickly. Then it went into cold storage, until HarperCollins contacted me with their offer to publish if I had more such stories. I wrote the next five stories in about three months.



On choosing the short story genre

At first, I didn’t really bother to think if I should attempt a series of interconnected short stories or a novel. The characters just moved about interestingly and I wrote about them. Now, I discover that short stories are challenging; you need to portray the characters vividly in less room. And the plot veers into a climax fast. This makes the medium fast-paced and with surprises at every turn.



On how Karuthupuzha came into being

Karuthupuzha is modelled on the small towns of Kerala where I spent many a holiday as a little boy. In fact, the name was suggested by my wife. The moment she said it, I imagined a frothy white stream with a hill on one side of it [ Karuthu means black, and puzha is a river]. As the sun goes behind the hill, its shadow turns the stream black. I loved the imagery and the parallel it offered to fate, people’s moods, happiness and sorrow and a lot of other things.



On the eccentricities of his characters

Everyone is eccentric if you look closely enough. If you could get into another’s thoughts, or see what he or she does when no one is looking, a simple portrayal of what you observe about him or her would be an extraordinary narrative about an eccentric person. I like to believe that I am not writing about unusual people; I am writing about routine folk in unusual detail. And then, to properly and amusingly portray them, I invent my own style of storytelling, and add a dash of my imagination.



On avoiding labelling the characters

I simply refrain from labelling or judging. When I let my characters live their lives, I find their inherent contradictions, the confusion in their minds and the unexpected outcome of their actions immensely amusing, without in any way finding myself better off than them. It helps me write about them.



On birds, animals and objects in the stories

As a little boy, I could not imagine that a stone just sat there forever unless someone moved it! I mean, I couldn’t quite understand that anything could be devoid of life. I think it was a child’s imagination that saw faces on boulders and heard giggles in swaying trees. But while writing, I thought this makes my picture far more colourful. That’s why, in Karuthupuzha everything lives, thinks, and is warm. I like every element in the settings to participate in the story. It invigorates my storytelling and makes my expression more satisfactory.

Savithri’s Special Room & Other Stories is available for Rs. 279 on Amazon



When I let my characters live their lives, I find their contradictions, the confusion in their minds amusing





When I let my characters live their lives, I find their inherent contradictions, the confusion in their minds and the unexpected outcome of their actions immensely amusing






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