Manu Bhattathiri is a Keralite settled in Bengaluru. He has worked as an advertising copywriter, a journalist and a college lecturer. At present he co-owns a small advertising agency. His previous book, Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, was widely praised and shortlisted for numerous awards. The Town That Laughed is his first novel. Below you can read an excerpt from “The Town That Laughed.” Courtesy: Aleph Book Company.
Over the past few years much has changed in the small south Indian town of Karuthupuzha.
The first change, the one you see even as you are travelling here, concerns the only bus to Karuthupuzha. It has been repainted. The bright new coat of paint came after numerous meetings of the municipal council, urgent letters, strings being pulled, political muscle being flexed and even some secret bribes paid out of town funds. As always, every day the bus puffs to a halt at the marketplace, sneezes once from its underside, offers up a brief prayer of gratitude at yet another eventless trip made and falls silent with a happy tiredness. It rocks involuntarily with each passenger jumping off, feeling lighter and happier as its load lessens. All this is as it has always been. What is new is its pride in the wavy green and blue lines interspersed with red astral designs that now adorn its body. The shiny paint brings back memories of the young bus it once was. The new design invokes some admiration for the unknown artist at the bus body-shop in the city from onlookers in the Karuthupuzha market. More importantly, for one and all, it heralds the fact that Karuthupuzha is different. The very way you arrive here has changed.
There are other indicators of change. Now you might find the odd tobacconist muttering words like ‘trend’ or ‘changing mindsets’ under his breath as he sprinkles water on the betel leaves stacked up in his shop. You will also certainly hear heated discussions on technology and foreign cities and the youth of other lands under banyan trees and behind rustling newspapers. In a certain toddy shop that we will visit presently, arguments rage every evening about Western clothes versus Eastern culture, with participants growing steadily more violent as they down more and more arrack. Everywhere in the town you will see its residents endeavouring to keep up with the world as it changes around them.
People in Karuthupuzha now listen to weather forecasts on the radio. Where grandmothers shielded their eyes with withered palms and squinted at the skies to predict rainfall, people now turn to the Meteorology Department. Though significantly less dependable than the forecasts of the grandmothers, no one would dream of going back to that practice—it was so retrograde. They had figured out that if you kept your radio facing west, it was more likely that the predictions would be accurate. Moreover, everyone knew that it wasn’t all that vital to know exactly when the rain would descend from the skies. The people of Karuthupuzha had the patience and the time to wait until it rained to know that it was raining. Weather predictions had entertainment value, no more.
The change sweeping through Karuthupuzha had spread beyond its human populace. If you took the first side lane after the bus stop, you would pass by a barren jackfruit tree that no one had spared a second glance for. In all the years that it had grown to adulthood the tree had never yielded a single fruit. Even the birds deemed it not significant enough to alight upon, and its meagre and stingy shade had never been used by a single traveller for a moment’s rest throughout its history. But now, after centuries of an incredibly useless existence, the tree had started to bear fruit! It seemed to have realized that when you suck life-giving goodies from the soil and pluck sunlight from the air, it was important to give back. It seemed to have finally absorbed the principle that politicians and philosophers couldn’t stop talking about. That it was important to give back was something that was taught in the town’s only school.
It was an axiom that even irked the otherwise impermeable consciences of some of the very rich businessmen like Eeppachan Mothalali and Moydeen Mappila, who would from time to time engage in frantic but incomplete acts of social responsibility. Having abruptly realized its inadequacies in this department the tree had borne, the previous season, its first intensely sweet, perfectly shapeless and rather heavy jackfruit. The fruit had stuck out from among its thick, hitherto selfish leaves like the bulge of a pregnant woman. Ever since, it had been insanely fertile across seasons. Birds, squirrels, flies, ants and humans were beneficiaries of the jackfruit tree’s new resolve. But the tree had taken the philosophy so much to heart that nobody could keep up. Even though everyone ate their fill, there was still much left over. These fruits ended up on the roadside and lay there, crushed by the fall, sticky and messy.
Now, it is important that when you try to capture the ethos of a place you must be completely honest if you are seeking to give the reader a true picture. You can’t just highlight one aspect; so in the interests of accuracy it is necessary to point out that change had not reached every corner of Karuthupuzha. There were some holdouts. One such throwback lay comfortably on the steps leading up to Sureshan’s barbershop, oblivious to the fact that it was day now and the establishment would soon be open for business.
This unchanged element of Karuthupuzha was Joby the town drunk. He now lay sprawled on the steps, feet on the lowest step, head lolling on the uppermost. By one slightly swollen foot lay the bitch Lilly, her tail curled beneath her safely like it was the most precious part of her. Still swimming in yesterday’s arrack, Joby was in no mood to make way for the day. From under his dirty shirt a hairy bellybutton showed. Although from the way he was lying on the steps you would think the man was dead at last, succumbing to a lifetime of toddy shop food and crude alcohol, a lifetime of being a buffoon who burned himself out to make everyone laugh, a lifetime of trying and failing to find anything at all that deserved his sobriety, Joby was very much alive. No sooner had Poulose the grocer—who had his shop two doors away and was opening its shutters for the day—commented on how some people belonged in an ocean of arrack, the drunk let loose such a volley of classic abuses that the dew on a nearby shrub quickly evaporated. Poulose looked around to check if anyone had heard. When he realized that half of Karuthupuzha had heard, he rushed into his shop, pretending that nothing had happened. It’s one of those days, Poulose thought, when Joby the drunk decides to recite the morning prayers for the whole damn town.
From the grocer Poulose to Manikanthan of the stationery shop further down, to Chacko the electrician who was tinkering with something while perched on a nearby electric pole, to Abu who bought old newspapers, everyone was now eagerly anticipating the arrival of Sureshan. Everyone knew that Sureshan would be particularly distressed to find the town drunk fouling up his front steps. The barber was a neat, methodical man who never got drunk and kept his shop as if it were a temple. The first thing he did every morning after opening his shop was to splash a bucket of water on the steps so the way to his shop would be clean and welcoming for customers. A cruder man might not have deviated from his routine this morning as well, and would have washed down his steps as always. But Sureshan was a fine person who hated to cause anyone any pain. Everyone waited to see what he would do when he arrived.
Sure enough, here was Sureshan, his umbrella tucked under his arm, carrying a crisp morning paper that he occasionally glanced at as he walked towards his shop. Sureshan glowed with vitality, fresh from a cold-water bath, his hair well-oiled and combed, his forehead ablaze with turmeric paste. The last was on account of the fact that every morning he worshipped at the temple before going to work. There was a smile of contentment on his face which owed much to the tasty boiled tapioca his wife, Meenu, had made him for breakfast. This smile is what all the onlookers thought would abruptly vanish as soon as he saw the prostrate form on his doorstep. Electrician Chacko giggled silently, making the whole post shake precariously and causing the electric wires to shiver for some distance. Poulose looked from Joby to Sureshan and back at Joby again. Abu the recycler sang some lines from an ancient film song—‘You’ve got a visitor’.
Barber Sureshan walked up to the recumbent Joby and exclaimed: ‘Here you are!’ He then switched his umbrella to his other arm and said: ‘You’re here!’