The Town That Laughed book review: Fictional setting fails Manu Bhattathiri's well-etched characters
Though The Town That Laughed draws well on the eccentricities of small-town people, it does precious little for the fictional town it is set in — Karuthupuzha
Stories are often determined by two elements – characters and the places these characters occupy. The best writers often devise a way that ensures their readers care for both, and also understand what one means to the other. To set a novel in a fictional place, therefore, can be deemed both a risk and an opportunity. Risk, because as a writer, you have to become the place’s urgency, its movement. Opportunity, because you can direct that movement to not only amplify your characters one way or another, but also control to some extent the reader’s understanding of this relationship between the two. Manu Bhattathiri’s The Town That Laughed, set in the fictional town of Karuthupuzha, a place on the banks of the river of the same name, does a good job of controlling this interaction. But though it draws well on the eccentricities of small-town people – even on the cover for one – it does precious little for the place itself.
The novel can be regarded as a slice from the life of a small town, a place that ‘sat, like everything else, on the endless arm of cosmic time’; endless, probably, because not a lot happens in Karuthupuzha. The town has seen little crime over the years, which in more ways than one undermines the career of its retired police officer Paachu Yemaan. His reputation is more hearsay than established fact. Paachu takes it upon himself to correct the town’s galoot, Joby — a man addicted to arrack and therefore the only potential threat to the parochial climate that is otherwise the standard. Aside from these two, there is the barber Sureshan, the photographer Varky, the hawaldar Bubru, Paachu’s niece Priya and a number of other characters who aren’t necessarily part of Paachu’s absurd plan to rectify Joby’s lifestyle, but they help to outline the main characters' lives.
Paachu, once the town’s respected police officer, is now rejected by most, including people from the station he retired from, as senile. That, however, makes him crave for power that he likes to believe he still wields. He wishes for his niece Priya to become a police officer as well. As a way to rehabilitate Joby, Paachu decides to assign him the task of plying his niece to the school and back on a bicycle – just something to do. This little intervention on his part unravels a micro-tale of back-stories and confessions. The Town That Laughed moves backward in time, more than it moves forward. The first two halves where we read-over stereotypes, is where the book effectively writes both irony and wit into the narrative. There are likeable eccentricities of small-town life. In one conversation, Paachu’s wife Sharada tells Barber Sureshan ‘this town will laugh a man to his grave’.
Bhattathiri doesn’t clarify if it is Joby, the town drunk, that Sharada is talking about or Paachu the town’s newest joke and her husband. Such foggy motivations and frivolous obsessions keep a place with low stakes ticking, allowing at the same time its people to play jigsaw with status quos. In doing so, the book also serves as a worthy comment on the very frivolity of social entanglements. Most of the book’s comedy flows from the characters, their absurd yet painfully lucid motivations, of which Paachu’s is extensively tragicomic. Bhattathiri also manages to zoom in on socio-cultural zeitgeists. In one strand he writes about how the town photographer Varky’s studio window becomes a thing of obsession for the folk in town – a primer perhaps for the social media age.
That said, while the fictional setting of Karuthupuzha meant to serve as the backdrop against which absurdities occur, it feels incredibly thin on its own. For starters, the book doesn’t know if it is set in a town or a village, and that missing distinction feels definitive. It declares, for example, the presence of an antique shop in town as preposterous, but then goes on to mention an artist who holds art exhibitions in the same town. The absence of any form of geography only withdraws from the equations that its characters share with each other and most crucially feel driven by. We get no sense of place or proximity, only a vague assortment of people who, more than anything, float over Karuthupuzha much rather than live in it. Not every character acts as a natural catalyst to the story, at which point one gets the feeling the town itself could have played a bigger role, at least have these people interact with its spatial margins and boundaries, let alone the social ones that seem so comically intertwined.
Bhattathiri’s prose, however, is sleek. In Joby, he has written an acutely tragic character, whose surprisingly steady revelations to Paachu’s niece Priya feel weirdly reassuring amidst the noise of farce. A man who says things like "My problem is with reality. Reality never lives up to my expectations," Joby lives out of a Pagliacci suit, and so does the book, comic in the fabric it wears, but toothsome once unrobed.
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