The Whimsical Muse

Published: February 7, 2012 - 13:57 Updated: February 23, 2012 - 16:09

The books tell important stories, based on actual events couched in fiction, and yet slide out of the crevices of one’s head, leaving little trace of memories
Ratna Raman Delhi 

Book: The Tigerclaw Tree

Author: PA Krishnan

Publisher: Westland Ltd   

Pages: 324

Price: 295

YEAR: 1997 

The Muddy River
PA Krishnan

Publisher: Westland Ltd   

Pages: 248

Price: 250

Year: 2011 

This combined review of two books written by PA Krishnan is because I received the review copies together. I read them sequentially over a fortnight, truncating with readerly authority the 14 years that stretched out between the publication of the books. My reading, rather like that of a literary retriever, follows clues and establishes interconnections. 

Curious about The Tigerclaw Tree and its promise of unfolding the story of four generations of Tenkalai Iyengars, I hoped for a sociological narrative charting an imagined history of Iyengar lives in the manner of great narratives that enable us to understand a community or the lives of people intensely lived. Such historical narratives in English are few in number in India because novels written in English have been living literary tradition for less than a hundred years. 

The Tiger Claw Tree is termed a cult classic and favourably associated with that effortless teller of extraordinary tales, Marquez, on the blurb cover. The shared similarity to Marquez is due to the ants which appear in the first chapter. This is not magic realism, since ants number among the regular denizens of South India and storm domestic bastions routinely. Most large houses to date keep the legs of pantry cupboards in large saucers filled with water to keep red ants and black ants, small ants and sometimes even big ants, out of the provisions. 

Despite beginning boldly from the bedside of an immobile Ponna, the narrative never really explores her life, or her thoughts for that matter. The men in the narrative say that their women were remarkable, but the reader is never in the know. Women are very summarily dealt with, irrespective of whether they are young, pubescent, married, child widows or adult widows. The same holds of their love, desire and dreams for that matter. 

We learn of the power that patriarchs wield in public and personal lives, and of the powerlessness of wives. One gruesome incident is the upside down stringing up of a wife after divesting her of her clothes by robbers to find out where all the money is while the husband is away visiting a mistress. All the Tenkalai Iyengars are virile men with great libidos to which their women submit, in the same manner that they do to the codes and prescriptions that the community lays down for them. 

Nammalwar, a mysterious heroic figure who engages with the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi and the cops, and then escapes to Joshimath to return after 60 years, is the most powerfully drawn out character in the narrative. Yet of him we hear very little once he fathers a child. His wife dies due to related complications and he escapes from the narrative to return as a robust old man settling down with his grandson’s wife Rosa and their baby. 

There are several characters Krishnan introduces us to, but the narrative does not stay with any of them long enough to sustain our interest, and the ones that could have made a difference are quickly killed off. This remains at best unsettling, if not disappointing. 

The debates on nationalism, non-violence and activism recall our recent aspirations and ambitions as a modern nation. There are gruesome accounts of how cops deal with victims. Krishnan documents how in India you are presumed guilty until it is too late to prove your innocence, irrespective of your caste or your politics. The violence and mindless brutality he documents as part of a regular day’s work at police stations is horrifying, and demands a revisit by informed officers in the administration.

The few epistolary exchanges in the book defy understanding. Letters are exchanged so infrequently between the characters that anybody studying the decline of the Indian Post could be compelled to argue that the rot set in as far back as a hundred years ago. The Tigerclaw Tree ends with Kannan, a light-weight character, moving out from Nanguneri to the north, after having qualified in the civil services, to a promising future. 

I would argue that in The Muddy River it is an older version of the same Kannan whom we meet, with his pretty wife Sukanya, who recalls Uma from The Tigerclaw Tree. What evidence do I have to support this finding? The fact that Sukanya refers to Pakshiraja as her father-in-law. He comes from the south to visit his son Chandran, who works with the government, and dies at New Delhi. Pakshi was Kannan’s grandfather in the first book. This little bit of detective work notwithstanding, The Muddy River is an easier read with less characters. 

The narrative structures itself mainly around the peccadilloes of middle-aged men and the corruption of a corporate house that shortchanges the government. It is simply not gripping enough. Of course, thrillers about money and sex are written. However, for a bestseller, the money at stake would have to be spectacular, the plot breathtaking, the sex sizzling, and the machismo of the protagonist would have to put James Bond and his gorgeous girls in the shade. None of this happens in The Muddy River which is rather like running a fine toothed comb through very sparse territory. 

The narration as it shifts focus from situational comedy to personal trauma, from the bathetic to the sordid, fails to convince despite always being politically correct. 

In this book, too, minimal time is spent on each event, and since this is a single-generation narrative, despite plural voices, little stimulation is provided either to the grey cells or to the solar plexus. The narration remains jerky and abrupt. Personal life is presented in disconnected vignettes – Sukanya loses two children and her husband runs around in circles, ostensibly trying get back a kidnapped colleague, but salivates en route over as many accommodating females as he encounters, much in the style of his doppelganger Kannan. His life as a bureaucrat has amusing office anecdotes, and his negotiations with relatives, friends and naxalites are smoothly recounted, but all this reportage has little staying power. 

The epistolary style is a little more effective in Krishnan’s second book, although no one may have heard of child prodigies writing letters to family friends, in their single digit lives, especially in these days of electronic communications which miniaturise both writing and relationships? 

The ending of the second book is extremely bleak. The Tiger Claw Tree records the dissolution of the way of life in the Iyengar agraharam as we were made to know it. In The Muddy River, located at New Delhi and Assam, we are witness to a further dilution of the national body politic, split asunder by violence, riots, corruption, armed revolutionaries and bomb blasts. Ramesh and his wife, post loss of children, work in Dhemaji, a remote administrative district in Assam, and are seriously injured in a bomb blast. The only unhurt member is a child, possibly fathered by Ramesh and adopted by his wife and him.

Both books are well-produced and are entirely free of any stylistic errors. They tell important stories and yet slide out of the crevices of one’s head, leaving little trace of memories, although they are based on actual events couched in fiction. The author is a seasoned bureaucrat, an honest, politically correct Indian, Gandhian and socialist to boot, and steeped in an abundantly rich literary culture. It so happens that the muse of  writing is at best a recalcitrant and whimsical mistress who stealthily keeps her own counsel.

The books tell important stories, based on actual events couched in fiction, and yet slide out of the crevices of one's head, leaving little trace of memories
Ratna Raman Delhi

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