A Place of No Importance
By Veena Muthuraman
Price: Rs 225
The building blocks of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days were simple: a village in South India, the simple problems and solutions of its people, all told in a manner that hid the space-time specifics such that readers believed that they had access to something outside time. Today, the process that turns Malgudi into a nostalgic entity also problematises its usage as a template for new writers. We are talking about globalisation. Or you could say modernity. Whatever its name, our harsh contemporaneity warrants that Malgudi be shown as a harsher place, its systems be shown under duress, its characters be struggling in their interface with a faster, meaner world.
Narayan’s literary descendants can be said to be facing two broad choices. The first is to take realism as the modality, to compromise Malgudi’s timelessness. The other would be to rebel, to create for the reader a contemporary Malgudi that nevertheless retains its old charm, which refers to its current flux as part of a larger cosmic activity, such that we are still allowed to return to Malgudi’s timelessness as our refuge.
Veena Muthuraman’s debut collection, A Place of No Importance, is set in a fictional village named Ayyanarpatti in Tamil Nadu. And she has, for most parts, chosen the first path. Ayyanarpatti is firmly set in a post-liberalisation India, and is confronting 21st century’s hopes and corruptions. The characters here do not face the simple ethical dilemmas or cute coincidences of those in Malgudi; they have more complex desires and denouements.
In her “Author’s Note”, Muthuraman sees the contemporary village as a place where “modernity and tradition seemingly collide though it will become quickly apparent that one is just co-opted into the other.” In the story titled “God’s Own Country”, the co-option is apparent, as a character employs tradition to defeat modernity’s excesses. An enterprising girl named Nithya (in the stories she appears in, Nithya is the modernity impulse personified) thwarts a land grab by burying an idol in the ground, which when discovered turns the site into a holy one.
In other stories, though, it is not the co-option but the contestation between the two forces that is apparent. Often, characters’ modern acts or impulses are defeated by the stubbornness of tradition. In “House on Upper Street”, for example, a young Dalit man discovers that in spite of an American education and salary, he still can’t buy a house in the same street where the upper castes reside. Similarly, in “Scenes from a Scandal”, an affair between middle-aged man and woman scandalises their immediate families, and forces them to leave their current stations in life. Elsewhere, a modern instrument creeps into traditional conflicts. An example is the story titled “A Yank in Ayyanarpatti”, in which an American named Ben comes to the village to build a low-cost house for the outcastes. The intervention is, however, not restricted to the figure of Ben alone, and includes the author. One wonders who in the village is using the word “yank”. The answer: nobody but the author. It is only Muthuraman who can use the slang, and her usage of it betrays a standpoint not entirely immersed in the setting.
What we lose in Muthuraman’s rendition is the character of the village itself, or what could be called the specific rusticity of Ayyanarpatti. While an attempt is made to embed tradition structurally — the twelve stories are each set in the twelve months of the Tamil calendar — its import is restricted to the “Author’s Note”, where Muthuraman reveals the structure.
What we lose in Muthuraman’s rendition is the character of the village itself, or what could be called the specific rusticity of Ayyanarpatti. While an attempt is made to embed tradition structurally — the twelve stories are each set in the twelve months of the Tamil calendar — its import is restricted to the “Author’s Note”, where Muthuraman reveals the structure. Perhaps the idea has arrived from two worlds — that can give us “yank” and “aipassi” (the word for October, as example), respectively — and to use this to showcase a mix of creeping modernity and receding tradition. This tactic fails, at least in the opinion of this reader.
To set the record straight, it must be said that Muthuraman’s talent is unmistakable and the collection is, for the most part, smartly written. Hers is an important debut. At the level of the sentence, her writing retains the simplicity warranted by her subject material. Amit Chaudhuri, who has written the cover endorsement for the book, has precisely this quality in mind in his praise. At the level of the scene, though, one notices some instances of superfluity and lack of clarity, and here Muthuraman differs from Chaudhuri. Continuing with the “yank” story example, the opening scene with Ben and his Chennai girlfriend seems arbitrary, apparently there to emphasise a contrast between the village and an urban environment where expat parties involve expensive whiskey. The ending, too, which involves Nithya, is hazy.
Muthuraman’s book also suffers in comparison with another recent collection based in a fictional village, Manu Bhattathiri’s Savithri’s Special Room & Other Stories. Categorised among Narayan’s descendants, Bhattathiri (who claims to have never read R.K. Narayan) can be said to be the ambitious one, walking on the second path such that his work is charged with the intent of creating a sense of timelessness. This requires, in his case, a style that fixates on the specific idiosyncrasies of his fictional place. Perhaps it should suffice to say that this reader would prefer to go to Bhattathiri’s Karuthupuzha more than Muthuraman’s Ayyanarpatti.
Tanuj Solanki is the author of Neon Noon