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A Tamil Brahmin And A Lower Caste Dom Set Out On A Bizarre Adventure

Don Quixote in India.

01/12/2016 3:27 PM IST | Updated 01/12/2016 10:04 PM IST
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Art Wolfe
Kumbh Mela in Varanasi.

About a decade ago, I saw an exhibition of photographs by Ryan Lobo in Calcutta, called The Wedding Season, which moved me with its quiet elegance and understated charm. I was struck by his ironic yet gentle gaze on his subjects as also by his intuitive sense of composition, which allowed the viewers the liberty to engage with his work independently, without being shown everything it had to offer by way of narrative explanation.

Coming to his first novel, Mr Iyer Goes to War, I was struck precisely by the antithesis of his visual poetics. Set in Varanasi, but moving beyond it, the story is portrayed with incredibly broad strokes, as though some painter had gone berserk and splashed bright colours all over a canvas with wild abandon. To call this style exaggerated or glib would be euphemistic. Crude seems to be the only word that can do justice to this mode of story-telling.

The visual flavour of the prose overwrought is with imagery and wavers between slapstick and juvenile bombast.

The reason behind this gloating in excess is, presumably, Lobo's inspiration, the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, immortalised in the Spanish classic by Cervantes. Re-tellings of great literature are a risky proposition for even the most seasoned writers. Apart from JM Coetzee's Foe, based on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, I cannot think of too many contemporary novels that have successfully reinterpreted a canonical work and also gone beyond that remit.

For a debut author, such an attempt could become a double bind: at once proof of ambition (and god only knows we need more writers, especially in India, willing to take risks rather than stick to tired old scripted plots) and of vainglory. In Lobo's case, the latter seems to overwhelm the former, leading to a novel that critics, especially in Britain, like to describe as "promising". A reader who picks up a book for pleasure, and not out of curiosity sparked by a literary conceit, may not get too far with it.

Bloomsbury India

The plot, understandably, mirrors Don Quixote. Mr Iyer is a thin, sad Tamil Brahmin (like Don Quixote) in the winter of his life, left at a home for the dying in Varanasi by his family. A loser in his past life, he is a big reader, suffers from a psychotic disorder and believes he's an incarnation of Bhima, reborn to destroy Bakasura, the embodiment of all earthy evils. He has a sidekick called Bencho, a lower-caste Dom (a short, round and sensible guy like Sancho Panza), whose duty is to dispose of the dead at the cremation ghats, though he harbours a desire to be a politician one day.

After a series of accidents, Iyer successfully flees the home and sets out on a mission to vanquish Bakasura, followed by the faithful Bencho, acting as his protector, who also usurps his master's follies to serve his own ends. There's even a donkey called Trishala to complete the picture. While Iyer is kind, or perhaps batty, enough to insist on equal treatment for Bencho wherever they go, ignoring the difference in their castes, the hierarchy of power between them remains more or less undisturbed.

I felt as though I was watching episodes of Loony Tunes, where cartoons bash up one another mercilessly, drop down into an abyss, have a piano fall on their heads and still manage to get on with their business end of the day

As the three travel through the hinterlands, they run into a motley group of characters: a truck driver beating up his help, a boatful of convicts, a politician's bored wife, even the cliché of a circus tiger. Each disastrous encounter is narrated with breathless energy, with forceful attempts at drawing out belly laughs from the reader, but is jarring for all the sound and fury.

The visual flavour of the prose is overwrought with imagery and wavers between slapstick and juvenile bombast. At times, I felt as though I was watching episodes of Loony Tunes, where cartoons bash up one another mercilessly, drop down into an abyss, have a piano fall on their heads and still get on with their business at end of the day. Sample this passage:

One night, unable to sleep, Iyer finds his diary lying by his bed. Disturbed from reading it, he throws it out of the window. It splashes into a puddle, drenching a low-flying crow, which veers into a tangle of electrical wires, which short-circuit and cause the transformer to explode. The bird falls, wings folding, unfixed from life. In the momentary darkness lit only by the sparks from the transformer, Iyer realises who he was in a past incarnation.

The improbabilities extend to plot twists as well. From owning a broken dumb phone, which Iyer hurls into the river, Bencho comes into the possession of a smartphone and, literally within minutes, he masters it well enough to have an email address, an iCloud account and the intellectual wherewithal to put it to devious use -- all of which come together to form the crux of the plot.

The Rabelaisian humour that Lobo so desperately wants to conjure was last seen in Indian fiction nearly 30 years ago, in Upamanyu Chatterjee's debut novel, English, August. Since then, no one, not even Chatterjee himself, has been able to get close enough to its rare originality, the ease with which English, August made readers dissolve into giggles with its uniquely Indianised vocabulary and addictively turning plot.

As for Lobo's novel, its epitaph is summarised, with self-reflexive irony, by these words spoken by Bencho to Iyer: "You told me someone would write about us one day? What story will he have? That we got beaten up all the time? That is no story, sir. That is no plot."

(My Iyer Goes to War is published by Bloomsbury India, 399, 224 pages.)

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