Bhattathiri’s collection of short stories is set in Karuthapuzha, a quaint little fictional town in the middle of nowhere. There are different legends to the name of Karuthapuzha. One is that there really was a puzha, or river, that ran along the western border of the small town, which, in time, shrank to a thin stream. “When the hills cast their shadows upon the slither of water, it appears karutha or black,” writes Bhattathiri. Hence the name Karuthapuzha, or black river. Then there is the story of the woman called Karuthu, who was thrown into the river by her cruel father-in-law. She becomes a banshee who drinks up the whole river, except the little stream under the hills.
There are many other superstitions and legends in the book, which give Karuthapuzha the feel of a fantasy or a dream. Bhattathiri’s real accomplishment is not the creation of Karuthapuzha but rather the characters who people it. So there is Shanta, the ugly spinster who has the black tongue—whatever she says comes true. Paachu, the fierce inspector of Karuthapuzha, can’t inspire fear in his subordinates because one day, he wakes up with a tuft of hair standing poker-straight on his head and refusing to settle down. These characters are not real, they are more a parody of the truth. But there is something endearing about each of them.
Perhaps it is because you look at their cares and worries and they seem so absurd to you—a man’s biggest quandary is to decide whether or not to donate blankets to an old age home, a woman buries her troubles by showing off her warts and bruises to the townsfolk, and a boy takes pleasure in pulling out his eyebrows. Yet, they are real issues that cause sleepless nights and painful moments of indecision to the people of Karuthapuzha. (I imagine this must be how God laughs over our absurdities, with a kind of fond indulgence.)
The last story, about an evil man who spreads an ugly rumour about a spinster and a bachelor which ultimately ends in the victims of his evil prank deciding to get married, is a masterpiece, a perfect blending of planning and execution. Bhattathiri is like a puppet master, skilfully making his puppets bump into each other and dance to his tunes. The curtain closes on a wonderful finale, where all the inhabitants of Karuthapuzha congregate to celebrate the wedding. As uttered by one of the characters in a bit of profundity: “We make rules, then we disobey those rules, and then we invent punishments for each other.” There is something comic about that statement but also a kind of bittersweetness because it bears the ring of truth.
Savithri’s Special Room
By Manu Bhattathiri
Published by HarperCollins Price Rs 399; pages 202