Thursday, February 11, 2010
Live Life Pintsize
By Sunil K Poolani
Arrack in the Afternoon
Mathew Vincent Menacherry
Price: 350; Pages: 315
A disclosure: As a reader, reviewer, publisher, and a Keralite to boot, there is one thing I really dread: A work of fiction in English which has Kerala as its principal subject. I say this from experience. For you could, even before turning the first page of most novels in this genre , expect a melange of clichés — backwaters, communism and promiscuous NRI wives to name a few — smarmy sentimentality and pretentious ruminations, everything marinated in stilted prose.
So, it was with much trepidation that I began to read the novel in question, expecting the usual antics from those who savour kappa and karimeen and write about them, too. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise as what Menacherry had to offer was not the predictable spiciness of aviyal but the heady spirits of bootlegger stuff.
The hero of the novel is Verghese Konnikara, a loser-alcoholic, whose life takes a miraculous turn right when it sinks to the lowest point in the abyss. The turnaround begins when he tries to give up his life by jumping in front of a speeding truck on the highway. He survives. Even better, his exceptional ‘jump’ gets noticed by an ‘entrepreneur’, Karan, who becomes his guardian spirit from then onwards.
Karan, naturally, is that wily Bombay businessman; he literally turns Verghese into a circus animal: making him jump in front of trucks and charging the public for it. What both did not anticipate was that Verghese’s performances would soon put him on a pedestal as a saint who can perform ‘miracles’. In a short span, he becomes the most-sought-after godman in the city, country and worldwide: he gives sermons to ever-increasing, gullible masses with verve and mesmerising them with both word and gaze. He becomes a Page 3 fixture (due mainly to the famous editor Sabu Joseph of Mumbai Masala) every day, is invited to the parties of the biggest industrialists in the country and also — since most bored, rich wives find him sexy — he gets to fornicate them often. What more can a desperate maverick alcoholic hope in life?
But all good things have to come to an end. Karan milks him like there is no tomorrow and Verghese is drinking and abusing his body like Armageddon awaits at sundown. Verghese, steered by Karan, is increasingly drawn into the high-life of society (including his sojourn in America), but in the process he alienates his old friends: Patricia, his lover-sex-object who runs a liquor shop, and the neighbourhood shopkeeper Pillaichan, both of whom stood by him when he was in the pits. One day he decides enough is enough and just walks on to the road, in front of his followers, and jumps, for the last time, in front of a speeding truck, with inevitable results.
Menacherry’s craft is charmingly simple, without gimmicks and he seems to have studiously kept away a thesaurus while writing. My only quarrel is that he ‘namedrops’ a lot: you can easily figure out the Bachchans, the Ambanis, Thackeray, party animals, and even the biggest rag-sheet in the city. The recognisable characters walk into Verghese’s life like in a cheap Ram Gopal Varma flick. Was there a need for that? Well, the only plausible reason one can arrive at is that Menacherry hopes his book would be made into a movie, one day — and why not, by Varma himself?
Despite this shortcoming, Menacherry’s is a voice worth waiting for, especially since nothing much is known about his background except that he lives in Mumbai and is an entrepreneur. No baggage or distractions there. Somewhat like Verghese’s unassuming nature.
-- Sunday DNA / 7 February 2010