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Archive for the ‘K.R., Usha’ Category

Cover of 'Monkey-man' At one point in Usha K.R.’s new novel, Monkey-man, one of the protagonists, Neela Mary Gopalrao, is vetting correspondence addressed to her boss, deciding what will actually reach him and what isn’t worthy to.

National Trust College, she thought, had become very ambitious of late—there were two proposals from them. One from a film studies person, a Shrinivas Moorty, asking for funds to upgrade their equipment—which she threw into the dustbin without a second thought—and another from the head of their Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies suggesting a collaborative workshop—which was a cleverer way of asking for money—that she put into the Important pile.

It’s a quiet but telling moment in Usha’s narrative, contrasting two approaches to making connections and getting something done. And, arguably, this moment operates as a reminder of how urban India has changed in the last twenty years and continues to change, how the route to success has changed. No more does achievement come from assuming that power is concentrated in somebody else’s hands, that one must work, be recognized for one’s work, and accept what the power bestows. Achievement is now in setting oneself up as a centre of power, an entity with much to offer, a collaborator—even if the Neela Mary Gopalraos of this world recognize that this is just ‘a cleverer way of asking for money,’ the fact is that, sooner rather than later, the money, the success, the achievement, the greater power does come. In the new urban India, there are more opportunities than ever before, for the taking—but only the confident can take them.

And it is this new urban India that Usha is concerned with, setting her novel at the beginning of the new millenium, a few days into January 2000. Four people have encountered a strange, savage beast the previous evening on Ammanagudi Street, Bangalore. Now, three of them are at a radio station’s studio with an RJ, Bali Brums, ready to talk about that they saw and what it might have been. Monkey-man is not a thriller—it’s not about what or who the monkey-man is and the process of hunting it down. Instead, it traces the stories of theseĀ  people–Srinivas Moorty, lecturer in History at National Trust College, a man who realizes how far his friends have drifted and how much he has not achieved, and whose marriage has become the mere sharing of a house; Neela Mary Gopalrao, personal secretary to the head of a research institute, who uses her power to play with the lives of her colleagues, but has once secretly opened herself up to another person and been humiliated; Pushpa Rani, who has risen from living in a one-room home on the edge of the city and earning a daily wage to become a Team Leader at a call centre, a girl who has turned her family’s fortunes around and is finally able to pay for the care of her ailing father. And Bali Brums (whose name is actually Balaji Brahmendra), the RJ, who dropped out of engineering college to take up one of the opportunities he came across in the changing India, a man who lives at home with his parents, even though he and his father disagree all the time, a man who trades on, in both personal and professional life, his ability to talk — not so much talk with people as talk at them — and to keep women, especially, swooning. Monkey-man is about each of their stories until that brush with terror on Ammanagudi Street and about how their lives have changed in the new India, along with the new tensions, negotiations, and opportunities that accompany these changes in what they might have thought of as immutable.

With a third-person narrative that speaks from the perspective of each of the main protagonists in turn, Usha perceptively constructs each of their lives. She has an eye for observing and describing the abstract and concrete minutiae of ordinary life–signboards on the street, the titles of public lectures, the colors and style of apparel, food preferences, passing encounters, smells, and so on–that her characters engage with every moment of the day, and it is through these minutiae that she painstakingly puts together a picture of how they live. This is a narrative that is deeply concerned with the internal, the life of the mind–not as it philosophizes or reflects on the abstract, but as it processes the constant stimulation from the material world around it—successfully chronicling some of the many facets of middle-class urban Indian life.

Usha’s prose is not without humour–it has a certain dryness, a subtle wit, in dealing with these minutae, that manages to simultaneously invoke both amusement at any evident pettiness in her characters’ existences and a strong feeling of sympathy for them, perhaps, most importantly, a feeling of recognition. This is what makes her work such a pleasure to read, as it helps the reader enter into these other lives, not in a voyeuristic sense but with the potential for deep understanding.

The journeys of her main characters take in several broad swathes of life in urban India. With Srinivas Moorty, the long road of boyhood friendship, the slow alteration of the street on which he lived, from semi-rural to urban, college days, the introduction to philosophy and politics with Marxism, to social life, to arranged marriage, all the way up to the sense, in the novel’s fictional present, that he might not have made the most of his life, as the world moves on around him and he is unable to quite keep up. With Neela Mary, the hierarchies and pecking orders of society, the ways in which they are reinforced and subverted, the confusion of women who have never been fully conditioned to professional ambition and yet never have an opportunity for marriage or partnership, because social mores stand in their way. And with Pushpa Rani and Bali Brums, the young, the hopeful, the way in which new technology has led to new employment and new optimism in urban India, even spaces where young people can engage in ways previously closed to them, while superstitions die hard and the burgeoning modernity is not of the European, individualistic, irreligious sort.

Churlish as it feels to level this criticism against such a finely written and imagined book, I have to say that, while I appreciated the craftsmanship that went into the telling of Srinivas Moorty’s story, I did not entirely see why it had to take up so much space. For, while Usha’s writing of college life is as nuanced as you could hope for, it is simply not compelling in the way that the rest of the book is compelling. It gives the reader a background, yes; but Srinivas, and his friends Geeta and Jairam, remain curiously concave throughout, gawky cyphers of youth. It is in the depiction of his marriage to Lily that Srinivas becomes a character to care about, not in that of his life before. Neela Mary and Pushpa Rani, on the other hand, are both strong, fascinating woman characters, and I do feel Usha would have done better to give them more time and space. Bali Brums, I have to say, was not a character I found myself drawn in by; somehow, he’s less sympathetic, less compelling than any of the others and that feeling doesn’t change by the end of the book. In sum, it does seem that Ushain this novel wrote her women far more confidently and fluently than her men—and perhaps that was an attempt to make a point.

That said, the strongest point of this novel, and Usha’s strongest point, is that she is genuinely interested in the journeys of each of her characters, men and women alike; as the words she uses to express Pushpa Rani’s thoughts say, “[E]veryone, she knew, had a story, a path down which they had walked, a journey that had formed them, that they were indistinguishable from.” This is a book to read for those stories. The new Bangalore, and urban India, has found in Usha a storyteller with a great capacity for compassion.

Edited because Harini pointed out that Bali Brums was missing from the first review I posted!

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