Book review of The Greatest Enemy of Rain by Manu Bhattathiri short stories

Is it purely a matter of chance that we meet her again this season of rains, the girl in a cloud of butterflies? Or that in the 34th year of his epoch-changing novel, The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie should lie stabbed multiple times as helpless as a butterfly, trapped in the net of a vengeful malignity? The girl in Rushdie’s novel was Ayesha, the seer clothed in a mantle of butterflies, trailed by a crowd of her followers whom she leads to their doom.

There is nothing anywhere as momentous in the cornucopia of absurdities with which Manu Bhattathiri entertains us in his latest collection of short stories. Like the early Rushdie, Bhattathiri is also a copywriter with the same headline-grabbing talents at making connections and wrapping them in neat singularities.

Yet, at its centre, in a story entitled ‘The Singing Butterflies of Duabaag’, emerges a delicate vignette that is just as enchanting. The girl is just another girl on a train. We see her through the eyes of a fellow passenger, an older man as indeed most of Bhattathiri narrators tend to be, who watches her leafing through a book on butterflies. She has an equally arresting name — Aira. It suggests that she is a creature of the air, who flutters lightly on the page as the story unfolds.

Keralites and their obsession with leaky bladders

Aira leads the way into a magical garden in the middle of a forest. As he follows her, the narrator senses himself dissolving into her powder-flecked arms and eyes like the black markings on a butterfly’s wing.

The butterfly stalker on the train tells us that he is a poet with a need to urinate. He is trying to control the urge because of his fear of using a dirty toilet. The extreme need for hygienic purity seems to afflict other characters too. Let us add, with a quick nod in the direction of the doyen of such profundities, the satirical novelist OV Vijayan, that there is a tendency for writers from Kerala to be obsessed with leaky bladders and bursting bowls.

It must be due to that constant trickle of rain that forms the title of the first story. It emits a soft giggle as it leaks down from the skies. Aira, before she steps into her garden, is seen guiding the elderly passenger to a clean toilet as they jog along the train. On such delicate interactions does the Keralite romantic instinct apparently thrive.

In ‘The Shit of the Seraph’, the old grandfather who loses control of his sphincter muscles and defecates on the window ledge, explains that it’s a visiting angel who has the problem. Bhattathiri profiles the horror of a family taking care of an old parent in the last phase of his life. It is both a satire and a rueful description of the indignities of old age and how Grandpa leverages the situation to his advantage. He is particularly kind to the maid servant called Ratna, who cleverly benefits from an unexpected bonanza that the Seraph leaves on the window sill.

The lure of the Gulf

Whatever happened to that other rich seam of Keralites’ literary hand grenades, one wonders. The class wars, the victim narratives that define those living on the margins with haunting effect in the novels of the earlier generation of writers? Have these issues been neutralized by the lure of the Gulf; or even more permanently by the embrace of the libidinous joys of the West?

Bhattathiri has cleverly shifted his base. In the case of ‘A Difficult Customer’, he targets the aspirational anxieties of the urban elite as a corpulent couple swan into a hairdressing salon and spa and demand a haircut for the husband. “I’m allergic to dirty linen,” chuffs Mr. D’Souza. Georgie, the hairdresser with a prominent quiff of colored hair, wraps a sheet around him. Mrs. D’Souza gabbles like a turkey-hen issuing instructions. Their need for attention rises in proportion to the groveling attempts on the part of the salon owner and staff.

“There will be blood,” a character mutters in ‘The Answer’, where Bhattathiri expertly tosses his existential ball across the net between scientists and believers.

In truth, he suggests, it helps to have a good digestion.

The Greatest Enemy of Rain

Manu Bhattathiri

Aleph Book Company

₹699

The reviewer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.

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