December 12, 2019
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A Mature Malgudi

A quite first novel which holds out a beacon for the genre

A Mature Malgudi
The Last Post
By Narendar Pani
Manas Rs 150, Pages: 208
THE first point to be made about The Last Post is that it's a book from R.K. Narayan country. But this is a Narayan who's informed and informative about matters which constitute the political and social world of small-town South India. Narendar Pani writes convincingly and humorously of the relationship between the media, vested business interests (here, the liquor trade), and politicians in small town India; and with the lightest of touches delineates how interests become vested and exploitative of differences among people.

The protagonist of The Last Post, Rangarajan, is the editor of the one and only English newspaper in Narasimhapura, a fictive small town in Karnataka. Starting off as a lowly waiter in a coffee shop, the worldly-wise man rises to the position of office boy and then editor of the newspaper, a position he is loath to lose. The newspaper itself had come into being because the local arrack trader, Bhimanna, had to get into the good books of an unapproachable government official whose only weakness was reading English newspapers. Since the official had to be otherwise content with a day-old newspaper from Bangalore, Bhimanna's brainwave works well enough to become a permanent institution - or so Rangarajan thinks. But Bhimanna's death changes things suddenly and Rangarajan has to fight for the survival of his paper as well as his editorial status.

Narasimhapura has its political family, that of the Gandhian, Narayanappa, whose anti-liquor campaign is instrumental in the setting up of the newspaper in the first place. The anti-arrack movement's given a new life by Savitri Rao, a political activist from Bangalore. This is to the consternation of Narayanappa's grandson, Krishnappa, the local politician. The paper can hope to gain the support of one of these political leaders whenever it attacks the other one. The Gandhian's family's no better than a politician's family should be and it's with the support of hoodlums that Krishnappa leads his political life. Sati, as Savitri's called, tries every trick to gather popular support to propagate her progressive student/youth politics, hence her anti-arrack movement. She manages to enthuse women but has to enlist a new reporter, foisted on Rangarajan, as her ally in garnering mass support.

Soon enough, a situation presents itself. The insider-outsider issue is raked up in Narasimhapura between the Old Residents and the Barkis, the later settlers who have woven themselves into the town's fabric. Almost naturally, the struggle centres itself around a monument, the Res-Barki, at an open ground, Barkisthal, where the town congregates in the evenings. It becomes a mandir vs monument issue and the sentiments of the people rises to riot pitch. The newspaper plays no mean seesaw role in this strife, as Rangarajan tries desperately to stay on his feet and on the right side of everybody. How he strives to keep the newspaper going while the situation deteriorates, and who benefits from all that happens and how is what the book's about. Peopled by horrifyingly believable though humorous characters, the town and the novel remind us all the time of people's reactions to the other demolition drive in the winter of our discontent.

In the plethora of books coming out, this first novel carves out a unique space for itself, addressing our public lives, our political life and the politics of our lives. This is what Indian English novels rarely do, and hence the importance of The Last Post and Narendar Pani. He may not ultimately pull off a Narayan: he may still have books to go before he can have the same felicity. But then Narayan has never pulled off a Pani; he has never managed to deal with larger social issues with the sense of sureness that Pani displays in this novel. It is novels like The Last Post which help us keep faith, in the Indian English novel even if not in the system.

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