Shrinivas Moorthy, history professor in a college in Bangalore, inveterate misser of opportunities, cautious radical turned stodgy conservative and the protagonist of Usha’s new novel, Monkey-Man, feels that history can be illuminated by cinema and fiction. “It was so important to put a human face to every movement, every event, even an idea.” And it appears that the primary purpose of this work of fiction is to provide human faces for the movement of Bangalore’s and, consequently, India’s history.
Monkey-Man’s own movement is a series of extended flashbacks that outline the life histories of its main characters, occasionally digressing further into the stories of subsidiary characters. While this method makes for loose storytelling, it does produce a sensitively rendered and beautifully detailed portrait of a set of lives, a deeply felt slice of ethnography. But be warned: the attempts to build a tight narrative are cursory. The eponymous monkey-man could have helped turn some pages. Unfortunately, he is given less than five per cent of this book’s space.
This is not, however, a fatal problem: as the stories of Neela Gopalrao—the complex, spiteful daughter of a mixed marriage, Pushpa Rani—bootstrapping her way up the social ladder thanks to the new economy, even Bali Brums—RJ to the masses and, of course, Shrinivas Moorthy, develop, it is possible to get absorbed in them. But sometimes having a set of developed characters is not enough; it is necessary for them to do something to or with each other if a work of fiction is to become a novel.