Tuesday, Aug 16, 2022
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Punch Drunk

A breezy cross between fable, dime novel and a Factory film with hi-fidelity audio (farts and all).

Verg. Vargi Baba. Verghese Kumar. The trail left by these slight misnomers maps out a strange, implausible journey—of a protagonist who is, by turn, migrant boy, Page 3 Adonis and Christ in a kurta. Verghese Konnikara is 6’5”, of taut musculature, baritoned, mostly silent. With traits that befit a Louis L’Amour cowboy, it’s difficult to conceive of him as Everyman. Or even as the average Malayali boy in Andheri. But literary verisme is only part of the intention here. The failed poet in faded jeans we meet on page one, ready to leap in front of a Tata truck, turns (many leaps-of-faith later) into a multinational godman. In this main plot, Verghese hovers wordlessly, like a drone, over a satellite map of society—a landscape of greed, malice and enough sex to make Balwant Gargi blush—seemingly untainted, but inexorably drawn to moral extinction. A breezy cross between fable, dime novel and a Factory film with hi-fidelity audio (farts and all).

But it’s as if Menacherry wrote two books, and then shuffled. The flashbacks are from some other distillery: wry, supple, replete with genuine moments. In life-sketches of the father—peon, novelist-manque and dismissed railway clerk, who swims further and further out in a sea of rotgut—and the part-Irish paramour (an endearing Mhow detour), you see a black-comic eye for psychological detail and behavioural nuance, a gift of empathy that grants inner life to even the one-scene extra. Alcohol stains these pages, like a creeping moral daemon, numinous and corrosive—from retro Kerala, a place that knows a thing or two about ebriety, to dingy Bombay bars. But the nub lies in this image—a man “who desired only to blend in”, yet looms Christ-like, deep in a sermon on a suburban slope, near the Buddhist Mahakali caves. It’s a new nativity, a fantasy against anonymity and unbelonging.

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