Book Review


A Place of No Importance: Veena Muthuraman

--Suneetha Balakrishnan

Publisher: Juggernaut Books

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 234pp

Price: Rs 299

In a 1982 review of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days Anatole Broyard says, ‘The greatest virtue of Malgudi Days is that everyone in the book seems to have a capacity for responding to the quality of his particular hour, an art we need to study and revive’.  When you talk about Veena Muthuraman’s debut book, A Place of No Importance, one feels the same – and a reference to Malgudi becomes inevitable.

The setting of Veena Muthuraman’s chronicles, Ayyanarpatti, is a hamlet quite on the lines of Malgudi – the fictional town portrayed by the iconic writer, the late RK Narayan. So are its denizens. And the connection does not end there. The celebration of subcultures that engaged readers in RK Narayan’s writing makes an appearance in this book too and it’s as warm, as effortless and as subtly humorous as the style of the Malgudi narrative.     

Writing A Place of No Importance was what came out of an unplanned visit made by the writer to her native village in Tamil Nadu, and her subsequent observations of life there when on an impromptu visit. The book is laid out in a baker’s dozen of chapters, following the Tamil Calendar months for its theme; viz. one story for each month and an extra. Her reason for this device, as explained in the Author’s Note, is most endearing. ‘For centuries life here has revolved round the seasons, the rains, the harvests and the festivals. Now it’s mostly the festivals that are left as the rains fail continually and not much is sown and grown. I wanted to catch this way of life before it completely vanished, before all we have left are festivals which become meaningless and mindless because why they were celebrated in the first place’.

There is the usual assortment of rustic regulars inhabiting the 200-odd pages and one is struck by the silent strength of the women protagonists rather than the extravagant plumes of the males around them. It’s the men who initiate and lead the story, but it’s the women who sustain and empower the tale, albeit sometimes unconsciously. Rukkamma, Kanaka Achi, Kalai and many others remain with us from this pantheon. Ayyanarpatti is totally the pastoral haven that quivers on the edge of industrial. But they do have to encounter their ghosts, which could be real ones like the resident ghost Mariamma or others like tradition, superstition and even caste. The people live a ritual-filled life lined with a strange mixture of poverty and newfound wealth. And, to sketch them, the author adopts a tone of benign satire that’s intensely Indian.

Quite naturally, the characters have ambitions of all sorts. But these are often held back with the heaviness of superstition and tradition that threads through their lives. The men work outside the home, marry ostensibly docile women who would stay at home, and their sons go out of the village to seek a future. And gender and caste are right in place. Yes, it’s that familiar world.

The stories stand alone, although they are interconnected in various ways through settings, characters and plots. Characters recur but do not walk round in circles, thankfully. They mostly take the story forward or remain without hindering the current drama in progress; Nithya and Councillor Muthu being two memorable names among the characters. The titles of stories are indeed interesting, apt and full of flavour. Look at this one: ‘Macondo Thatha’. Rings a bell? You got it!

The language and style of the book are simple and the author has managed a rare balance of a fine literary work that’s not pretentious but indeed accessible to a reader who looks for a story. One also appreciates the distance the author maintains from her characters, narrating her tales without sentiment, mostly observing and commenting rarely. There is indeed detailing, but it’s uncluttered in its layout, lending the reader a strongly visual experience.  

Such comments about the book would probably lead the reader to assume this book is a commentary on life alone. It is a commentary, but it has its layers, especially when the author takes on the issues of caste and class. The story, ‘A House on Upper Street’ is a brilliant example. And ‘God’s Own Country is a story’ has a real estate grab as a central plot.

It would be blasphemy to conclude this without mentioning the cover. It’s one of the most appropriate covers that one has seen in recent times: silhouettes of three children in motion with a background of white clouds and stubs of grass. Life goes on, it tells the reader. 

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Suneetha Balakrishnan