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  Books   10 Dec 2016  A compelling, humane story

A compelling, humane story

THE ASIAN AGE. | STUTEE KOTNALA
Published : Dec 10, 2016, 2:02 am IST
Updated : Dec 10, 2016, 6:33 am IST

Mr Iyer Goes to War is filled with witty characters, light humour and insightful quotes.

Mr Iyer Goes to War by Ryan Lobo Bloomsbury,  Rs 399
 Mr Iyer Goes to War by Ryan Lobo Bloomsbury, Rs 399

Ryan Lobo’s first novel Mr Iyer Goes to War is short, interesting and fast paced. Set in the holy city of Varanasi, where one attains moksha, we meet Lalgudi Iyer, a Tamil Brahmin. Iyer quotes scriptures and Hindu epics at the drop of a hat. An accident leaves him with a concussion and Iyer claims that he’s Bhima from Mahabharata and that he’s on a holy mission of killing Bakasura, the demon. He escapes from the old age home with his trusted aide Bencho, a dom, and embarks upon his journey down the River Ganga to cleanse earth of all evil. The book traces his journey.

Lobo is clever to have set the story in Varanasi. “Varanasi is the heart of the cultural geography of India. It is a spiritual capital of sorts and is considered to be the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. The city has been ravaged repeatedly and even razed to the ground but has repeatedly risen from the ashes,” says Lobo.

Iyer is inspired by the character of Don Quixote. Quixote was an idealist who lived by the values of an older time, believing in knight errantry and gallantry, despite living during a period of cultural decline. He lived his ideals, charging the monsters of his time, regardless of outcome and though crushed repeatedly, rises from the ashes. “I would like to think that India as a civilisation is rising despite the culture wars happening within. Particularities long suppressed due to poverty, colonialism or poverty have begun to flow again. Identities, religious and cultural, once overwhelmed and displaced are coming into themselves. As the saying goes, ‘History flows in blood and is not written in the books’. So yes, Varanasi, because it represents our survival, our endurance and our magic,” explains Lobo.

However, pitching Iyer with Bhima — that too in the modern world — is enigmatic. Probably this was the only way — powerful and physically huge character like Bhima could have juxtaposed with the supposedly “mad” but frail Iyer. So Iyer lives in both the so-called modern world but is still profoundly in touch with his mythology and culture. “In some regards Tamil Brahmins are people who live their beliefs quite profoundly and have done so for a very long time. I recall watching a man conduct a funeral ritual once and an archaeologist friend told me that he had found evidence of the same ritual from the Bronze Age. I wanted the character to assert himself against what he feels to be the corruptions of our time and yet hold onto what he feels is most precious, the truth of his own belief and culture”, Lobo elucidates.

The book has short chapters, and not too much details about Iyer’s background helps set the pace of the story. Iyer, after his concussion, discards the outward manifestations of his culture, becomes his myth and believes himself to be a warrior brahmachari, much like a European knight except with a more karmic/ eastern world view. He sets out to right wrongs and defeat what he believes to be the demons of his time, filled with urgent zeal, often with disastrous results.

Another thing that sets the book apart is that many dialogues are set in italics. There seems to be a clear distinction between what Iyer says and what Bhima says. Bot Lobo disagrees: “It’s all Iyer. I guess it’s up to the reader to decide where those statements come from”.

The journey of Iyer and Bencho is crazy…yet at the end there’s harmony with Iyer plotting another escape. Lobo entertains us with light and breezy humour. Lobo is careful to to not get lost in the mythical aspects of Mahabharata. “I was not interested in getting into the nitty gritty details of myth. What moved me was the relentless and enduring nature of Iyer's being, never allowing himself to be completely destroyed or defeated, loving adventure for its own sake, never compromising and never giving up. He refuses to be an old man dying in a home and instead aspires to be a hero”, says Lobo.

Female characters in the book like the Major’s daughter, who visit the age old home after her father passes away, Damyanti, the beautiful widow or Ranjana, Jayachandra’s wife have nothing much to do.

They become the medium through which Iyer’s thoughts/thinking is put forth. Like the Major’s daughter keeps fiddling with her phone and it is Iyer who throws her phone, showing how technology has weighed down our relationships. Damyanti is caring and kind. She has endured great suffering but is transcendent in the sense that she still has the capacity to care for people and believes in romance, love and adventure. Damyanti eventually saves Iyer’s life and plays an important role in his healing. Ranjana is a woman who is confident and sure of herself, though a bit cruel.

Despite all the mythical characters Lobo is careful about keeping Iyer humane. He is unrealistic, yet he is the wisest of them all. His delusion is the only reason that he is alive. His Bhima is guided by his mission to destroy Bakasura. But his inability to say anything when his nephew Abhishek accuses him of destroying everything, shows that Iyer is amongst us. We realise that he isn’t just the transcendental warrior he claims to be but also a human being with faults. “Iyer apologises and releases himself from the burden of his past. I think to apologise and make amends is a sign of strength, not weakness”, Lobo says.

Iyer represents the assertive nature of a character who is comfortable being himself. Being who he is, a transcendental warrior who wants to fight injustice, he does not necessarily subscribe to the philosophy of non-violence and believes that he has to fight for his values or risk becoming a slave. Here, author uses Iyer to criticise Gandhi, other philosophers and thinkers.

Mr Iyer Goes to War is filled with witty characters, easy humour, insightful quotes and most importantly, with a protagonist who’s like a classic Shakespearean fool — wisest of all. He’s given the best lines. Iyer knows everything, yet pretends to play his part. And that's what makes this book a delightful read. Unputdownable.

Tags: book review, varanasi, mahabharata