The novel “The Oracle of Karuthupuzha” by Manu Bhattathiri is set in Karuthupuzha, the town that was immortalized in his books “The Town That Laughed” and “Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories”.
In the novel, Nareshan sells milk to the town’s inhabitants until his daughter Sarasu is possessed by the demon-god Chaathan. Faithful now come to visit and receive blessings. The sceptics believe this is a ploy to make money.
When the rich widow Ponnamma comes to seek help for her son Nanu, the fate of Nareshan and his family is set to change forever.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
When he was about eight years old, Nanu finally made friends. One afternoon during recess his classmates were playing ‘train’. Nanu had seen a train only once in his life before, at a railway crossing when he had gone to the city with his mother. It was big, loud, and indifferent, and he feared it and dreamt about it. Now, as they were playing, each boy was a different express train, running around the shrubs in the ground behind the school, stopping briefly at imagined stations.
Nanu stood perfectly still, his face tight, and his eyes big and fixed. In his head Nanu was seeing a locomotive, more gargantuan than anything humans could ever build, making its way through an ocean and towards a beach full of people. At first, its powerful headlight emerged from underwater like a boiling sunrise. It was so huge that even after considerable time only half of it had emerged out of the ocean. The sea parted to either side as the locomotive moved towards land, its engines splitting the skies with a cruel roar. The people on the beach scattered like ants. There was a faraway thud and a whale was thrown up into the sky. It looked like a speck compared to the gargantuan monster engine, and then it fell with a humongous plop on to the beach, crushing many people under its weight.
It is very difficult to explain why Nanu broke down, sobbing inconsolably. Of course, the sudden unannounced vision terrified him, but he was crying not so much out of startlement as from some strange, deep sorrow. It seemed possible to him that such an unreal dream could be real in some other world, a world that existed across a not totally impervious boundary. He found such a possibility unbearable. But what hurt him the most was that he was alone in this dream and knowledge.
His classmates had stopped playing and stood around him, bewildered. They had always known that Nanu was very different from them, but this! Some of them began to check if he had been hurt anywhere. Some were angry that he had interrupted their play. A few began sniggering and calling him ‘the mad son of widow Ponnamma’. It was only Bipin who came up and held him close, letting Nanu’s tears wet his shirtfront.
Later, when he was sitting on a piece of rock and watching the others play, Nanu observed Bipin. They hadn’t spoken to each other before. Bipin was plump and fair-skinned, as though he was filled with milk. Nanu found him beautiful, and his voice reminded him of an old wind chime in his grandparent’s home.
In class Bipin came and sat next to Nanu. He asked, ‘Why did you cry?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nanu, and the fact that Bipin did not press him further told him that they would be friends.
After that incident Bipin was most protective of Nanu. If someone made fun of Nanu he would later console him, saying things like, ‘That Jijo, he doesn’t know what he is saying. Listen to him no more than you would to a baboon.’ But the funny thing was that Bipin himself made all the fun he wanted of Nanu when they were alone. And Nanu would laugh just as heartily as Bipin when the latter observed: ‘God, you should have seen your face when you were looking at that grasshopper; why, I thought it blushed under your gaze. Ha ha ha!’
During holidays they met by the river that bordered Karuthupuzha in the west, and spent long hours looking at its white waters. Towards evening the river turned black as the shadow from the hills on the other side fell across it. When the evening breeze made wave-like patterns on the dark water, Bipin said, ‘That’s as close as you will ever come to seeing the wind,’ and Nanu was fascinated.
It was on the bank of the black river that Suraaaj became Nanu’s second friend. Suraaaj was their classmate, and notorious for his perennially leaking nose. He was also known for the funny way his name was spelt, all because of his father insisting that his name should have seven letters. ‘My mother picked the name Suraj, but it had only five letters,’ he once explained to a teacher who thought the name was spelt wrong in the class register. ‘Father thought a name must have seven letters. To make both parties happy I was named Suraaaj: S-u-r-a-a-a-j.’
One evening during summer vacation Suraaaj walked up to Nanu and Bipin on the riverside and settled on the round stones without a word. When he sniffed, it sounded like the slurp Nanu’s grandfather made while drinking coffee. ‘Why don’t you blow it out?’ Bipin asked.
‘It’ll come again,’ Suraaaj replied. ‘It is made as we speak.’
Their new friend taught them how to choose a flat stone and throw it in such a way that it only skimmed the surface of the river before reaching the other side. They played a game where the winner was the one who made the stone touch the river the maximum times without it sinking midway. Suraaaj told them that he sometimes cheated during examinations. After a pause he admitted that he always cheated, as that was the only way he wouldn’t fail and his father wouldn’t beat him up.
Nanu closely observed his friends and the changes in them as they grew up together. Suraaaj was disgusting, but fun to talk to. He was always willing to try out new, forbidden things. There was a long list of things Nanu and Bipin learned thanks to Suraaaj. Some years later he showed them how to smoke a cigarette without coughing. He also showed them how to hide slips of paper during exams, how you could walk on small stones without making a sound, how to cheat at a game of cards, which shops in the market could get you contraband stuff without a soul knowing, and numerous such things.
Bipin was quite the opposite of Suraaaj. His nature had a fine balance of sensitivity and practicality. As time passed, he grew less protective of Nanu and knew when to leave him alone. At times when Nanu slipped away to wander inside his own head, he motioned for Suraaaj to be quiet.
Nanu would draw pencil sketches of both of them at night, but by morning he would find his sketches grossly inadequate. He picked up art books from the Town Hall Library and tried to imitate the techniques of the masters. But night after night he drew his friends only to discover morning after morning that his work did not capture their essence. Suraaaj’s ugliness, his leaky nose, the way he rolled a smooth stone in his hand to parody people rolling rice into balls in their palms at a feast…it was impossible to get all these down on paper. Nanu tried to sketch the changes in his friends, like the boyish hair that was sprouting on Bipin’s cheeks, but he either made him seem like a grown up man or simply like the boy he was a year ago. In the real world that fresh growth of hair seemed to hold in it some of Bipin’s character: his deeper understanding of people as he was leaving boyhood behind, his capacity for rich and dignified humour, the touchiness with which he spoke about things like relatives, religion, and money. None of this was captured in Nanu’s sketches. So in the mornings he burned them in their backyard, with his mother watching from the kitchen window. Curiously, Ponnamma never asked him about them. She saw the light in his room late into the night and she did, of course, connect this to the burning of paper in the mornings, but she chose not to enquire what he was doing.