Thursday 20 July 2017

The Puppeteers of Palem, by Sharath Komarraju

A bunch of young folks are called back to their childhood town  village. When they were little kids, they were responsible for killing a terrifying monster named It her. But now it looks like the monster is back, and they must again do the deed.

Glad to get that out of the way. Honestly, though, I’m not giving Sharath Komarraju enough credit here by alleging that The Puppeteers of Palem is a plain ripoff of Stephen King. Komarraju goes a lot further, and in fact does something very interesting here.

He takes the Indian village setup: farmers, lakes, a river, the old Shiva temple, old guys telling stories to younguns while sitting on charpois, and so on. And it’s not just a generic village, it’s a village near the Godavari, in Andhra Pradesh and peopled with Telugu-speaking natives. And then, he turns this into an actually creepy place. The ghost of a wronged woman haunts the temple. Something strange burrows under a field. A langur kills a villager by biting pieces off him. Multiple places in the village are named after women who died gruesome deaths. And underneath it all runs the gleefully malign undercurrent of misogyny. Rape, molestation, prostitution, all have their place here. If you’re a woman you wouldn’t want to live in an Indian village like this. Remember my old post about needing a new language for Indian fiction? That's the approach taken here.

I’m reminded of a Malayalam movie that has a somewhat similar undercurrent: 2009’s Paleri Manikyam. The movie has no supernatural elements, but is a tense, gripping murder mystery. I don’t know whether Komarraju has seen it, or whether there are dozens of similar movies around, but there’s some thematic resemblance here.

The book is also organized somewhat similarly to It, with chapters alternating between the childhood segment and the grown-up segment. But, in contrast to the King book, we have several more timelines of the characters that come in, revealing bits and pieces of the characters and their pasts. It takes a while to settle in, but Komarraju does a good job with that.

The writing is good, the descriptions and the flow are good, the book is generally worth reading. The only place, IMO, where it falters is in trying to stuff too many surprises into the ending. It almost seems like Komarraju’s trying to challenge all the genre conventions in one shot, while also bringing in the Indian spooky stories element. He could have kept it a little simpler, or spaced the ending out a little to allow readers to digest it.

Notwithstanding that, if you’re a genre fan, or a fan of Indian settings used in surprising ways, The Puppeteers of Palem is definitely worth reading. 

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