[This is the unedited version of my review of The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, by Manohar Shyam Joshi , published a few days back in Deccan Herald. They changed the title to "A man's gradual descent into insanity". I think I like my title better :) ]
What the cyclist did
It takes a while for you to realize that there’s no one narrator in The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules. The narrator of the story is the collective we, the entire clan that Hariya belongs to, the family who talks about him and the events surrounding him. There is no truth, no untruth, nothing marked believable or incredible – all you hear is what the family talks about and how it interprets what it knows. The whole cacophony of the family is captured here – the superstitious uncle, the greedy, alcoholic nephew, the doctor in the family, the press reporter cousin, the know-it-all teenager.
The plot is simple on the surface, but difficult to categorize. Harihar Dutt Tiwari, better known as Hariya Hercules, lives with and cares for his paralyzed, blind father, “Rai Saip” Girvan Dutt Tiwari. It’s a miserable life – Rai Saip is temperamental and difficult to care for, and Hariya has a low-paying job. Their social life consists of Hariya cycling over to relatives’ homes on weekends on his Hercules bicycle (hence the nickname), reporting about his father’s health to them in excruciating detail (“Today I couldn’t get all [his shit] out even with my hand.”), and getting updates from them to report back. When his father dies suddenly, Hariya looks through his belongings and finds evidence of his father getting “cursed” by a priest. He decides to set off to find this priest and temple, and never returns. An aunt who accompanied him reports a strange sequence of events that transpired, which don’t exactly match other witnesses’ versions.
But this is only the basic plot. Hariya’s story can be looked at as a man’s gradual descent into insanity. Or it’s a spiritual tale revolving around a curse. Or it could be about a simpleton bilked by greedy relatives. It all depends on who in the family is telling the story. And the family itself recognizes the multitude of meanings, and is conscious that it should select the version that makes it feel good about itself. In the broader sense, the story is about how a family creates and assimilates its own folklore.
Joshi has given us a family that talks sort of like ours, but still has that little strangeness to it. The modes of address are different – “Ija”, “Kainja”, “Bhinju”. It is some time before we figure out that this is a Kumaoni family, with their own dialect. One feels sort of like a non-Hindi speaker reading a book with the normal Hindi addresses – “Chacha”, “Bapu”, etc. – we have the same experience when we read it as Indians of a different community.
It’s also nice to see that there’s no glossary or other attempt to translate the unfamiliar words into English – whatever you understand, you understand through context. There’s also no attempt to use exotic or unfamiliar words in the translation just because it’s an Indian book. The language comes across as very earthy and day-to-day, the rhythms of Hindi are captured and made to feel a part of the English text.
Manohar Shyam Joshi is probably best known as the writer of the TV serial Hum Log. I was too young to appreciate the serial when it first aired, but this book demonstrates anew that Joshi knew how Indian families behave, and I felt an urge to go back and watch the serial. The brief introduction to Joshi’s other books on the flap reveals a very interesting repertoire. This, perhaps, is the biggest success of this book – introducing the English reader to a multi-faceted literary personality and making him want to read more.