Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Mythologist - Vamsee Juluri

I had the good fortune of receiving a signed copy of 'The Mythologist' from its author and fellow Hyderabadi, Vamsee Juluri when I met him at the Hyderabad Literary Festival. We have a common friend in Amar Chegu, and had met earlier during another book launch in Crossword sometime ago. I had meant to attend the launch of Vamsee's debut book 'The Mythologist' in Hyderabad, but one thing or another kept me from it. I wanted to read it and review it, so it was perfect that I bumped into Vamsee at HLF and he gifted me a copy.

'The Mythologist' (Penguin, 269 pages, Rs. 299) is the story of Parashuram, grandson of a famous Telugu actor, one of the pillars of the Telugu film industry in the 70s. Parashuram's  parents abandon him when he is still a child, and he grows up with his grandfather, a Gandhian at heart, in his house that has a steady stream of film personalities, fans, acolytes and family. Parashuram is a dreamer and is always at the butt of the jokes and pranks of his cousins and one feels for him as he undergoes the trauma of being ragged endlessly by his older cousins, including cousin Lava who is already playing a few roles in movies. It appears but natural to Parashu, that he is also destined to be a famous actor, and he is perpetually and prematurely dreaming of fame.

Parashuram's fate looks up when he is asked to double up for the character of Dhruva, played by a famous child artiste Baby Devi, in a shot where he is hardly seen, but a shot which makes him feel that his dream is close at hand. And then the big leap almost, when his grandfather decides to make a film on Lord Krishna with Parashuram playing Lord Krishna and the leading hero of the day SLM. The movie almost takes off, but falls flat as the grandfather is cheated by the producer and let down by his protege, the hero SLM, who now turns villain, and politician. Dreams crash, grandfather is packed off to filmi oblivion. Parashuram, who almost became a child star is sent away to boarding school in Hyderabad. The dreamy boy, who has not yet shed his dreams of stardom, is again the butt of a lot of ragging in the school, which he survives, and comes out in one piece.

Once outside Parashuram is directed by his grandfather to campaign for his cousin sister, who contests and wins against the popular SLM. During this campaign he meets the mysterious and feisty AK, who takes on the role of his 'elder sister' and becomes an major influence on his life from then on. AK is a fast talking, wheeler dealer who, despite her rustic and unsophisticated background, moves in high circles, and roams the corridors of power of Delhi, thanks to her irrepressible personality. AK helps Parashuram in Delhi where he is dreaming of writing a book, now his new ticket to fame, while helping his MP cousin sister.

From Delhi Parashu goes to San Francisco, working for AK's matrimonial website and writing inspiring copy, dreaming of meeting his beautiful bride as promised by AK, and of writing his book, Parashuram's life meanders on and on until the 26/11 terrorist strike on the World Trade Centre when he suspects that he has been betrayed by AK who seemingly implicates him in the terror attacks. And then, close to death, he finds solace in the myth of all the Gods that his grandfather played in his roles, and ends up on the famous Golden Gate bridge with AK talking ominously of missions etc.

'The Mythologist' is a promising debut by Vamsee. It has an interesting backdrop of the workings of Telugu cinema as it was in the golden period of 70s, seen from the eyes of an eight year old. The language is inventive as the blurb says and playful as well and well written. Where Vamsee scores for me is when he gets into the dreamy world half-real, half-dream world of Parashuram which he sustains all through the book, right up to the final confrontation on the San Francisco bridge. Seen from Parashu's eyes everything is hazy and dreamlike, people, their reactions, places, possibilities and it is always so fragile that you feel for the boy, knowing that they are just a pinprick away from crashing down.

Gullible, vulnerable, trusting and a prey to his own dreams Parashu battles on in his life with only his mythological heroes for company. But it is not a sad account; it is an incredulous and hilarious account of Parashu's dazed impressions on things as they happen to him. So much so that the only reality in his life that seems to offer solace to him, is a stray response to his own matrimonial ad that he places on the website. Vamsee retains this dreamlike world brilliantly where people remain foggy, well intentioned and trustworthy for Parashu, despite all that they do to him. So characters like Siyyam garu, Writer uncle, AK, SLM, the MP cousin easily play out to the reader. What amazed me is the audacity with which Vamsee treats his readers with, challenging them to understand the reality that only Parashu sees in his mind, and more impressively in his use of language. I wondered briefly if a non-Telugu audience would get all these references, if I would ever have the guts to write like that. That audacity is something that will stand Vamsee is good stead as he writes on. And I think Vamsee could well create a world of Telugudom in the world of English literature because he flaunts his Teluguness proudly and comfortably unlike many writers in IWE from Andhra (including me). One need not be surprised if he creates a Telugu equivalent to Malgudi in his later forays, creating a world of avakai and gongura and balancing it with his US experiences in a more advanced age.

For all the above factors 'The Mythologist' is a fine debut. Vamsee certainly knows how to tell a story and he can do it funnily, lightly all the while making the reader feel for the protagonist. It is a debut that Vamsee can take much from, and I am looking forward to his next book because there are many more interesting stories from where this one came from, and Vamsee will certainly tell them as he explores this path further, with even more inventiveness, boldness and wit.

But having said that 'The Mythologist' is a difficult book to review for someone like me who has a simplistic take on everything. Stories to me are what they are, moving from A to B, which is not always the case in literature where many more facets come in, layers deepen, and angles expanded. I am not qualified enough to comment on the intricacies of the story that Vamsee has woven and only people who study literature and language can comment on that. My review is from an average readers point of view and the reader be warned that it is not your average fast paced thriller. It dwells in the dreamy spaces of  Parshu's mind with no definite borders and Vamsee lets you explore it yourself. There are some weaknesses in 'The Mythologist' that I felt could have been strengthened. The section on 'The Myth' could have been avoided, shortened or interwoven in the other parts, because it slowed down the narrative completely for the reader in me and I skipped it after an attempt to read through it. The end could have been tighter, clearer - I felt I missed something. The characters come and disappear, and some are deserted entirely. The inventiveness of language, though fun, new  and witty, gets into the flow, especially towards the end when you want to know what is happening to the hero. But having said that, I am nitpicking because there are passages when the story flows superbly, when Vamsee just writes from within Parashu.

Overall 'The Mythologist' a very promising debut for me, and hints at better and varied things to expect from Vamsee. Definitely worth a read.

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