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The Town That Laughed – Manu Bhattathiri

The Town That Laughed – Manu Bhattathiri

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The Town That Laughed – Manu Bhattathiri

Akshyata Ray

While this is your first novel, you composed an anthology prior to this. Can you tell us about the challenges of writing a novel as opposed to a short story, or vice versa?

To me the art of the two are somewhat different, and I enjoy flexing myself both ways. A novel gives you room to explore characters at leisure. You don’t have to make a point in a hurry or sketch someone too tightly to bring out the part that you wish to highlight. But the main challenge is the integrity of the plot. You write a novel over large periods of time and you tend to wander away from where you began; a defect I see in a lot of stuff I read, and a defect I am myself very cautious to avoid.

 A short story, on the other hand, is for instant gratification. It’s like a fighter plane taking off from an aircraft carrier. There’s no room for course correction, there’s no gradualness to the turning on of power. Character sketches have to be tight and deep. Plot twists need to be sharp and artful. You see, a novel can be mediocre with a few good portions for it to be remembered by, but a short story, to me, either works or doesn’t. 


What inspired you to write this story? And how did you develop the plot of the story? What was the process of writing it like – from conceptualising to producing the final draft?

As is often the case, it began with a casual conversation with my wife as we were walking on the terrace. She suddenly brought up Paachu Yemaan, who had featured in a short story in my previous book, and told me that several of her friends had asked her what happened to that man next. And I decided I must tell them.

I just began the next day with no idea whatsoever about the plot. I had a retired policeman on my hands; one that was known to be a terror in town but was dormant now. A toothless ex-monster who would now be vengefully laughed at by one and all. I began with Paachu Yemaan practicing his expressions of anger in front of a mirror much like a dog baring his teeth to a tiger in a desperate, hopeless last try. But then the story began appearing to me and I stopped and rewrote the beginning. It was after about five chapters, I think, that I stopped once again and began writing the plot down in a rough sketch. But I had to correct course once in a while, mid-novel, as Paachu and Joby and Priya and the others developed themselves. 


The characters of your stories are so well developed- be it their thoughts, personality, or morals. Have these characters been inspired by people in your life? If not, how did you develop such intense characters?

I have always been a reader of fiction. But my personal philosophy is that while I can be inspired from another book in my style of narration, I can take more or less nothing from literature when it comes to characterization. My characters have, indeed,  come from my life and observations. Because otherwise—if an author’s characters have to be inspired by those in other works—then literature becomes an end in itself. And if you write, like me, to escape purposelessness and the existential angst, then that simply won’t do. Literature serves its purpose only if it draws out of life. So, to answer your question, I draw my characters from my life, yes. They could be even a person I met on a park bench once and never after. I begin there and then the character seems to develop as I write.

I think there is a kind of reverse feedback. Characters and the story itself develop as you write. I just leave them to take shape on their own most of the time.


The Town That Laughed has an interesting title (an apt title, unveiled as the story progresses) – how did you come up with this? Is there an anecdote you’d like to share with us related to this?

I don’t know if a confession can be an anecdote. I did not come up with the name at all! Usually I don’t trust myself to name my stories. I’m not sure why. Perhaps as an adman I believe that naming a novel is a bit like an advertising exercise (a short, ‘punchy’ phrase that conveys some essence), and perhaps I am loathe to mix my copywriting acumen with my literary one. The Town was named by none other than David Davidar, I was told, and for this I am eternally grateful to him. He heads the publishing team that brought the novel out (The Aleph Book Company). Sometimes I think that it is the name that holds the novel together and gives it a direction. It takes genius to do that with a name. I could never have come up with it, and now I see it, I can’t see what else the story could’ve been called.


Who is your favourite character in the entire story- is it Paachu Yemaan, Joby or anyone else? And why is the character your favourite?

I like Joby very much, probably because large parts of him are autobiographical. I feel I have known him for life. His fall is typical and I don’t know if I have explored it enough in spite of writing a novel about it. That fall is something I would like to explore again in my writing.

For sheer inventiveness I like the photographer Varky in the colourful darkness of his studio. I have experienced the joy of creating him out of nothing; there’s no parallel to him that I remember coming across in real life. He feels like a dark dream of mine.


Will this book have a sequel? Is there anything else that you are currently working on?

I wouldn’t call it a sequel, but my next novel is set in the same place, Karuthupuzha, though the story isn’t a continuation of this one and the characters are almost all new. It’s about a beautiful girl who is possessed by an entity that is part god part demon—or is she only pretending to be possessed? That’s something for you to decide after you read about her. It should be out late this year or early next.

I’m also working on a collection of non-Karuthupuzha short stories. I am experimenting with something new in these: I jump genres from one story to another, to make the book feel like a box of assorted chocolates, each with the ability to pleasantly surprise.


About the Interviewee:

Manu Bhattathiri was born in Kottarakkara, a small town in South Kerala, on January 6, 1975. He has done his schooling in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Kashmir and Bangalore, and his college in Kerala.

Manu has worked as a journalist, an advertising copywriter, and briefly as a college lecturer. He currently co-owns a small ad agency with his two Partners. Apart from numerous articles and short stories in magazines and newspapers, Manu has published two books. The first is a collection of inter-related fiction called Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, out

from HarperCollins in 2016. The collection was longlisted at the Tata Literature Live! in 2016 and shortlisted at the 15th Raymond Crossword Book Award in 2017. More recently the Aleph Book Company published his first novel The Town That Laughed. Both stories are set in a fictional place called Karuthupuzha, which is a small town in the south of India. The name Karuthupuzha translates as ‘the black river’.

Manu lives in Bangalore with his parents, wife, daughter and no less than three dogs.