…of Panchkanya, and Bencho of Benares

iyer-kPNFBook Reviewstar_4

Mr. Iyer Goes to War
Ryan Lobo
Bloomsbury

Ryan, is a well known TED speaker, photographer and a film maker. Plenty awarded, and recognized. A fellow Bangalorean and a Koshy’s frequenter. Now he is a debutante novelist too. People are surprised, pleasantly so. But, to me, writing isn’t that far away from what Ryan has been doing in the past. He tells stories, either through this pictures, his films or even his blog posts. Writing a novel, was but the next step. What you might not know is that Ryan also is a competitive shooter; and a fairly good one at that. Now, that makes for a diversely talented individual. Or maybe you would say that photography and target shooting are similar in nature. Maybe, depends on where you are sat at. I can assure you, the feeling of exuberance is somewhat limited should one be facing a barrel instead of a lens.

The excitement started building at the square table at Koshy’s as the book release became imminent in 2016. Conversations over Koshy’s coffee, often, meandered towards how publishers are, how authors are asked to pander to other semi-fraud (or totally) intellectual type but famous authors and how we might have to stand in line to get Ryan to sign a copy of his book for us and so on. How multiple local publishers rejected his manuscript or wanted him to add in sex, or provide a literary angle on LGBTQIA issues in today’s faux liberal world and how Bloomsbury picked it up finally.

This story is about Lalgudi Iyer, a somewhat infirm senior citizen, who has been left in a ‘home’ in Benares by his kith and kin to spend the last days (hopefully) to die, attain moksha and not come back to bother the human kind again. He spends his days and nights in the company of a retired Major (a PVC awardee) who passes away into oblivion, uncared for by his family.

A few days later, accidentally, Iyer’s head gets knocked and he starts getting visions of his past and imagines himself to be Bheem (way back from the epic) out to defeat Bakasur. Somewhat Don Quixote -ish, if you will; or so everyone says. …and Iyer has a Sancho Panza in Bencho, a ‘dom‘ from Manikarnika Ghat. The similarity of his name to the commonly used Hindi invective is unmistakable and perhaps deliberate.

Bencho is an aspiring politician, inspired by Iyer’s erudition and poetry recitation. Iyer escapes from the home, and runs away to find Bakasur, along with Bencho on his boat. They, post many adventures, skirmishes with criminals and the police alike, reach Allahabad and the Poorna Kumbh mela. There are petrol tanker explosions, goons and henchmen chasing to kill, helping policemen, bored wife of a local politician, and the antique smuggling politician too. As Iyer sets each ‘wrong’ right, he asks witnesses to convey the story of his deed to his Panchkanya, an acid burn victim called Damayanti, in Benares. In the epics, panchkanya (as the name suggests) is a group of five women – Ahilya, Tara, Mandodari, Kunti and Draupadi. Sita is added in, depending on who you ask.

In the end, the politician remains, the rich remain, the power wielding police remain. So does the day dreaming Iyer who continues to be Bheem and chasing Bakasur with help from lepers. He imagines himself contracting leprosy given his proximity to lepers (which is a bleak probability), and being unable to use the mace (gada) because of his bad knee and lost fingers. Iyer fades away in his world, without much glory.

Most reviewers seem to find the book humorous. At book readings, I find the hosts unable to stop the glee from dominating their faces; a glee which comes from reading Obelix going “biff”. Everyone that I have asked, who has read the book, finds it funny.

Maybe, I am odd. I do not find the book funny at all. I found it dark, with a continuing unbroken strain of melancholia. To me, it seemed like a story of ambition and failure to win against one’s deranged environment. A story of being called mad, when the surroundings are nothing but.

But, that is not a negative adjective for the book or the writing at all. The book is a fantastic first work and is a tightly run story which I finished (most of it) being driven through particularly nasty traffic during my morning commute. Thank heavens Mr Iyer was with me. Or was it Bheem?

Buy yourself a copy, and read it.

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