Sunday, October 02, 2011

Beyond the Blue River by B. Vinayan

When Tulika Books editor Radhika Menon first told me about this novel, I must admit to having been slightly dubious. At least in part, this reaction was to the protagonist of Beyond the Blue River, Grace, who is not human.  Nothing against non-human protagonists, but she's not even animal.

Mineral? You'd be closer. Grace is an autorickshaw!

Yes, that's right. One of those little cabs mounted on a sputtering engine that serve as transport vehicles all over the Indian subcontinent and parts of southeast Asia. Known variously as autos, scooters, autorickshaws, phat-phatti, tuk-tuk....

"An autorickshaw?" I said.

"Read it," she replied. "I would love to know what you think."

I did read it.

Ten pages in, I still wasn't sure. By page 20, I was murmuring, "Hmm..." and by the time I hit page 23, the close, careful, funny language of Grace and her autorickshaw buddy Rani was creating a sort of comfortable internal hum in my mind. Oddly, the point of view was starting to feel credible, in this eccentric, Yellow-Submarine-reminiscent world painted by Vinayan with unmistakably Indian tints.

While it took me 20-plus pages to suspend disbelief, that could have just been my adult mind at work. I suspect that as a 10- or 12-year-old, I'd have lapped this up. Even now, adult skepticism and all, I found much to love, to be amused by, and to linger over, all of it aided by big helpings of wonder.

A tune hummed by Guru, her driver, is what sends Grace off on her journey. The journey itself is replete with marvelous landscapes. A truck at the seventh milestone is a kind of mentor figure. A mountain is endowed with breath and rocky shoulders. And then there's the legendary Blue River itself.

Even the antagonist is a worthy one--Karuth Aarg is an embodiment of the power of creation itself, born of a flame reminiscent of the Big Bang. From the wind walls to the Tweedledum-Tweedledee figures of the Itsians to the etceteras ("extremely tiny creatures"), the quirky inhabitants of this world seem set against the cosmology of our own. It all somehow finds expression through the imaginings and longings, and eventual awakening, of a small and lovable machine. Yes, Grace the autorickshaw whose mineralness initially gave me pause. By the end of it, I was prepared to love her unconditionally.

I know. It sounds crazy, and it is. But it all works in a weird way. I think it works because the original fantasy in this book comes right out of a particular place with its very specific sense of relationships and frictions, rights, wrongs, and pressures. Beyond the Blue River is a gentle, odd, engaging story about "the whole wide world, and, who knows, maybe even everything beyond it."

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