The Tiger By The River: Ravi Shankar Etteth

In 1955, Angel Flores applied the term magic realism to Spanish-American writing describing it as 19th century realism dotted with fantastical moments beyond spontaneous human combustion; a 'Dickens with weirdness' if you please. Later the definition extended to include folkloric elements and in Ravi Shankar Etteth's The Tiger by the River, we have a prime example of the expanse of this genre. And why despite it being a much used and abused genre, its peregrinations have an enchantment of its own.

To read The Tiger by the river is to enter a world that is lush, exotic and haunting. A magical realm where the strange sits cheek by jowl with the comfortably familiar, and the whole notion of an objective reality perches precariously. That Ravi Shankar exercises a sure touch in this genus is revealed right from the very first scene when Swati Raja, prince of Panayur boards a plane with the ashes of his beloved Nina in an urn. And with that journey begins many journeys. Into the past and the future.

Trails that lead Swati Raja to discover the many secrets of his family; of the mystic relationship between the royal family of Panayur and the tiger by the river. Of a grandfather who chose the death rail during Hitler's regime to escape. Of the existence of a cousin. And of a child he had begotten. Of a love that had gone to sleep and was awakened again….Moving deftly between the past and the present, Ravi Shankar depicts the making of a man and his search for answers in his making.

In fact, Ravi Shankar's unravelling of the past is perhaps the more significant part of the book. And it is here he triumphs as a writer. Using a montage of myths and dreams, tiger spoors and cruel eccentric kings, queens with linen shrouds and pet panthers, of a landlocked kingdom with a navy and milestones of history, he creates a landscape that is at times dazzling and other times baffling and altogether totally riveting. In contrast, his treatment of the present is stilted. More so when the scene shifts to transatlantic realms. Verging almost on the caricature, characters come and go and achieve little in between. So much so when Ravi Shankar directs the leap back into Panayur, South India, to the imaginary past, the reader does so with relief. Here is humour and sorrow; feats of valour and sorcerers' tales and Ravi Shankar's deft strokes. Choorikathi Kombiyachan despite being a more mythical than historical character has greater drawing power than the live Vel Kramer- New York Times bestselling author and the other Prince of Panayur from across the seas. That Vel Kramer too begins to journey into the past to discover his present in the dilapidated palace at Panayur by the river Papanashini [excuse the alliteration] is a rather nice and 'comfortably familiar' twist in this fantastic rambling tale of princes and tigers.

Though his writing is suffused with metaphor and a thousand images, Ravi Shankar does occasionally stumbles when it comes to moments of intimacy. While there is an exceptional scene in which as a pet panther watches, Choorikathi Kombiyachan shoves the ugly head of callousness and megalomania down Queen Ponni's throat, elsewhere there is a quiet but heart wrenchingly tender moment between Swati Raja and Antara, his old playmate and his mother's hand maiden. And yet, what deflects from these outstanding portrayals of the myriad pulls of desire is the almost juvenile obsessive regard for breasts. In fact, a purple-tinged paean to nipples lurks between the pages - them like date fruit; they the colour of dark honey; those that stiffened to coral…. They are a minor hitch in an otherwise eminently readable novel and any writer who conjures this word picture 'He often noticed women's lower lips: they told him more about the coarseness of their kisses than anything else. Bulging a little, like a small sac, as if greed and abuse lodged there….'can be forgiven such trespasses.

Read this book slowly and carefully, as one would tackle a jackfruit. There is sweetness and there is substance; there is sunshine, honey and countless exotic delights for the senses. The trick is to not let the sticky bits bog you down and hamper your progress.

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