Sunday, February 05, 2012

Book Review: Ice Boys in Bell Bottoms—Krishna Shastri Devulapalli


A quick review, in a nutshell --  This book is a laugh riot. Finally, a genuinely  funny, sweet, sensible Indian book about the angst of growing up. Two thumbs up!

It’s  been a  long time since  I’ve laughed out loud after reading an Indian writer’s English  prose. Maybe it happened last in the 90s —when  Upamanyu Chatterjee and his English August had one chuckling at the shenanigans of bureaucrats in small town India. Next,  Pankaj  Mishra had  the same effect with his  debut work travelogue, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Of course since then,  the internet space has thrown up a variety of LOL raisers, but by and large, Indian English fiction is generally dead serious, nostalgic, whimsical, sometimes twee, occasionally  risqué—but rarely funny, hilarious, in the mould of  a Sue Townsend or a Bill Bryson.

To get back on track—here is a debutant novelist bucking the trend –and having this reader-reviewer at least, in splits. ROFLing, to use internet forum  jargon.

Ice Boys in Bell Bottoms by Krishna  Shastri Devulapalli is a laugh riot  of a tale about growing up in Madras  of the nineteen seventies. The  book’s back page blurb tells us that it is the first of an intended trilogy. All  I  can say is—we’re waiting  KSD!

The book  tells a highly diverting tale about the child  Gopi and his journey to teenage angst and understanding, about his  setting roots in Ramalingam  Street of T Nagar along with his delightfully eccentric circle of family and friends—the Telugu film lyricist grandfather-family head; the  comic illustrator- artist father that Gopi tries  to emulate, the pesky siblings and  adventurous friends, the wierdos that weave in and out of  the frisky protagonist’s life; the  movie- buff mother, a surprisingly and pleasantly liberated lady, no doormat this .

Their tales and background have one chuckling  and nodding as  one recalls similar characters from one’s own life, similar situations.  To give an example, the mother experiments with doll- making  and finally gives it up since ‘after hours of  toil, the end products resembled a Nazi experiment gone terribly wrong.’
Like any such ironic tale, there are of course some very interesting neighbours—like the octogenarian neighbor whose monthly shave fest provides Gopi and pals with their very own freakshow, the Dikshit family who  feast and fast in their own special way, the family doctor who turns out to be more than bargained for....  there are the film aspirants from Hyderabad, bedding down for the nonce at Ramalingam  Street, trying their luck in   the movie machine of Madras…and for the reader with insider knowledge of Madras ( and not just Chennai of  present times), it is wonderful to read nostalgic tidbits about the Veecumsee group of theatres, the very first multiplex from back then—Safire, Blue Diamond and  Emerald. This whole lot is now off the map—but the book brings those times alive. What fun.

Yet fun is not  just fun; the tale starts off merrily enough…but by the time  Gopi’s hormones get active, the story   changes tone, there is young love, teenage angst, moving passages, closure.
Overall the book is a  breezy read. The language is lucid, effortless, effective—‘Our landlord, Raghavan, had built the rambling grey two-storey house with scrupulous savings, and judicious pilferage  from the Indian Railways.’ Ha ha.

 A  couple of small  quibbles—a few copy-editing errors caught my eye.  Also, perhaps, some   lines could improve  with better  phrasing.
But  my final words to the reader of this review—read this book if it is one of the few books you are going to read this year.

As the blurb declaims --Ice Boys in Bell bottoms is ‘gloriously funny and surprisingly poignant’.
Amen to that.