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Fresh And Quirky

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Krishna Shastri Devulapalli (KSD) is an aberration, an abomination, an anachronism (okay, I have run out of an-words now): does he not know that Indian writing in English has to be lachrymose, full of sad faces, tragic events, all happening in a general atmosphere of Dostoevskyian gloom? Fortunately for us, he does not: either he has not read enough Indian writing, or has the mental constitution of an empire builder to have stayed away from the pernicious influence of whingean (oops, I meant Indian) fiction in English. And the result is an achievement: an Indian novel that is truly, riotously funny, and is not written in a vocabulary limited to 100 words

Ice-Boys In Bell-Bottoms is a growing-up tale set in 1970s Madras (Chennai). Gopi, the protagonist, at that awkward age between 8 and 10, lives in a family full of eccentrics: a celebrity poet-grandfather with ties to the film industry, a cartoonist father, a mother with bursts of enthusiasm for hobbies, an elder and a younger sister, and an incontinent dog whose idea of a good time is to hump the legs of anybody in the vicinity, but especially favours visitors' legs. Long-stay visitors are aplenty. Someone had pasted wall posters all over Andhra Pradesh that went ''Attention, aspiring singers, actors, musicians and sundry no-goods looking for a break in Telugu films! Absolutely no talent required ¡K Free boarding and lodging available!". So there is Saikumar whose mode of singing is to slowly choke himself with his own hands. There is Lanka Jhansi, the oversexed woman whose one aim is to induce a sartorial makeover in Gopi's elder sister (and the father has nightmares of his daughter as Sheela in the film Chemmeen) and mother (who turns into a red nylex-sari queen).

Gopi navigates his way through school, dealing with school teachers intent on giving him an education, making friends (through the time-honoured process of writing fake leave letters for all and sundry) and, most importantly, experiencing his first crushes. He also has the insane family to deal with: the mother who decides to leave home but ends up watching a movie on the very day Madras has its worst floods, the father's crankiness and of course his own adolescent angst. So as can be imagined, Gopi leads a full life. Hilarious incidents fill the book, among the most amusing of which is Gopi's attempts to wear the widest-bottomed bell-bottomed trousers and ends up wearing one made out of woolen shawls—in the Madras weather.

The Storyteller
The charm of the novel is the narration: from the perspective of the young Gopi. His confusions, quirky takes on the world and anxieties make complete sense for those of us who went through the agonising process of growing up (I know several who stayed at that stage and continue to pretend, complete with foot-stamping petulance and hysterics, that they are 10). Escapades, getting caught, errors of judgment and acts of omission and commission haunt, blight and (or) cheer up Gopi. 

We can detect echoes, most clearly, of Gerald Durrell's classic My Family And Other Animals and James Thurber—and makes me, for one, believe that one can only write good fiction if one has a completely whacko family (for 'ordinary' fiction, it should be a family filled with tragedies, ask any Indian novelist)—but also Wodehouse (who else for the award of the greatest humorist among novelists?). KSD's major coup is to make banal incidents funny and transform potentially lethal subjects such as domestic discord (think of the field-day the Desais, Davidars, Deshpandes or Jhas would have had: allow me a shudder) into comic situations, showing us that it is still possible to laugh.

I unhesitatingly recommend Ice-Boys In Bell-Bottoms to those seeking recovery, and escape, from Indian writing in general, and for those who want a fast-paced, unremittingly funny and genuinely readable novel. I had fun.  And, as promised by KSD, there is more to come: this is the first of a trilogy that charts Gopi's hazardous passage through life.