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Rustic Charms

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India lives in its villages" is a saying that most Indian writers of English fiction hold dear. And that is why most Indian writing in English, be they by newcomers or experienced novelists, are set in villages, the remoter and more isolated, the better. Bulbul Sharma's The Tailor of Giripul is one of these.

Set in the tiny village of Giripul tucked away high up in the Himachal hills, The Tailor of Giripul revolves around Janak, proprietor of 'Giripul Pink Rose Ladies Tailor' and trusted confidant of the village women's darkest secrets. Janak, a mild-mannered, gentle, perpetually worried man, nurses a secret of his own — he is madly in love with his wife, the beautiful but bad-tempered Rama, who unfortunately does not seem to reciprocate his feelings. Adding to his woes is the village headman's third wife, who confides in him her recurring dream of beheading her own husband, a bad omen if there ever was any; and his best friend Shankar, a taciturn fisherman who discovers his inner detective after Janak tells him about this dream.

While the village makes the most of its all-too-brief summer and Janak does his best to juggle his work and worries, a magician makes an appearance; and as an excited village settles down one evening to watch his spectacular tricks, the body of a murdered man is found lying outside Janak's shop. Thus begins the first of a round of speculations and suspicion as the entire village sets out to solve the murder, complete with two seriocomic policemen whose attention is on everything but solving the case.

Idyll Of Ignorance?
Bulbul Sharma's love of mountains comes through in her detailed descriptions of the hills surrounding Giripul, complete with their rhododendron shrubs, raspberry bushes, apricot trees and blue-tailed magpies, and her evocative accounts of daybreak in a sleepy little village. Her characters, for the most part, are endearing; although they have too much of the 'quaintness' that city people invariably — and all too erroneously — attribute to their rural counterparts. The city gaze is what informs Giripul as well; its isolation and timelessness are completely at odds with the modern-day world in which it is set, and its importance as the main rest stop for buses carrying passengers from cities and nearby villages to Simla (and that spelling is the only indication that the book might be set somewhere before the late 1980s, when the name of the hill town was officially changed to Shimla - as Giripul appears to exist in a vacuum, it is hard to tell exactly when the events described here take place). But would villagers even in the 1980s (provided that is the time Sharma had in mind) have been so clueless about the world outside, or the socio-cultural changes taking place, given the ubiquity of newspapers and the occasional television set?

While the murder is solved satisfactorily enough, the revelations surrounding the little albino boy, whose story seemed to be the underlying thread holding the narrative together, are anticlimactic; and one wishes there was a little more of Leela, mistress of Badi Kothi, whose memories of an ill-fated love affair with a British officer and amusing recollections of her hot-tempered husband make her one of the most lively and real characters in the story. The end, though, which sees Janak transform from village tailor to village hero, seems forced — it was as though certain events were made to happen just so Janak could be shown in a new light. And the shocking twist at the end is baffling — unless, of course, Sharma is planning a sequel.

Bulbul Sharma's narrative, laced with humour and charm, does move the narrative forward, but there is none of the power, intensity and gut-wrenching pathos that made some of her earlier works —The Anger of Aubergines, for instance — so memorable. And one is frankly tired of the cardboard cut-out simple villager, whose life is strangely divorced from the pressing problems real villagers have to contend with, and whose simplicity and naiveté border on the absurd. Fields as disparate as academics and Bollywood have moved away from this stereotype, and it's time Indian fiction did too. From a writer of Bulbul Sharma's calibre, one expected so much more.