Saturday, November 01, 2008

Ranjit Lal - Life and Times of Altu Faltu

How do I write about a book that captivated me, let me count the ways.

I could say the book is delightful, funny and amazing and still feel I have not said enough. These adjectives sound jaded and used. I could hit the thesaurus site to look for better words, but they would feel too high flown. There were passages in the book that made me laugh out loud, but most times the laughter rumbled deep in my stomach, as I recognised characters in the book from real life, and their idiosyncrasies that are so well brought out.

The writing style is unassuming, fresh and very very functional. By which I mean there are no linguistic flourishes here meant to show off the writers superior vocabulary, that when he writes a passage it serves to highlight an event or detail to its best. It does not mean the language is not lyrical, it is, but not all the time which means at no time does the language cloy in your mouth.

Sample this : "The Lodhi Gardens are certainly the most prestigious amongst Delhi's public gardens: if you are rich, famous, bureaucratic and overweight, and live in Central Delhi, that's where you go every morning and evening to vigourously atone for the sin of being fat in a thin country. The gardens, built around the solid, solemn tombs of the Sayyids and Lodhis, are beautifully laid out with pleasent undulating lawns, tall, dark and handsome trees, rainbow beds of flowers (especially in February and March) and a curving waterway where kingfishers flash and egrets fish."

The story? Well it is about Altu Faltu, a skinny monkey who has chosen to while away his days lounging around the Hindu Rao College and is addicted to cough linctus. For some reason Rani-beti, a princess of the Falstaff clan has fallen for him, and Altu Faltu finds his lazy days change. You see, Chaudhray Rai Bahadur Charbi Saheb has not taken kindly to his daughter flirting with such a wastrel. The love story of Altu-Faltu the bekar bander of the hazel eyes and Rani-beti the pretty princess with golden eyes and pixie ears is played out on the background of political turmoil, social upheaveals and WAR between various factions of monkey tribes for supremacy. Religion is also mixed with politics when Swami Palang Tode the wise monkey appears on the scene. Sex can never be far away when life abounds with so much vigour. From the pretty bandaris of the Khyber Pass Massage Parlour to concubines and multiple wives, there are plenty of interfering females here to change the course of simian history.

What is the most endearing feature of the book? The names given to the characters and places. Apart from the Chaudhry Charbi Singh, there are his wives named - Bibi-ek, Bibi-do and Bibi-teen whose goings on would put the harem of a Mughal court to shame. Then there is monkey Leechad who wishes to curry favour with the Chaudhry so he could close to the beautiful Bibi-do. There is Brigadier who is ever-ready for war, Chamkili of the beautiful smile, the Kacha Banian Gang run by Kacha and Banian the supari monkeys, Ghungroo the nautch monkey.

On a serious note, the book is a marvellous and a gentle satire on our life and times. Although we may be tempted to call it the modern Panchtantra, it is never ever preachy like those ancient fables. The author is a faithful historian, not a pontificating one.

In these times of shit-lit, when you can print a book faster than a monkey grabbing a sweet off your hands, it is a wonder to come across such an unassuming author, who published such a masterpeice. Ranjit Lal the author is a famous naturalist. His new book on the wildlife of Delhi has just come out.

Here is what Roli Books has to say about him : "Ranjit Lal was born in Calcutta in 1955, and educated in Mumbai, graduating in economics and sociology. As a freelance writer and columnist, he has over a thousand articles, short stories, features and photo-features published in over fifty newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. He has special interest in areas like natural history, photography, humour, satire and automobiles, on which he writes for both adults and children. He is one of the few Indian journalists to write satire and humour on a sustained basis. He has authored several books including The Crow Chronicles, The Life and Times of Altu Faltu, That Summer at Kalagarh, The Bossman Adventures, Enjoying Birds, Birds of Delhi, Birds from My Window and The Caterpillar Who Went on a Diet and Other Stories and When Banshee Kissed Bimbo. Ranjit Lal lives in Delhi."

The book is magnificent and a must read for lovers of good fiction.