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HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Do Not Go To The Jungle by Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu

Review: Do Not Go To The Jungle by Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu

In the first story of this collection, The Fox in the Sawmill, a guard asks of a lonely fox, “For whom do you lead this life in hiding?” He tries to coax the fox to give up its life in nature and accept its role as a domesticated pet. He talks about the good that has come of humans surrendering to their fate and how it has given them the ability to get on with their lives. And then Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu drops the clincher, the one line that perhaps best sums up this collection, “Don’t ask me what kind of lives.”

Do Not Go To The Jungle is the first collection of short fiction by Poithumkadavu to be translated into English. While he has long been a doyen of Malayalam literature, this superb translation by J Devika shows a wider readership just what we have been missing.

Poithumkadavu terms his surreal, often fantastical approach to navigating Indian social power dynamics as “socio-horror”. His protagonists are often nameless men alienated from the world, disenfranchised, and stripped of all power and agency and jaded by the futility of protest and the inevitability of failure. What this collection chronicles is the crushing of their bodies and souls physically in the process of their struggles.

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In The Fox in the Sawmill, a lonely fox deals with the loss of his habitat that’s snatched away by the onslaught of commerce. The night guard talks to him about the violence meted out to him as a young boy during the Emergency.

In Bodheshwaran, we hear the gut-wrenching account of an artist who, as a young man, was tortured by the police for participating in political protests. Unable to consummate his marriage as a result, he takes his own brand of revenge when he is commissioned to do a portrait.

In Malabar Express, veteran leader Comrade Govindan is forced to travel in an unreserved compartment. Squeezed into a position far below the comfort of his station and suffocated by the stench of urine, he is forced to take a long and hard look at the proletariat, to which he claims to belong. While he begs for sitting place by extolling his legacy and yelling out his titles and achievements, the people denounce him as an imposter.

Poithumkadavu’s work is often shrouded in riddles and analogies; it resists singular explanations and often breaks form. He traverses effortlessly from the real to the surreal while simultaneously moving from prose to poetry. He sets violence and philosophical musings side by side.

In The Horse, a horse speaks to his own spirit as he breaks free from the fetters of his stable and human owner. It is a moving meditation on freedom and speaks of the inescapable nature of the violence within us all.

But what perhaps makes this collection remarkable is the spectrum of horror that Poithumkadavu covers. While systemic oppression plays a dominant role, he also writes about the tyranny that comes from being a slave to one’s nature and vices.

In Palanquins That Run Backwards he touches on the relationship between violence and religion; the de-evolution of humans as history walks backwards during communal riots; the suddenness of these eruptions and faith’s ability to turn us into our most primal selves.

Yakshiscars is a fine critique of gender politics and patriarchy. As translator J Devika notes, it is an exquisite meditation on the nature of desire. The story revolves around a woman who stirs the sexual passions of men, offers pleasure, and leaves them drained and ailing. That she refuses to be possessed by a single man leads to rumours that she is a vampire. The story’s prose is a stirring reminder of the seduction of logic and the weaponising of intellect by the powerful and of the tyranny of enforcing justice without compassion or mercy.

Often, Poithumkadavu’s protagonists must face a horror that is formless and nameless. It cannot be seen, sensed, or prepared for. It is not always of the conventional kind but also includes the horrors of the mundane and the trivial where dullness and monotony consume parts of the protagonists’ souls.

In the collection’s titular story, a writer’s mother vainly attempts to keep her chicks alive. No matter how hard she tries to protect her poultry, they are snatched by crows, eagles, the mongoose, and the fox. No matter how many times she tells them to not go into the jungle, they run towards it. The final explanation she comes up with is that all her chicks in the past have been machine-bred. “Only the native breed knows the enemy at sight!” In Houses, Too, Are Alive a house takes revenge on the family that lives in it by making its members mad and ill. The true horror is its inescapable, commonplace nature. Their neighbours too have homes like this. It is quite a common occurrence. Local people tell the woman of the house to buy a TV set to distract the family like everyone else has done.

Madness and alienation occur frequently and Poithumkadavu points out the real and “normal” circumstances that cause them. He also uses madness as a signifier of humanity and seems to say that, in a mechanically indifferent world, the insane seem more human than the rest.

Most of the characters in this collection represent nameless, faceless men born without agency. Devoid of their usual masculine power, they are victims of their introspective nature.

It is a pity that it has taken this long for Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu’s work to be translated into English. J Devika has done a good job of preserving much of the original context and deftness of form. Few explorations of the terror of the human condition are as poignant as this.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

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