It is impossible not to love The Last Song of Savio de Souza if you have lived in Thiruvananthapuram. This is 53 year old Binoo K John’s debut novel. A senior journalist and founder of the Kovalam Literary Festival, he is the son of eminent yesteryear journalist C.P. John. Binoo is a man of immense wit as his earlier three books, all works of non-fiction, attest to. His Entry from Backside Only: Hazaar Fundas of Indian English is an enjoyable read for anybody who has anything to do with India and the English language. This time he delights us readers with this rambunctious fable, a burlesque on the exploitative agenda of organized religion. I felt a sense of déjà vu with the locale and references to my schools where the writer studied too. While St. Joseph’s school retains the name, Holy Mary’s is the masquerade for the girls’ high school Holy Angels’ Convent, famous for its disciplinarian nuns. Its headmistress is the rather tantalizingly named Sister Regina. Thiruvananthapuram is conveniently shortened to Puram.
There are not many English novels set in the Kerala capital. Instantly coming to mind is the philosopher-novelist Raja Rao’s The Cat and Shakespeare, a slender but not easily digestible work, ridden with metaphysical inner meanings that most readers cannot make sense of. Puthenchantha and Pulimood figure in this work whose title is a metaphor for the central characters of a realist and a dreamer. The cat represents grace and detachment while Shakespeare stands for the Hamletian world of conflict. Slow Waltz on Cedar Bend, the American Robert James Waller‘s dud sequel to his best-selling novel Bridges of Madison County opens in the central railway station of Thiruvananthapuram. Considering that the city is a prominent character in the present book one could say that Binoo does to it what Arundhati Roy (one of the earlier reviewers of whose celebrated book was Binoo, back in a India Today cover story in the Booker euphoria days of ’97) did to Kottayam or specifically the village of Ayemenem. The writer deserves to be lauded for many things – sparkling prose, humor even if often raunchy, giving the chequered city a pride of literary place and finally, as he claims, his battle-cry for the return of rational thinking to a state increasingly subservient to blind faith and manipulators of it. As Binoo said in a magazine interview, his novel is subversive and dares the coy attitude to sex of ‘moral Brahminical matrons’ writing in English. The writer also professes a love of Latin American magic realism. The book’s opening sentence which is a premonition of the catastrophe, is similar to the beginning of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Spanish classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude. We learn upfront that the singer Savio, like Colonel Aureliano Buendia, is destined to doom. Otherwise one is constantly reminded of V.S. Naipaul of his early Caribbean novels here. There are parallels among the Trinidadian Indian community of say Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and the Thiruvananthapuram coastal folk of Binoo’s story. Both barely escape caricaturing. The Savio saga unfolds in the sixties and seventies when singer Yesudas and actor Nasir dominated the Malayalam cultural landscape. The finale is set grandly in Dec ‘04, the tragic significance of that time lending eerie meaning to the book’s ominous title. Three places whose names start with V symbolize the essence of this maelstrom saga – Vatican, Velankanni and Vettukad.
Elaborating on side events at times tend to take the tautness off the telling. For instance the preparation of chimpanzee elixir in school is a riotous read in itself but has no bearing on the larger story. Fantasia, Professor Bhagyanath’s popular magic show at Putharikandam which ends in utter pandemonium is one of the last events in the run up to the climax of ‘04. Naming the magician as Bhagyanath could be pointed out as a faux pas considering that the real life Prof K. Bhagyanath (actor Vidhubala’s father who was as popular then, that is in the schooldays of Binoo/Savio, as Gopinath Muthukad is today) had passed away in ’99. But it can be treated as just a fictional name for a character and the writer allowed his poetic license. Care is taken elsewhere as in Brother Dominic of yore graduating to Father Dominic in the present. I spotted one mention of Father Murickan (with his ‘rumbling baritone voice’) who was Headmaster at the time of my leaving school. Even the caged python that we grew up seeing daily finds pride of place in the tale and plays its role towards the end. Transliterations of Malayalam appear at places. This could have been avoided except for poetry and song lyrics (like Idaya kanyake povuka nee and Kadalinakkare ponnore – choices that are very inline with the plot buildup). To sum up, reading the book is like sipping a Bacardi Breezer, an ambrosia drink Binoo enlightens us about in his Chirrapunji account Under a Cloud, on a sultry Thiruvananthapuram afternoon. Binoo K John has done his alma maters proud indeed!