Book Review | ‘Current Show’ | Perumal Murugan

The movies, for me, have always stood for escape — an opportunity to temporarily shut out realities from which I need pause. The manufactured safety and reassuring darkness of the cinema hall have always held out the promise of being whisked away, if only for a couple of hours, to a place different from the one in which I grapple with the everyday. Enough to be able to step back out into the real world, somewhat replenished, somewhat hesitant, and almost always looking forward to the next time I can go back in.

It’s against the backdrop of this duality that the story of Sathi, the main character in Perumal Murugan’s ‘Current Show’, and the people around him, unfold. It’s a hard life for Sathi and his band of ‘friends’, all adolescent/teenage boys who make a living doing odd jobs in and around a movie theatre somewhere in small-town Tamil Nadu. From working for the man who supplies soft drinks to the movie-goers, to managing the theatre’s cycle stand and putting up posters for new releases all over town, Sathi and his gang do what it takes to make a few rupees a day, even if it’s not always on the most honest terms — an incident involving a pair of unguarded slippers is a particularly amusing account of how the boys look at every possible opportunity to make a buck. Driven by their boss, the ‘soda man’, to gruelling work hours and meagre pay, the boys find solace in their shaky camaraderie, good-natured bickering, and even the occasional brawl. The promise of a good night’s sleep, a cup of tea, a meal of ‘protta-kurma’, a glass of freshly-drawn toddy, and mostly, a shared ‘bidi’ or joint of ‘ganja’ at the end of a hard and humourless day are the things that the boys find respite in. Along the way, the boys run into estranged family members, such as fathers and grandmothers, and it makes for interesting reading to see how they treat familial responsibilites and expectations, given their difficult circumstances. All along, the cinema hall, and what lies beyond its entrance doors, are what Sathi repeatedly finds himself looking over his shoulder into, in the hope of something happier, someplace safer. Comfortingly enough, a couple of Sathi’s ‘happiest’ experiences in the story take place inside the movie theatre. The story winds down to conclude with an incident that shakes things up for Sathi and everything that holds him together, and makes him consider moving on from this existence in any manner possible.

This isn't a cheery read under any circumstances, driven mainly by the author’s / translator’s ability to describe poverty and squalor in uncomfortable detail. Depictions of Sathi’s tiredness, especially, washed over me in waves, and I found myself squirming more than once reading about the conditions in which the boys eat and sleep. The style of writing is simple, but very visual and frenetic, taking in everything that happens in almost photographic detail. At times, paragraphs of text almost changed into graphic novel panels in front of my eyes, as the author described the crowds thronging into the theater, or the boys’ daily ritual of refilling soft drink bottles with ‘colour soda’. I also enjoyed the vivid descriptions accorded to inanimate objects like theatre seats and empty soda bottles, which take on personalities and almost seem sentient. There’s also a dry humour with which the story and the events in it unfold, whether in the characters’ eccentricities, their motives, or just in their battles to just get through the day. It almost felt like being goaded to smirk in secret at the misfortunes of the characters. But if there was one thing that I didn't much like, it was in the language — having a knowledge of Tamil, in which the author originally wrote, the translation, especially of the slang, seemed a little stilted and didn't roll of the pages very easily.

Read this if you like depictions of small-town life in India written in an evocative, but gritty manner of writing.