The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Tiger by the River By Ravi Shankar Etteth, Viking, Rs 395

A first novel is always refreshing to read. First, because a new voice is trying to make itself heard in the cacophony of the established writers, most of whom have lost their sting. Second, since the writer’s teething problems are also shared by the reader.

The Tiger by the River is an exciting debut novel. Ravi Shankar Etteth may be new to the genre, but already has a collection of short stories to his credit. The novel is about myth, magic and kings, where the present merges happily with the past, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between the living and the dead.

Etteth knows the importance of a dramatic beginning. The book opens with the protagonist, Swati Varma, being questioned by the airport security about the urn he is carrying in his hands. “It contains my wife’s ashes,” he replies. The vessel almost slips from the hands of the startled policeman. The opening has its effects. It immediately attracts the attention of the readers and makes them curious.

Swati is not only carrying an unconventional luggage on flight, but he is also undertaking an unconventional journey. He was leading a blissful life in New Delhi when his pregnant wife died in a road accident. He travels to Panayur in Kerala to scatter the ashes of his wife in the sacred waters of the Papanasini river. Little does Swati know that he is going to Panayur as the last direct descendant of the kings who had ruled the place. Neither has he any idea of his imminent reunion with Antara, his childhood friend, whose son he had fathered without knowing anything about it.

Swati is also blissfully unaware of his cousin, Vel, living in the United States of America with his girlfriend, Kay. While spending his days with Antara at Panayur, which somehow remains uninfected by the communal virus wreaking havoc in the other parts of the country, Swati comes to know all about the kings and queens and history of Panayur while, thousands of miles away, Vel and Kay prepare for a homecoming. Between the individuals and their efforts to keep traditions alive lies the legend of the tiger.

Etteth is more of a storyteller than a novelist. The characters fail to develop through the course of the novel. Panayur is presented as a beautiful, ideal world. Religion and caste problems do not disrupt life in the novel, and it is only incidental that a religious conflict claims the life of Antara. Etteth’s delineation of historical facts and traditions of the Panayur kingdom are quite powerful. But the tiger myth is loose and unconvincing.

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