Lalgudi Iyer is the elderly star of this debut novel by Ryan Lobo, an ambitious, and mostly successful, Indian take on Don Quixote, a geriatric quest for the 21st Century.
He is a man who imagines himself to be learned and wise, a lover of poetry and someone with a deep knowledge of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. But is is also a man who will claim,
“Ordinary life does not interest us! We want fantastic life!…We shall become what we once were – once upon a time. Because real history flows in our veins; in is not written in book.”
Despite this, Mr Iyer has been sent by his brother to a ‘home for the dying’ in Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India, located in the state of Utter Pradesh.
At the home he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bencho, a man from a much lower socio-economic background whom Iyer considers a kind of idiot-savant. Bencho’s dream is to become a politician, mainly because of the opportunities for corruption it offers. He sees himself, ‘surrounded by comforts, much respected, stealing only what was meant to be stolen.’
Their epic journey is precipitated by an accidental fall. Iyer trips and hits his head. Upon coming round he is convinced he has become the mythological warrior Bhima and must rid the world of corruption. Turning to his Sancho Panza, Bencho, Iyer proceeds to destroy his care home and set off in pursuit of evildoers, at least one of whom he will proceed to call a ‘precocious microphallus’ (an insult I fully intend to use in 2017).
As their journey proceeds they discover a range of enemies and unthanked allies who will propel them towards a cleverly plotted conclusion with an outcome that is both satisfying yet challenging to the reader.
Mr Iyer goes to War is an unexpected pleasure. A well-burnished piece of gold. I struggle to think of anyone who would not enjoy the book and would not come away from reading it with much to think about. It shows a deep concerned about a range of issues beyond the personal. In the person of Iyer himself it muses on religion, memory, the despair of love; Benco becomes a compelling vehicle for the author to discuss issues of class and political corruption.
What Lobo has to say is funny, kind but also moving. Although the writing is light, with a pleasingly ironic detachment, the subject matter resonates for a modern age when these issues seem to be driving us further apart. The characters themselves are endearing and as their journey continues the reader finds themselves increasingly rooting for their success, as foolish as the destination itself is.
Ryan Lobo is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker based in Bangalore. His TED talk on compassionate storytelling in photography received a standing ovation. Ryan co-produced The redemption of General Butt Naked which won an award for Best cinematography at the 2011 Sundance film festival. His films have aired in the National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet, The Oprah Winfrey Show and PBS among many other networks. His writing has featured in the Boston Review, National Geographic, Caravan, Bidoun Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Mr Iyer Goes to War is Ryan Lobo’s first novel.
Mr Iyer Goes To War was published by Bloomsbury Books on 3rd November 216.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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