The Muddy River: A Slow, Cloudy Ramble Through Someone’s Mind

This is a book review for BlogAdda. The blurb of The Muddy River by P.A.Krishnan says,

The Muddy River tells and re-tells the story of Ramesh Chandran, a bureaucrat caught up in the machinations of Assamese politics and public sector corruption during his quest to rescue a hapless engineer kidnapped by militants. As Chandran bumbles along, he encounters the engineer’s wife, who is a pocket-sized battle-axe; a cynical police officer; a venerable Gandhian and Anupama, another engineer torn between professional integrity and her love for Assam. While the rescue drama reaches its climax, Chandran also exposes a massive financial scandal in his company and pays the price for ignoring warnings that he might push too far for an unashamedly corrupt society’s comfort. An aspiring writer, Chandran weaves the events of this time into a novel, while attempting to come to terms with his own marriage in the aftermath of the death of their only child. But how much does Chandran understand other people’s truths and motivations? And how much does his wife, Sukanya, know about the events of the novel?

Multi-layered and complex, The Muddy River blurs the boundaries between the story and the storyteller, victims and victimisers, keeping the reader guessinag till the very end”

The Assam connection interested me, since I know nothing about that side of the country. But mostly, the last line of the blurb hooked me, since it hinted at meta-fiction and at the complex relationship between writer and the written word.

The structure of the book is unconventional. It starts off with a chapter ending in two letters, correspondence to people who are not introduced in the earlier paragraphs. This is followed by a page that looks like a book cover bearing ‘This Street Has No Other Side’. A full novel follows after this, beginning with a prologue in the form of a letter. This ends with a chapter that starts and ends with a letter. This is presumably to convey the story-within-story effect.

The first chapter refers to a dead child and a violent encounter with the police. These are events that invoke sharp responses within a reader but they are not given closure within that chapter and one is left guessing about the circumstances and depth of each. Starting at this point, it is hard to fully embrace the mellow, subtle mood of the chapters that follow, which mention nothing of either incident.

The novel itself rambles all over the place, capturing individual moments in Ramesh Chandran’s life. It feels more like a personal journal than a novel. This still might have worked if the novel stood by itself. But the larger story looms above and weighs it down, leaving the reader with a feeling of restless impatience (“When will he ever get to telling the actual story??!”) Somewhere along the way, while the reader is muddling along in this dissatisfied confusion, events start to happen – a kidnapping, travel, meetings with the kidnappers, conversations with the conflicted locals.

Other characters pop up along the way, in vague references or side-rambles that seem to have nothing to do with the sections before or after them – the spouse, a friend, the daughter, the wife of the kidnapped man, a local officer, a minister. None of these characters are given enough time to develop and express their positions fully so it’s hard to empathize with or even understand their motivations.

The writing in the first chapter is beautiful, even poetic but it also feels very self-conscious, which is something that hampers any artistic expression. The novel within the book has a different style, more prosaic and dry in wit. This attempt to create different voices (the author of the novel and the narrator of the larger story) works well in itself.

All in all, The Muddy River was probably an ambitious attempt but falls far short of its mark. It actually took me over a month to write this review, because I had to plod through the book. I was tempted to give it up a number of times and never for the usual reasons (bad grammar, nonsense plotline). At the end, I just feel confused & dissatisfied and not because of the story itself but the way it was presented. A simple, linear narrative just might have done more justice to a story that needed to be told.

Here’s another review that thinks differently.

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