By Yashodhara Sirur Jun. 12, 2020
It’s been 20 years since Marathi author Pu La Deshpande left us. His books depict a slice of middle-class Maharashtrian life from the ’40s and ’50s that remain relatable even for millennials. In the middle of the pandemic, I turn to his writing... for the man taught us to laugh even when there’s nothing to laugh about.
Of all my childhood memories of summer, there is one that I hold dearest. It is a memory of unrestrained laughter: Most summer evenings, Mum and I would sit on wicker chairs on the porch of our house, and she would read out her favourite bits of Pu La Deshpande’s books to me. At the age of 12 or so, and not possessed of a strong Marathi vocabulary, my interest was in the slapstick.
One of my favourite passages was a vivid description of a bus journey in the hinterlands of the Konkan region, where the protagonist and the driver are the only two people awake. The other passengers are in the throes of the most comical sleep: Some can “taste” their sleep with smacking noises, some “swallow” it with loud gulps, some nodding away only to jerk awake in embarrassment, their eyes all criss-cross before shutting once again. And then comes a yell, “mhaiis mhaiis mhaiis!” (buffalo) and with a grating indescribable noise, the driver steps violently on the brake. In the process, the bus’s 50 odd passengers along with numerous bags, holdalls, jackfruits, mangoes and sundry items leave their assigned places.
These were bits that my mother would act out and send me into peals of laughter – this was my first introduction to some of Pu La’s funniest works like Batatyachi Chal, Vyakti ani Valli, and Asa Mi Asami. In my mind’s eye, my mum’s dramatic readings rivalled PL Deshpande’s own.
Most summer evenings, Mum would read out her favourite bits of Pu La Deshpande’s books to me.
Purushottam Laxman Deshpande, lovingly called Pu La by his fans, was a Marathi author and playwright. He was also a stage and film actor, singer, harmonium player, director and perhaps one of the first stand-up artists in India. He often did dramatic readings of his books, and oh what a treat they were! Pu La, in his inimitable way, brought to life the voices of his characters, right from the Konkan-tinged Marathi of a villager to the stereotypical Hindi-Gujarati of a Parsi gentleman.
Fast forward to now. Being locked down at home almost feels like the summer vacation again. Just the other evening, my mum picked up our much-battered copy of Asa Mi Asami and began reading aloud some snippets for me. My two-year-old immediately took offence and insisted that she read him the Gruffalo instead. That’s when it struck me – even at 30, I hadn’t sat down to read a single Pu La Deshpande book on my own. I’ve always consumed all that wonderful humor piecemeal and it was time to remedy that. So I did, and it’s the best thing I did during the lockdown. Despite being a rather slow Marathi reader and my familiarity with most of the contents, I immensely enjoyed the book.
Language, and what he was able to achieve with it, remains a hallmark of Pu La’s writing. His metaphors and similes rival only those of the English writer PG Wodehouse. Sample this little gem from Asa Mi Asami: “Nanu cha chehra chutneet padlelya bhajyasarkha zhala hota” (Nanu’s face deflated like a bhajiya drowned in chutney). Here’s another about the protagonist’s father who worked his entire life at the post office: “Chikatle mhanje kay, pakitala shtamp chiktawa tase chikatle.” (He attached himself to the post office like the stamp on an envelope).
Just like Wodehouse, Pu La Deshpande’s forte was to spread “sweetness and light”. While Wodehouse took the opulent life of the peers and turned it into an irreverently funny joyfest, Pu La took what he was most familiar with – the mundane life of a common man and infused it with honest laughter. For instance, in Asa Mi Asami, the protagonist talks about a visit to his wife’s distant aunt which swiftly turns into an hour of frantic searching under the hot afternoon sun, for “Mahatma Gandhi or Nehru or Malviya or some such road”, the name of which his wife has forgotten and where the aunt supposedly lives. On the way the eldest child keeps hurtling across the busy street like “leaves blown by the wind”, complains of thirst whenever he catches sight of a restaurant and makes a general nuisance of himself. Despite his wife’s aversion to asking for directions, they finally reach the aunt’s house… only to find it locked. Further investigation makes it clear that the aunt was, in fact, on her way to visit the protagonist’s family.
Pu La, in his inimitable way, brought to life the voices of his characters.
His books depict a slice of middle-class Maharashtrian life from the ’40s and ’50s, a time and place quite different from modern India, which continue to be relatable, even for millennials.
Take for instance chawl life, which is so wonderfully described that even those who have grown up in high-rises will find something to connect with. When one of the aunties of the chawl picks up knitting, all the others just have to follow suit. A number of DIY trends follow: making beaded moneybags, dolls out of rags. Who is thinking of Dalgona coffee and sourdough bread?
Which is why his characters appear to be people we have met ourselves or those we have encountered in our grandparents’ reminiscences. There’s the inimitable Namu Parit, the dhobi with a questionable moral code who pretends to lose the clothes entrusted to him, only to return them when soundly threatened. Or Sakharam Gatne, the quintessential bookworm, who lives in his books so much that he speaks like he’s in a book himself.
Pu La’s metaphors and similes rival only those of the English writer PG Wodehouse.
Another theme in Asa Mi Asami, is the constant battle between tradition and modernity. Unlike other authors, Pu La offers no judgment, his characters simply understand and accept change as inevitable. And so the middle-class clerk watches stoically as the Tulsi in his house is replaced by an ornamental cactus, and his dhoti is replaced by a pair of trousers. When his son starts calling him “father” instead of “Baba”, he is perturbed but soon makes the best of it. His characters are nothing if not adaptable and resilient. They embody the true spirit of middle-class India: To work hard, work well, and make the best of whatever curve-balls life throws at them.
Which makes me wonder what Pu La would have had to say about the Covid-19 pandemic, a curve-ball if ever there was one. If I had to guess, he would probably come up with a host of new characters sketches – perhaps a #MinnieBakes character who lives for her Instagram feed of lockdown cakes and bakes; a “Lockdown Yoga” character forever clad in trendy exercise gear; the “Reporter” uncle who has taken it upon himself to send spurious “news” to his WhatsApp groups. But there would also be the hero, a common man juggling between work-from-home, two kids, and possible unemployment.
In the end however, Pu La would have had his common man count his blessings and look for happiness in the joy of everyday life. In Asa Mi Asami, it is about coming home to kids who flamboyantly recite a new Hindi film song for him, while in Covid-19 life, it would be a quiet Sunday spent with the family playing Scrabble. The little joys of life – like good cheer and laughter – are for all of us. For Pu La has taught us to laugh even when there’s nothing much to laugh about.