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Stories that serve as compassionate critiques of power

A book of socio-horror tales by Malayalam writer Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu, with 21 stories that explore fear, loneliness and madness

In one of the stories, a night watchman attempts to befriend a fox. Image courtesy Unsplash/Chris Henry

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Have you wondered why children love horror stories? Why do bedtime stories bank on exaggerated villains for sweet triumphs? Something about Malayalam writer Shihabuddin’s universe transforms the reader into a six-year-old pulling up the blanket neck high while sinking deeper onto the safety of one’s bed. Do Not Go to the Jungle seeks to measure your threshold of fear, when served poetically and grippingly up close, without any helping of hope.

Despair is always in the air. Beasts wear khaki and khaddar. Horses and foxes zip through moonlit forests fleeing men and masters. Physical spaces come alive and torment their inhabitants. There are empty railway stations and crumbling ancestral homes. Occasionally there are endearing mothers and liberated women. But mostly there are men, of all classes, a majority sport shrunken muscles and hunched shoulders; they seem to be waiting to be told what to do. Men free from dominant manliness.

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His stories are compassionate critiques of power in its various manifestations. In ‘Bodheswaran’, Kaduvakodan Narayan, a scrawny artist who was tortured by the police during the emergency finds himself at crossroads when the current Circle Inspector (an admirer of his work) commissions him to do a portrait of the inspector’s grandfather. Shihabuddin doesn’t endorse karma but he takes debauchery seriously. His protagonists share the common dialect of fear. In ‘Beast’, a soon-to-become-father battles nightmares and guilt while his pregnant wife awaits the results for an ELISA test. The author has the courage to sneak poetry into his macabre stories, uncanny metaphors cohabit the same page, and dystopian imagery is his home territory. In ‘Yakshiscars’, an enlightening meditation on desire, men are drawn to a blood sucking yakshi they dread and desire at once. Pleasure is always in the territory of evil, Shihabuddin discloses.

Do Not Go to the Jungle, by Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu, translated from the Malayalam by J Devika; published by Eka, Westland; 176 pages, Rs. 350
Do Not Go to the Jungle, by Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu, translated from the Malayalam by J Devika; published by Eka, Westland; 176 pages, Rs. 350

Is fear just a bodily trait perfected over evolution to perceive threat to the existence of our race? What then about the fear of loneliness? Remember the fear of being separated from our parents in an unfamiliar place. The author adapts many of these for adults. “For a moment he saw the jungles spreading all over and human beings in tree bark garments eating raw meat. Really the fear of a modern man born in the Stone Age sent chills down his spine.”

Shihabuddin has a handful of tormenting stories that explore the fear of being alone. In ‘History-as-maya’, the protagonist, a gulf returnee with a PhD, is hired by a septuagenarian to give him company. In exchange for a monthly sum of Rs. 6000 he clocks eight hours a day and listens to the old man brag and boast about the past.

The author sometimes offers advice: “When you feel all alone and bored, just step into a big shopping mall in town,” he writes. ‘The Fox in the Sawmill’, portrays another unlikely companionship. Fear transforms into awe as a solitary night watchman attempts to befriend a fox. In ‘All alone in this railway station’, the station master, a young man grown old before his time, is trapped in a great snare of loneliness. He spends his days waving flags, filling his lonely room with full length mirrors where he would make funny faces to amuse himself and keep darting back to his desk to write to his superiors the woes of his social exile. Who am I? The satisfaction of well-performed duty? Or the very human form of meaningless?

At this point, I wished for more: What relationship is being proposed between isolation and our collective search for meaning?

‘Winter’ tells the story of Asainarkka, who is sane for nine months in a year and insane for three. And of a village that earmarks winter with the beginning and end of one man’s madness. He writes, Madness is—“the devil who waits on the path to God,” and, “all evenings are the primal form of madness.”

To translate the rooted yet outlandish world of Shihabuddin’s stories is presumably herculean and J Devika has played her part to perfection. Through these twenty-one stories Shihabuddin explores all the permutations between fear, loneliness and madness, and weaves them into a reverie on socio-horror. Some of these stories jump tenses and don’t have a clear first person, but while you may miss a conventional structure, dystopia can go where realism cannot.

Something strange had happened in the one delirious covid week when I dipped in and out of the book; I relived fears that lay dormant. (Two episodes of sleep paralysis disorder which I had left behind for the past three years.) Ever since the pandemic, unconventional narratives have helped make sense of the new strangeness of our lives, yet, Do Not Go Into the Jungle needs to be taken like a vitamin supplement—one, perhaps two just before bedtime.

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