Culture curry
Reviewed by
Aradhika Sharma

Bala takes the Plunge
By Melvin Durai.
Hachette India.
Pages 200. Rs 195.

FUNNY in places, hilarious, rollicking, rocking in some, and kind of overstretched in some other portions, Bala Takes the Plunge is an amusing book. However, there are some no-holds-barred moments of joyous laughter which the reader must beware. Why must you beware? Because it’s best that you do not read it while sipping a coke (or tea or coffee or water or any beverage) lest something tickles you so bad that it makes you splatter the coke (or whatever you are drinking) right on to the pages as you erupt in laughter.

Melvin Durai is an India-born, North America-based writer and humourist. His humour columns, acclaimed for being both funny and thought provoking, have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines in several countries. His weekly columns are read by thousands of people in more than 90 countries. Bala Takes the Plunge is his debut novel, and he starts where Anurag Mathur stopped with his Inscrutable Americans.

The surmise of the story is not an uncommon one. It’s the story of Balasubraniam (aka Bala aka Bill in the US of A) who has dreams of becoming a big film director, making films with superstars Rajnikanth (Rajni Saar) and Kamal Hasan. When a friend asks him in America, "Whom do Tamils worship?" Bala answers: "We worship Rajnikanth. He’s an actor." A particularly interesting comment at a time when the Tamils are queuing up at 4 am to watch the Rajnikanth blockbuster, The Robot.

However, Bala must succumb to the wishes of an autocratic father and he enrolls for an Engineering degree instead. He earns his degree by reading texts like Thermodynamics Made Easy, Engineering Graphics Made Easy, Calculus Made Easy. Thereafter, Bala makes his way to "Amricka", which he grows to love and gets a job as Director of Design at FlexIt Inc., which makes exercising machines. The next challenge is to find himself a wife.

Durai is a master of real funny and unexpected one-liners—"His Hindi wasn’t good anyway. He had taken it as a third language in school, but it had become a fourth language behind English, Tamil and SMS". Another time, he says, "Advertising was going too far these days ... He had seen a woman with ‘Got Milk?’ tattooed above her breast, which caused him to swear off dairy products for a year." When Bala says he and his parents should take a cab when they go to see the girl, bride’s home to impress them. His father retorts, "You are in Amricka. What more there is to impress?"

Bala is living two cultures and he brings his Tamil understanding to America, while all the while getting more and more comfortable with the country. He finds it strange and the Americans rather different than the Indians, but he happily accepts the difference, while observing that it is different. He does his best to try and fit in. For example, when he hears that President Obama has named his cat ‘India’, he decides to return the compliment and call his dog, ‘America’. This serves him well because when his neighbour complains and wonders where a ripe tomato had gone from her garden, Bala shakes his head and says, "Only in America. Only in America."

Basically, the book is a culture curry. The only difference is that Bala is not at all dysfunctional in either setting. He’s quite comfortable being a Tamil in America and an America-returned in Tamil Nadu. Of course, his inherent Indian-ness pops up from time to time. For example, he buys from the cheaper stores, thanks to the lessons of parsimony taught by his strict father, but at the same time feels that ‘branded’ stuff is o be showed off and for him, even coke is ‘branded’.

His attempts with the women in America are not too successful, in spite of trying to meet them in ‘social’ places like Supermarkets and in bicycle outings and of course, on numerous dating and matrimonial sites. He thus goes bride hunting in India, to find a girl who will be worthy enough to inherit his mother’s treasured Corelle crockery set. Of course, his choices and those of his parents are completely at variance with each other and things seem rather desperate for poor Bala who feels that he must race against time because he is not at the ripe old age of thirty and worse, is getting a bald patch at the back of his head.

Lots of hilarious moments in the book, sometimes a few too many. The weak point is the plot of the story. There is really nothing of substance there. It’s more of a situational comedy than anything else. For those who are hooked on to stand up comedies, this is like a stand up comedy script in several acts. In fact, it may not be a bad idea for stand up comedians to look at this book as a possible resource!