The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 22, 2002

Losing your way in Panayur
Kuldip Dhiman

The Tiger by the River
by Ravi Shankar Etteth. Viking. Pages 299. Rs 395.

The Tiger by the RiverSWATIRAJA VARMA, the last King of Panayur, a princely state in Kerala, has a promise to keep. A promise that becomes not only a sort of homecoming for him but also a voyage of discovery. Nina, the Queen of this Delhi-based royal, is pregnant and somehow knows that her baby is going to be a son. She has been having ominous dreams in which she sees destruction as predicted by Nostradamus. The monsoon sets in, lashing the land. Nina dies in a road accident, so does the future heir of Panayur that was still in her stomach. The bereaved Swati remembers that he had promised his dead wife that one day he would take her and their son to Panayur, his ancestral estate. So he decides to take the ashes of his wife to Panayur and immerse them in the Papanasini river.

Once in Panayur, Swati meets up with childhood companion Antara, and we enter an exotic world of kings, battles, gods and goddesses, the occult, magic, sorcery, family secrets, scandal, the dreaded curse, national and international politics, fundamentalists and so on. There is this crumbling palace of his ancestors, the temple, the goddess, ghosts, the forest, the tiger hunt, the fort of Tipu Sultan, and of course the sacred Papanasini. There is so much that we encounter in this voyage that realise we have actually entered a maze.


Ravi Shankar Etteth, well-known cartoonist and deputy editor of India Today, begins his first novel The Tiger by the River with standard elements that are very popular with certain critics. This is by no means his first attempt at writing for he has been writing short stories from the age of 15, first in Malayalam and then in English.

Drawn, by Etteth’s own admission, from the actual story of Choorikathi Kombiyachan, the pyscopathic ruler of Palghat, the novel begins in the true fashion of Raj novels made popular by M. M. Kaye and Paul Scott, but soon we begin to see shades of Leon Uris and the other Holocaust writers. Having begun so ambitiously, Etteth soon looses direction and so do we. What adds to our disorientation is a vast array of characters of all sorts, and the situation is further complicated by the devise of telling a story within a story and yet another story within it. Just a few pages after we meet Swati, his parents come on the stage, and just as we begin to get used to them we are taken back to the 1930s with Swati’s grandfather, Rama Varma, marrying for a second time, and this time a Jewess named Else. The scene now shifts to Germany (Berlin) that is poised to start World War II. The grandfather fears persecution at the hands of the Nazis. His son manages to escape, and then we learn that Swati has a cousin in America named Vel Kramer. The scene now shifts to America. On the one end we have Swati who brings the ashes of his wife to Panayur, and at the other end of the world Vel embarks on a mission to bring the ashes of his grandfather home. Interwoven with all this is the legend of the tiger, the rituals, the occult, mythology, history of Panayur, Kerala, India, fundamentalism, terrorism and even sex.

In an effort to please everybody, Etteth packs his story with so many diverse elements, styles and genres, that in spite of his good prose, the whole exercise fails to impress. We have the myths, the curses, the tigers hunts, the rajas, the Portuguese, the Holocaust, Gandhi, Patel, the Vishava Hindu Parishad, communists with familiar-sounding names like Namboodiri, and even Osama bin Laden. Most of the contemporary events appear to have been thrown in the plot, as if in a last minute bid to make the story contemporary and to cash in on the current news value. But all this comes at a heavy price. What could have been an interesting story ends up as a poor montage filled with characters that we hardly care to remember.