"This is not a detective novel", says the back-cover of TP Rajeevan's novel, Paleri Manikyam - Oru Pathirakkolapathakathinte Katha. True, the novel is much more than detective fiction; but it can also be enjoyed as one maintaining suspense till its last few pages (though the climax is not something startling or 'expectedly unexpected' like in a Shaji Kailas movie!). Narrated in first person by an investigator, the story is mainly centered around a murder committed half a century back, in a village called Paleri in Kerala. Manikyam, 20 years old, was found dead a few days after her marriage. Her close relatives suspected it to be a murder, and investigations were carried out. A few people were suspected, arrested and questioned, but the prosecution couldn't prove anything against anyone and finally the case was closed. After fifty years, the private investigator (who is not named in the novel), whose ancestors lived in Paleri, tries to find out what might have happened to Manikyam.
The theme of a private investigator getting interested in a 50 year old mystery has freshness in it, but it is something that I would call as a bit of a "foreign theme" for a Malayalam work. The first chapter of the novel, in which a Kerala police officer shows his personal notes commenting on this old case (which he studied as a hobby!) was largely unconvincing, and the strange geometrical representations in the notes and their explanations looked very pretentious. So, I didn't start reading the book with a great impression. However, my opinion quickly changed as I read the subsequent chapters in which the novelist recreates the atmosphere and lifestyle of a Kerala village of the past with great skills. While the investigator interviews different people in the village, trying to recreate the incidents of the past, parts of social and political history of the village is also unveiled. And its not just the history; We read in detail how vattu charayam was prepared during those days, how a barber shop functioned, what kind of services the mid-wives of those era provided and how, the operations of the local manthravaadi.. and the list continues. The narrative is made more genuine through appropriate usage of phrases and similes with a touch of the old times, that are abundant in the book.
There are a few people in their seventies and eighties who live in Paleri and have something to say about the Manikyam case, though some of them are initially reluctant to speak, even after this long period. There are reports given by the witnesses in the case diary as well. As the stories unfold through the case diary and the interviews, we see each character giving a different account, conflicting and contradicting with others, or just showing a different facet of the happenings. This reminds of the technique Kurosawa used in his masterpiece, Rashomon. But in Rashomon, there were only a handful of characters, and the study of the characters and the psychological reasoning behind the differences in their accounts was thorough. Such refinement is absent in Paleri Manikyam, simply because there are too many stories here. There are too many characters, or the novel is too short to accommodate these many of them. There are around twenty important characters, and other than that I think there would be at least some fifty characters in this 300 page long novel. Most of them are underdeveloped and just remain as names (At a few places, the names of the characters appeared to be incorrect, so it looks like the author himself was confused by these many characters). However, the numerous accounts of the story are related to many of these characters in some way or the other. So, obviously, unlike the four stories representing deep character study in Rashomon, the stories in Paleri Manikyam many a time appear as just typical false testimonies. Perhaps the author's intention was mainly to bring out a collective experience, rather than on specific character studies. In that he has succeeded, and overall, he has brought "Paleri" to life as SK Pottekkatt did for Athiranippadam (if not as much as OV Vijayan did for Khasak at a philosophical level).
Even though it is far from perfection, Paleri Manikyam is a remarkable Malayalam work of recent times. I am looking forward to watch director Renjith's upcoming film adaptation of the novel, and am curious to see whether (and how) he would capture the essence of the novel in a two hour movie, or he would just make it as a mere suspense film.