Mr Iyer Goes to War
- By Ryan Lobo
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 224 pp.
- Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan
- February 22, 2017
This splendid novel set in modern-day India tips its hat to a tilting-at-windmills classic.
An old man in the sacred Indian city of Varanasi lies in his room in a home for the dying. Mr. Iyer has spent his life in the careful pursuit of transcendence, and he is rarely adventurous.
But no matter how much he reads, transcendent knowledge of the meaning of life eludes this Tamil Brahmin. Instead, he finds only glimpses of epiphany from the homespun wisdom of a fat undertaker, Bencho, who comes to the home to remove the ever-rotating cast of Iyer’s roommates.
“It means you’re supposed to forget about yourself and do what you have to do,” Bencho says when Iyer asks about the meaning of an ancient line of poetry. Thrilled with his friend’s insight, Iyer throws himself into motion and promptly cracks his head on a symbol of the god Shiva. He falls unconscious.
When Iyer awakes, he is a changed man. His past life has floated nearly to the surface of his memory, “like knowledge gained in a dream and lost on waking up,” and he knows he must pursue his destiny. For he is Bhīma, heroic demon-slayer, and destroyer of evil.
Soon, a fit of rage and vengeance launches Iyer from the home and out into the swirling city on the banks of the Ganges. But the facility’s stingy owner and its kindly doctor caring for the residents are on Iyer’s tail, and it’s only Bencho’s quick thinking that saves Iyer from being sedated and sent back.
Bencho, it turns out, has ambitions nearly as grandiose as Iyer’s demon-slaying plans, though more worldly. He hopes to become a politician, only minimally corrupt, and he thinks his higher-caste friend can provide the recommendation he needs to run for office.
“‘Within my soul I feel a rising of forgotten knowledge,’” Iyer quotes. “Within my stomach I feel hunger,” the ever-pragmatic Bencho replies.
Iyer promises to make Bencho a politician in the first town he controls, and they set off on a picaresque adventure. In Bencho’s small boat they flee down the Ganges. Soon they come upon a truck driver beating a boy. Iyer, armed with his walking staff, ignores the driver’s claims that the boy stole from him and rains blows upon the driver’s head. Though Bencho protests that the boy was shifty, Iyer insists the driver pay the boy. Overjoyed at his benevolence, Iyer leaves the scene. Behind him, the driver quickly returns to beating the boy.
After another leg of travel, Iyer and Bencho find a boat filled with prisoners, including a terrifying man who calls himself “The Lover” in honor of the love he feels for killing. Iyer cows the police guards and frees the prisoners, setting off another chain of misadventures.
If this summary is suggesting the echoes of another story, your intuition is spot on. It doesn’t take long for the reader to notice that “Bencho” sounds a lot like Sancho Panza, and that the daft old man obsessed with heroism and books is following in the footsteps of the esteemed Don Quixote, though this time with opium-addled monkeys and pollution-steeped rivers instead of the vast Spanish plains.
But the jacket copy and promotional material for Ryan Lobo’s debut novel make no mention of a retelling. Though at first blush the silence feels misleading, it is instead quite appropriate. Iyer’s story should be taken as more than a retread of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tragedy. It seems blasphemous to say so, but Lobo’s novel vibrates with more energy than the original, and modern readers will probably more naturally root for the indefatigable Iyer, who may or may not actually be a reincarnation of Bhīma. That uncertainty gives this novel more narrative urgency than Don Quixote.
As the novel goes on, it departs even further from our Spanish knight’s tragic self-deception. There is a lady-love to fill Dulcinea’s role, but Iyer’s beloved is both more sympathetic and more interesting than her Spanish predecessor. Likewise, Iyer and Bencho’s relationship evolves, leading to a climactic scene utterly removed from Don Quixote’s clash with windmills or bruising at the hands of bored aristocracy (though there are those here, too).
Ultimately, Lobo is more interested in interrogating the concept of destiny and renewal than mocking the conceits of romance and ambition. When we first meet Bencho, he is struggling to read a famous speech by Jawaharlal Nehru, which contains the line, “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to new.”
Iyer’s obsession with reliving his past life so he can achieve transcendence in the next might sound like madness to the doctor chasing him, but the reader wonders if there isn’t some truth behind the old man’s ravings.
“We have forgotten what the sages tell us: that all life is one long creature stretched out through time and space, living, dying, decaying, and growing simultaneously,” he says. Iyer doesn’t want an easy life, he wants a good life, one where he eases the suffering of the weak and punishes the wicked. That’s not so crazy after all.
This slim novel manages to combine page-turning adventure with philosophical inquiry about regeneration and courage, all in a world rich with modern India’s beauty and chaos. Lobo may have taken inspiration from the greats, but he has created something brilliant in its own right.
Carrie Callaghan’s fiction has appeared in Silk Road, Floodwall, the MacGuffin, the Mulberry Fork Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family and skulks on Twitter at @carriecallaghan.