Growing up, my mother would always tell me that a bank job was one of the two best things I could choose for myself (the other being a teacher’s job). Having read The Whisper of the Worms, I am not so sure.
Thobias Mathai, suffering from lung cancer, is told by his doctor that he only has one more year left to live. He decides to return to his home in his home country and meet the mother he has not seen in 20 years. At the airport, on returning, his passport is confiscated and he is informed that he is under investigation for a crime he committed in Smile Bank, where he worked before leaving for the US.
The course of the investigation runs concurrently with Thobias’ flashbacks about his years at Smile Bank, when he struggled to do his work as well as he could, even though the odds were horribly stacked against him. The extent to which the system is messed up is what we come to see as poor Thobias makes a desperate attempt to clear his name and to figure out just what he is accused of. He knows that he will die soon and will be spared the punishment they will mete out to him, but he is unwilling to subject his family to disgrace.
Gradually he becomes aware that he is being accused of frauds that he had brought to the notice of his superiors, but that far from taking action against the real perpetrator, the bank had heaped him with more work and more responsibilities with the bonus of an increment denied thrown in. Eventually, the whistle-blower was held the culprit while the guilty and his accomplices were shielded and paid off.
Thobias, disappointed with the system at work in the bank, resigns, blissfully unaware that he has been made the fall guy.
The sensibilities are right and the author does a great job of recreating village life. Through the writing and the characters, one gets a taste of the author’s philosophy and world view, and the glimpse is admirable. The narrative is interspersed liberally with reminiscences befitting a man who is counting down to his death. These reminiscences are well introduced and enable you to get a deeper sense of the characters and the milieu.
The flashbacks are introduced at just the right moments. Their beauty lies in the fact that while not all of them might take the story forward, they always succeed in throwing light on the character of Thobias himself.
The fictional nation of Marcardia in which the story is set bears a close resemblance to the worst that ails our own country. Like us, the Marcardians adjust their idea of happiness to suit any reduction in the degree of misfortune. The paragraphs which highlight the average Marcardian’s concept of happiness are superb.
The characters are a brilliant exercise in sarcasm. Pannaverse, a senior union leader, bends down to shake hands but his body does not return to its original position at once. Also, because he bares them so often, his teeth have taken over while his lips are nearing extinction.
Smile Bank is so powerful that it becomes a character unto itself. Here managers and those in power imagine halos around their own heads. With a Smiling Donkey as its logo, the bank believes in treating people like donkeys in order to improve their performance.
Characters like Velevendran, Kusagran, Mehman make us feel a mortifying sense of indignation at the indignities that are heaped upon Thobias, just because he won't get asinised for their benefit. The only weapons that Thobias has are his honesty and his sarcasm.
The author also succeeds in describing what the process of asinisation (rejoice, fellow donkeys, we now have a name for the ailment that we see all around us) is all about. Through one of Thobias’ reminiscences, we come to know of the hens in the poultry farm who learn to eat and drink only while sitting, and gradually forget to stand up or walk, just like the ‘asinised’ employees in Smile Bank.
Velevendran’s description of how hardworking donkeys are never offered a carrot but are lured on to work harder by a carrot dangling in front of their noses would have been funny if that sort of thing didn’t happen to us too often.
Thobias, the quintessential donkey, never does fit in. He is too honest, outspoken and hardworking, unwilling to scratch backs or give praise where it is not due. He never realises that he must temper his words to suit the moods of his superiors. Nor does he ever catch sight of the invisible halos around the heads of the great and powerful at Smile Bank.
With qualities such as these, he is doomed to remain a donkey always. During a meeting, when the principal manager informs the gathering that from then on, merit would be the criteria for promotions, Thobias wants to know if merit wasn't the criteria earlier.
Thobias' condition is pitiable and I longed to see him released from the cesspool of idiots, fraudsters and schemers in which he found himself. No matter what the sphere, in banking, corporate life or politics, the system is designed such that only those who are asinised do well, and Thobias prays to God to ensure that he is fully asinised. But God has other plans.
The language that the characters speak is real. I was sure this was based on a real case somewhere. The author manages to recreate the linguistic inflections and dialects of a people for whom English is the second or third language. In this world, the masters of the donkeys enjoy mouthing high-sounding platitudes. Sample this: Velevendran says, “Just because a truth is truth, it need not become a truth until it is announced by the concerned authority.”
The narrative gives us an interesting peek into the rural life of the Kerala counterpart of Marcardia where hens and chickens roam free and paddy fields sparkle with the pending harvest.
It was halfway through the book that I realised that I really liked Thobias and sympathised with him even though I had no idea what he looked like. The author has refrained from giving him a physical description, making him a kind of Everyman that could just as easily be one of us. Only one facet of his appearance is revealed almost unthinkingly in the flashback relating to the warts on his fair skin.
Whisper of the Worms is a tale that seems deceptively simple at the beginning. But as you turn the pages, you become aware of the genius of the mind that penned this onioned allegory that can be understood at so many levels. I particularly liked the way the book ended, justifying the title and the premise of the work for added effect.
I wish the author had emblazoned his name on the cover of the book, instead of putting the name, Marcardian, on it. It certainly is a work to be proud of.
Then again, perhaps he feared retribution from Smile Bank.
The book was received as part of Reviewers Programme on http://thetalespensieve.