The Puppeteers of Palem – Sharath Komarraju

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This book was sent to me by the folks over at Westland Books in exchange of an honest review

I scare easily. Ever since I read my first Stephen King, Dreamcatchers (SHUDDER), I have been wary of reading any books that are even remotely related to ghosts. That’s not to say I have not read any. There are times in my life when I choose to scare myself silly just for the heck of it.

When I received The Puppeteers of Palem courtesy of Westland Books, I wasn’t really worried. I mean, of course, the cover is creepy and very reminiscent of a Hindi movie I saw as a kid which was full of voodoo and stuff, but that was years ago and I am a grown up now. The cover, I must say after reading the story, does complete justice to the book although the photoshopped parts are just a bit too obvious to me.

According to the Goodreads blurb

The village of Rudrakshapalem awakens and tells her tale.

Five friends return to the village of their childhood to find that nothing seems to have changed and at the same time everything has. Whose voice is it that called them back and whose hand is it that now hunts them down, one by one?

Palem’s grand old man, a Brahmin landlord, their childhood storyteller, makes one last ditch attempt to save his village from ruin at her hands. Will he succeed or will his past catch up with him and demand fair price?

Two boys, one blind and the other lame, skirt the village borders at the old Shivalayam, listening, staring. On their faces they wear smiles of contentment. They sleep well. They see happy dreams.

A TV reporter arrives to study the village, only to sink deeper into the mystery with each passing day. And hovering above all of these is the shadow of Lachi, who is believed to haunt the old Shivalayam on full moon nights. Some say she’s consumed by lust, others call it madness, but all catch the red glint in her eye and the icy calm in her voice as she croons a sad, lonely song. The one thing she hungers for, that will satisfy her soul, is the fire that will burn Palem down to ashes.

The village of Rudrakshapalem awakens and tells her tale. Listen closely. It will chill you to the bone.

Doesn’t sound creepy in the least does it? Hah! Well, what do you know!

The story moves back and forth over timelines across chapters adding to the feeling of uneasiness and disorientation that the author wants to weave around us. This is a ghost story set in a small village in South India and is as good and as chilling as any you heard when you were kids. The local setting ups the fear factor a few notches for the reader as one is bound to associate the iconography in the story to things they have seen growing up in small towns and villages all over the country. The only chapters that feel suitably sane are the ones that deal with the newspaper reports about the incidents occurring in the village. The assessments of village life and politics by the author are spot on as are his very astute observations of human nature. I completely believe the character of Avdhani can be found all over the world in some form or another.

The five friends who come back to the village grew up listening to stories at the knee of the Brahmin Avadhani, who was also the overlord of the village and a very respected elder. He had been telling stories to the village children for decades, including to the parents of the five protagonists before them. When the five receive summons from a now aged Avadhani to come back to the village, they all comply out of a sense of duty and respect towards the old man. Almost each character has some unresolved childhood issues and grievances that they have buried deep in their psyches. As the tension in the village escalates, so does the hidden malaise in the minds of the five friends.

Each of the five characters is described both as a child and then as an adult in the shifting timelines. While one or two of them are likable, some are not as is the case in any group. They are bound together by an adventure that they went on as children and the consequences of that action. There are a lot of mind games happening in the story (hence the puppeteers) and it takes the reader a long time to figure out who is doing the controlling and for what purpose, apart from the obvious one of course.

The prominent leitmotif of the story are the murder (flock) of crows that seem to inhabit the village in the present day. The crows do some very gory things right at the beginning of the book and I was suitably appalled and quite sure that the author was trying too hard to make them scary. That is, until I reached our holiday destination the next week and was greeted by a crow sitting on a chair right outside my room, eyeing me with it beady eyes and refusing to be at all intimidated by a human’s approach. It never got up or flew away even as I edged my way around the chair with my heart in my throat. Once inside my room, I convinced myself this was normal crow behaviour and I was still suffering from the after-effects of reading ‘The puppeteers of Palem’ and that it would serve no purpose to share my views with my family. Turns out I didn’t have to since my absolutely unimaginative mother managed to observe out loud the next day that the ‘crows here were so weird’. I couldn’t wait to be gone from that place after that.

 At times the story seems to meander and you are sure that the author has lost the thread, but he manages to pull it back to form an intricate pattern every time. Some may levy the charge of it being unnecessarily intricate causing the story to seem like a jumbled mess at times but I was alright with that. Mind you, not everyone would be. Maybe it was because I read a horror story after so many years that I loved it so much, but I doubt that. It is definitely a good book with crisp writing and editing and is suitably horrific to be read on moonless nights, when you are home alone.

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