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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Short, Happy Life
of Harry Kumar

Ashok Mathur

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To purchase The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar

Title: The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar
Author: Ashok Mathur
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 223 pages
Availability: The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar - US
The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar - UK
The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : wonderful parts, but the promising tale gets too far-flung

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar is a contemporary variation on the classical Indian Ramayana-story. A woman is kidnapped (though hardly in the traditional modern sense) and her name is Sita. There's a loyal animal-companion, a dog named Han (yes, that's short for Hanuman). There's international travel -- though the island-destination here is Australia. And there are some highly unusual goings-on all along the way.
       Unfortunately, the best parts of the novel are those that are almost entirely mundane.
       The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar begins very promisingly. There's a first person narrator who starts things of with a few cryptic descriptions and pronouncements, claiming (among other things): "So I intervene, re-orchestrate, get my feet wet so to speak" -- but it's all introductory, and these flights of fancy (which admittedly do prove relevant later) aren't too much of a distraction or annoyance. In fact, the novel settles down quickly to introduce Harry Kumar and his simple life. It's not entirely pedestrian, but it's a life much like any other.
       Harry doesn't appear truly happy or fulfilled, but there is a contentment to him. He is a bank teller in Vancouver, who doesn't attract much notice at or away from the workplace. He can say "my life is a series of convultions", but it's more likely to lead to misunderstandings than be understood in the way he means it ("convultions, unnecessary complications to otherwise straightforward narrative events"). He chances into his two close friendships -- but then fate seems a guiding force through much of the novel.
       His friends are Sita, a woman he is attracted to but hasn't gotten romantically involved with, and Athnic, a hotel worker who (it becomes clear) has already at a young age become a legend in the industry, with the type of personality that makes him "the sort of fellow who instantly took over a room".
       Another presence is that first person narrator, coming to the fore on occasion to explain (or mystify). It is this figure, too, that sets the action into motion then, kidnapping Sita. Harry must, of course, go off to search for her -- guided by mysterious clues. First he's off to Toronto, where he runs into some amateurish secret intelligence agents following their own agenda, though it appears connected to his own. Eventually he goes to Australia. Along the way influential Athnic -- and Han -- help him.
       Much of this doesn't make sense to Harry, but it's easy for him to muddle through. Athnic and the clues help guide him in the right direction, and he allows himself to be led and pushed. (Readers must follow suit: similarly confused on occasion, they might not always be as accepting of the twists and turns they're forced to follow.)
       The story ends much as one might expect a Ramayana-retelling to. There's considerable entertainment to be had along the way, too. The novel is presented in short chapters, many of them almost self-contained episodes, and the action overall moves swiftly.
       Mathur offers many very nice set pieces: Kumar's work-life, his relationship with Sita, a few of his encounters, in particular, are excellent. The book does, however, get stretched too thin in the mad, distant rush to find Sita. It jerks along unconvincingly, becoming occasionally too cartoonish (from the reception paved by Athnic at the many hotels to the ridiculous clues that lead Harry onwards). Much of the material is fantastical, and Mathur doesn't do that nearly as well as he does the down-to-earth stuff.
       The quest-tale the book becomes is ultimately not nearly as engaging as the budding romance between Harry and Sita was at the beginning. The magical-realist pull was apparently too strong for Mathur to resist; a shame: his talents clearly lie in the novel of everyday life, leaving aside the too obviously mystical (and -- please ! -- the supernatural). The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar is nevertheless worth reading because Mathur so obviously is talented. It is still a novel of experimentation, as Mathur tries a variety of things (and a variety of styles), and most of what he does is at least interesting and often more (the mystical mumbo-jumbo excepted). He's got (for the most part) the individual parts right, but here they aren't yet fit into a convincing big picture: the pieces here are better than the whole.

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The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar: Reviews: Ashok Mathur: Other books by Ashok Mathur under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of Indian literature at the complete review
  • See Index of Canadian literature

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Ashok Mathur lives in Calgary.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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