Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Blind Lady’s Descendants: Anees Salim: review

The Blind Lady’s Descendants: Anees Salim: review

[Published by The Asian Review of Books]

Anees Salim’s fourth release within a year, The Blind Lady’s Descendants, is set in his hometown, Varkala in Kerala, and maintains the same blend of subtlety and satire that won him the Hindu Literary Prize for Vanity Bagh earlier this year. However, whereas Vanity Bagh looks towards the external world and addresses questions about misguided youth and religious tolerance in the society, in The Blind Lady’s Descendants Salim moves inwards – to the existentialist angst, questions about identity, fractured relationships, conflicts within the mind and the essential human condition.

The book begins with a suicide note from the protagonist, Amar. It is no ordinary suicide note, for it segues comfortably into an autobiography spread over 300 pages, divided into five parts, drawing the reader in from the opening paragraph itself:

When I was young—probably six or seven, not older than eight anyway—our mother would drive tiny nails into the front door to ward off bad luck. Bad luck, then, must have come in through the back door...

Amar is the youngest child of a well-to-do family fallen on bad days. His narrative recounts his family’s dysfunctional members, their inanities, eccentricities and insanities. Amar’s parents, Hamsa and Asma are “two people who should never have met, and least of all, married” and his siblings, Jasira (the beauty queen and “the eternal heartbreaker”), Sophiya (the ugly duckling) and Akmal (“who saw the hand of Allah in everything”) play significant roles in his life. They live in a house simply called “The Bungalow” and its dilapidated condition is symbolic of the decadence that pervades their lives.

When Amar is five, a circumcision ceremony is held for him and his brother from which, screaming with pain, Amar escapes the ritual when it is only half complete, so that in adolescence he begins to consider himself only a “Half-Muslim” and later renounces his faith altogether. Even though he appears as somewhat of an eccentric character portrayed through the eyes of his family, neighbours or friends, his observations about life are rather astute:

Past is a thin armour
You can’t get back in with that paunch.

Blindness or the inability to see/perceive is a significant motif that runs throughout the book. At best the vision of the characters is coloured or skewed. Amar’s grandmother—the Blind Lady of the title—is physically blind and—metaphorically—in the dark about the truth of her own situation regarding the sale of her house, since the family has kept the fact secret from her. The tutor with whom Razia, Amar’s cousin and his aunt Suhuda’s daughter, elopes is a “cockeyed bastard” – so engrossed in planning a future with her that he fails to perceive that Razia and he don’t belong together in the first place. Amar himself has an eye defect and tends to blink frequently, a habit he shares with his dead uncle and alter ego, Javi, whose life is inexplicably though intricately entwined with his own.

 Amar is twenty-six as the book begins. Incidentally, twenty-six is an important age. It is the age at which Javi committed suicide—just before Amar arrived in the world. Throughout the novel a mystery shrouds Javi’s role and identity, unravelled bit by bit through the scrapbook about him Amar creates with painstaking effort. His desperate attempt to uncover his dead uncle’s past, as and when he can gather information, helps him comprehend his own life that seems to be shaping up as its sinister parallel.

To reconstruct Javi’s past he receives some help from Suhuda, who was once involved with Javi. Unknown to her, Suhuda also makes frequent appearances in Amar’s erotic dreams.

Anees Salim

This is probably the darkest of Salim’s books so far. Under minimalist yet lyrical prose, incisive wit and the blithe tone is a saga of abysmal darkness, alienation, thwarted desire, travesty of ambition, loneliness, resignation, death and decay. The tragedies occur one by one—several major and minor characters meet their death across the 300 pages—and leave a strong impact upon the protagonist and his mental equilibrium.

Salim’s portrayal of the fractured life of a Muslim family in the sleepy small town of south India with its traditions and ceremonies is quite authentic and remarkable. This book is one of the finest examples of black humor to appear in the recent times. The author’s sense of humor is scintillating and infectious. He is clearly not a sentimentalist, but his work is both poignant and stimulating. 


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