Friday, January 19, 2018

The Small-Town Sea – Anees Salim: review

The Small-Town Sea – Anees Salim
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
Rs 599

[Published in India Today mag, June 3, 2017:]

Anees Salim
Even a cursory reading of Anees Salim’s latest novel, The Small-Town Sea, reminds one of EM Forster’s A Passage to India, where the most ordinary becomes extraordinary through the writer’s craft. Salim shares that quality with the great literary master.

To mark the ordinariness we have a nameless thirteen-year-old protagonist from a nameless little town (apparently Varkala) and a nameless father (called Vappa) in the first chapter. The boy is forced to move from a big city, where the excitement of a metro-line is just beginning, to the small city – his father’s hometown. As a patient of terminal cancer, his father wants to die in a house near the sea.
The boy makes friends with Bilal, an orphan who lives at the orphanage with the Imam, near his new home, and the two become partners is the usual boyish ‘crimes’. When his father finally dies, his mother is pushed into a second marriage by her relatives. The boy’s life changes radically as he is left behind alone, lonely and unsupervised in the care of his grandmother.

Salim’s obsession with human mortality is quite apparent in his novels. Each has been darker than its antecedent, but this is his darkest yet. All the elements of black comedy are there: the terminally ill vappa on his bed surrounded by relatives planning his obituary, while he stubbornly refuses to die; a street-smart Bilal who invents stories about witnessing pirate battle
s at the sea, perched upon a tree, as the narrator looks up awestruck; the narrator trying to use an injured pigeon in his house for pigeon-post, etcetera, buttressed throughout by strong satire.

Motifs and metaphors abound. Vivid imagery prepares the reader for the string of tragedies to occur. The sea, for instance, is almost a character itself, beautifully described as a ‘blast of white, a streak of cobalt’ and yet nothing but a ‘liquid desert’.

Salim likes to experiment with form. The Blind Lady’s Descendants was written as one long suicide note. This book is a letter by the narrator to his father’s literary agent, Mr Unwin (reminiscent of Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger). A glossary precedes the two parts of the book, dutifully labelled as ‘rising action’ and ‘falling action’ as in a creative writing class.

Compared with Vanity Bagh or The Blind Lady’s Descendants the pace may be slightly slow. Despite certain bursts of brilliance, the excitement around this book is a notch lower than the others perhaps because the readers are by now familiar with the scenario. An important factor is the similar-sounding narrators in all three: young, male, subtly funny, removed from their surroundings and perceived as somewhat slow by their peers. Over the last few years Anees Salim has easily been Everybody’s Favourite Author. Expectations are naturally high. It will be a treat to see him experiment and whip up something surprising. 

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