Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A tree called Franklin (and other names and markers in Anees Salim’s novels)

[Did a version of this piece – some thoughts on the work of one of my favourite contemporary novelists – for Forbes Life]

When I tell you that one of the funniest words I have read in a recent Indian novel is “Franklin”, further explanation is clearly required. In Anees Salim’s excellent Vanity Bagh – narrated by a young man named Imran, who lives in the Muslim colony that gives the book its title – a tree standing opposite a mosque is called Franklin, after the priest who planted it a century earlier. “The mohalla-wallahs are so obsessed with spinning yarns and naming things that they haven’t spared even this tree,” Imran tells us early in the book. But having offered this detached commentary, he himself continues to refer to the tree by its name: it isn’t important to the plot, but it is very much part of the book’s setting, so there are throwaway lines such as “we were idling our time away by Franklin”, or “he pulled over by Akbar Electricals and trudged up to Franklin”, or “under Franklin stood Mary Pinto, seriously irritated with something.” (Imagine the puzzlement of a reader who had carelessly sped-read the explanation at the beginning, or allowed his attention to drift!) What makes this anthropomorphising even droller is that other trees in the story are steadfastly referred to as just banyan trees or willow trees or salt trees.

The good-natured humour of these references aside, there is a deeper resonance to Imran’s remark about the naming or defining of things. He and his friends (Zulfikar, Zia, Jinnah, Yahya, Navaz) have the names of famous Pakistani politicians or cricket stars: “the mohalla-wallahs always named their children after people with successful professions”. As he tells his story – about growing up in Vanity Bagh, about his family and neighbours, about the sequence of events that leads to his group of “five-and-a-half men” becoming pawns in a terrorist act – he adorns the text with little things said by various people, presented as quotations, complete with their names at the bottom and their years of birth and death in brackets. If the quote is from someone about whom Imran has limited information, the dates might be missing, but the brackets stay; like this:

“The month of Ramzan is here, when the pious eat on the sly”
– the madwoman outside the mosque ( –2007)

“If this city had a WTC, they would have bombed it as well”
– Public Prosecutor ( – )

Imran’s obsession with numbers and dates
(which, by the way, I can personally relate to) is clarified later in the book: “I loved memorizing digits that, when fenced by brackets and partitioned by a hyphen, became studies in longevity.” It isn’t just a fetish, it is also a way for this young man to make sense of the things and people around him by giving them finite shape and meaning and a back-story; by gathering information about wheres, whens and hows.

And at a broader level, this idea can be extended to the terrain of religion, which is an unavoidable presence in this story. Because yarn-spinning and labeling done by people hundreds or thousands of years ago has created a situation where two human colonies in the same city, located just minutes apart, might come to view each other only in terms of their singular “Hindu” and “Muslim” identities, and do terrible things if they feel threatened. (If Vanity Bagh, nicknamed "Little Pakistan", is the Muslim colony in the book’s unnamed city, its nemesis – its shadow other – is a Hindu neighborhood called Mehendi.)

In his essay collection Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Amartya Sen notes the hazards of “a solitarist approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group…This can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world”. That each of us can be many different things at the same time, surprising others and ourselves in the process, is a central theme of Sen’s book. It is also an important undercurrent in Anees Salim’s work, over the four novels (published in barely two years) that have made him one of the most notable voices, and one of the outstanding storytellers, in contemporary Indian-English writing. Salim's last three books – Vanity Bagh, Tales from a Vending Machine and The Blind Lady's Descendants – feature lower-middle-class Indian Muslim protagonists and chronicle the minutiae of their lives, including things that get lost in the mainstream narratives and clichés about the community. He depicts cultural confusion with amazing lightness of touch, since his focus is on multi-dimensional people rather than on big statements – and because he is effortlessly funny even when telling very sad stories.

In The Blind Lady’s Descendants, the narrator Amar – a melancholy man who is writing this book as a sort of lengthy suicide note, perhaps using the written word to keep himself and his luckless family “alive” in the face of impending obscurity – is an atheist; in pointed contrast is his pious brother Akmal who earnestly tells anyone willing to listen that Neil Armstrong heard the call of the muezzin when he set foot on the moon. However, Salim doesn't present Amar and Akmal as symbols or archetypes, and the reader has to come to terms with the many nuances in the narrative. Despite my own mindfulness about generalizations, I admit to having been jolted at times. When Amar casually mentions having felt up his cousin Razia when she was 11 and he 13 (“I had slipped a hand down her silky stomach […] but she had darted away before my finger, shaped like a fish bait to enter her, reached its destination, glaring murderously at me”), it came as a minor shock, not just because this bit of offhand raunchiness marked a shift in the book’s tone, but because on some subconscious level I was still thinking in stereotypes: I was thinking of Amar as only a sensitive introvert (hence incapable of having a ribald or sexually inquisitive side) and of the characters as Good Muslims (in the sense of being respectful of bonds and distances and veils), and forgetting that they are human beings with the same impulses as anyone else. One can imagine some readers being discomfited by the fact that the grown-up Razia – a reasonably self-possessed, mature young woman – continues to refer to Amar as Brother. But feelings and equations can change over time, or exist in opposition. (Amar may pride himself on being a rationalist, but that doesn’t stop him from being spooked, and ultimately overcome, by the thought of a mystical connection between himself and an uncle who had died on the day Amar was born.)

The people in Salim’s stories are sometimes constrained by their larger identities even as they try to break away from them, and this tension is the warp and weft of their lives. Many of those quotations that dot the pages of Vanity Bagh are from films starring Sean Connery or Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone, and attributed to the actors rather than the characters – here is an Imam’s son living in a conservative setting, whose thoughts are shaped by movies from a country that would in many ways be antagonistic to, or suspicious of, his family’s way of life. When the Oscar-winning “king of sound engineering” (Resul Pookutty, though he isn’t named) visits the jail Imran is in, Imran’s principal motivation for wanting to meet this local celebrity is that he had shaken hands with Will Smith on the Oscar stage.

Similarly, in Tales from a Vending Machine, the young narrator – a spirited, winsome, occasionally muddled girl named Hasina, who works at an airport vending machine – reads a lot (without always understanding context) and wants to lead a modern, self-reliant life; she day-dreams about battling a terrorist who tries to “kidnap” the plane she is piloting. But she also weeps when she hears of the execution of Saddam Hussein, thinks of the Twin Towers’ destruction in terms of an exciting movie scene, with “the top of the building crumbling smoothly to the ground like a wedding cake”, and in one of the book’s most uproarious scenes – reflexively yells “Allahu Akbar” back at the fake terrorist who has accosted her during a mock drill at the airport (all Hasina was required to do was slump over and play dead after being “shot”). Again, as so often in Salim’s work, the breeziness of this scene doesn’t mask the question it raises: in a scripted attack of this sort, why are the “terrorists” cast as purdah-wearers who shout “Allahu Akbar” before attacking?

In telling these stories about people who might mock faith and its rituals, but who are also capable of feeling defensive about their culture in specific situations (much like the hero of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Salim shows how a particular world can become both a cage and a sanctuary. What happens when the boundaries of what you can and cannot do are pre-determined by authority figures in your community – and when this in turn creates a vicious circle because people on the outside are constantly judging you? In Tales from a Vending Machine, Hasina is frequently conscious of people she meets looking disapprovingly at her veil. Including a former class-teacher who is (understandably) saddened that this promising student was made to leave school at a young age… but also the painter MF Hussain (in an amusing cameo), who many on the Hindu right would stereotype as an Islamist making fun of their religion.

And so it goes. These books deal with the messy complexities of human lives, and the subtle ways in which people can both be defined and, briefly at least, resist definitions. For all the cataloguing and classifying in Vanity Bagh – all the neat attempts at ordering the world – you have to think how odd a name “Vanity Bagh” is for a Muslim colony, or “Franklin” for a tree waving its leaves at a mosque.


[A little more about Anees Salim in this post about the Crossword awards judging process that ended with a fiction prize for The Blind Lady's Descendants. Here's a review of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And here, only because Imran is so dismissive of Resul Pookutty, is a review of Pookutty's memoir Sounding Off]

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to read 'Vanity Bagh'. I've read 'Tales from a Vending Machine' and while it was mostly a fun read, I think you're being too kind in calling Hasina a 'spirited, winsome, occasionally muddled girl'. At many points in the novel she's just downright malicious... some of the stuff she cooks up is amusing enough on paper, but in real life more than a few people would probably want to maintain a safe distance from her. It's a light hearted novel and the author appears to have a gently mocking, yet often empathetic attitude towards her. Outsiders not used to hearing the conspiracy stuff she churns out with respect to 'America, Juice and all' may find it amusing if slightly discomfiting. But she believes it all in good faith, and views like that become dangerous when they are collectively held by a significantly large number of people (which they arguably are). Salim presents her as she is, and making her the subject of light raillery is perhaps a good way of dismantling some of those ideas, even if he hasn't set out with that specific project in mind.

    In reading the novel you do appreciate the way Hasina has aspirations for herself and her brother, and for me some of the funniest and best scenes in the book include her excitedly dashing to the Global Distance Education Institute to see Professor Nair, and the earnestness and childish aplomb with which she declares 'My name is Hasina Mansoor. I would like to earn my graduation'. Her entrance essay was a hoot and nicely done by Anees Salim. So perhaps I'm taking things in far too serious a vein when I make the following observations, but they sort of occured as an afterthought.

    The kind of revenge Hasina orchestrates against her real/percieved enemies actually has the potential to completely devastate thier lives. She's OK with Eza being belted until he's half dead; even if she despises Laila auntie its surprising that the latter''s grief and utter desperation to get her son back makes not an ounce of difference to Hasina. She loathes both her mother and Eza after what she witnesses from the tree, and the former is henceforth exclusively referred to as 'the exhibitionist'. It was obviously ugly but Hasina can be said to have pre-empted her mothers death, in asking her dad to defer the operation her mother needed. When she dies Hasina's response approximates to something like 'she had it coming'. Cutesy winsome girl? I ended up liking Shamla more than her sister. When she's esctatic at the at end at having secured a job as domestic help in Dubai I was just like 'awww..poor thing'.