Saturday, November 20, 2021

The dying king's descendants: on the new Anees Salim novel

One of our best contemporary novelists has a new book out. The Odd Book of Baby Names isn’t among my two or three favourite Anees Salim novels, but it’s still pretty good. Wrote this piece for Open magazine.

In a palace, an old king – once very powerful, now diminished – lies comatose, life slipping away from him as the days roll by. We don’t at first know anything about the place, the period, or even whether this is a “realistic” tale – more details will come later – but the storytelling has a fable-like quality: it is divided between many narrators, all of whom are the king’s progeny.

The official sons speak to us first: the rival princes Moazzam – fat, alcoholic, childlike – and Azam, outwardly more poised but with a small addiction, or obsession, of his own. This is followed by a din of voices of illegitimate children, each name accompanied by its meaning. There is the stammering Hyder (“the one who is as brave as a lion”) who is employed as a nurse in the dying ruler’s room: “The spacious bed looked like an oc... oc... ocean, and he, withered and tiny, a blue bedspread pulled up to his chin, like a man about to be drowned.” There is Zuhab, who was conceived in a village when the king’s train happened to break down there many years earlier. A poetic young man named Shahbaz, who lives in an alley, and the marble-playing ghost of his childhood friend (and half-brother) Sultan, who had died of the black fever at thirteen. Muneer the tailor, hoping to stitch a new fez and take it to the palace so he can have a glimpse of his father. The enigmatic Owais, trying to get through to Cotah Mahal on the phone, but repeatedly rebuffed.

And there is Humera, the only woman in the group, who tells us that her mother wasn’t just a concubine or mistress but the king’s “lover”. Among the illegitimate children, she alone received birthday greetings and gifts from her father.

Thus unfolds Anees Salim’s sixth novel The Odd Book of Baby Names. It begins with an account of a false alarm (the king is mistakenly thought to be dead), after which we are taken back and forth in time as personal histories are revealed. We also learn about a slim book in which the ruler had recorded the names of all his children – dozens, perhaps over a hundred, of them. (“What necessitated such a cryptic register was the history of poor memory that ran in the family like an incurable disorder,” Azam tells us, a line that recalls themes from Salim’s earlier novels, especially The Blind Lady’s Descendants.)

As names from this private journal are listed, the reader might inevitably become curious about what the lives of those many other children are like. And how big would a novel have to be to accommodate all of their stories?

It would probably have to be an epic, a baggy monster aiming to be the latest Great Indian Novel – but that isn’t the kind of writing one associates with Salim, who is a master of the small, intimate story that grows in the telling. Over the past decade he has established himself as one of our finest novelists, winning well-deserved accolades for a style that combines chatty, colloquial prose with sharp and poignant observations about families, communities and the inner and outer conflicts faced by individuals within those groups.

As a long-time fan, I felt the special pleasure of sinking into a new Salim novel as soon as I opened this one: the effortless mixing of moods, from throwaway humour to heart-breaking insight, the unexpectedly rude or bawdy asides. Here is a description of a pitcher that has been covered by a jacket in a tailor’s shop – an attempt to make it look less ugly but instead giving it the appearance of “a destitute man with amputated limbs, piddling drip by drip onto a bedpan”. And here is a depressed young woman pretending in turn to be herself and a “doctor who mended minds”, switching from one chair to another on opposite sides of a table, even ruffling her own hair as one part of her gets up to leave. A funny passage where Shahbaz, taking a woman and her ill son to the hospital on his bicycle, sings a love song that frightens the child. An irreverent but accurate-sounding description of a dead man on a couch, as a child might see him: “Bada Topiwalla lay almost smiling at the ceiling like saying hello ceiling how are you”.

As often happens in Salim’s work, the universal and the very particular move alongside each other: on the one hand, the clamour of competing voices represent a gamut of human experiences and concerns; on the other hand, the characters are all Muslim, and there are culture-specific references, such as a passage where two boys anger a Quran teacher with a prank involving millipedes. As incidental details creep in, one gathers that the present day of the story may be sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s: there is a reference to a recent conversation set a few years after Nehru’s death; another reference to the king making it to the cover of Time magazine in the 1930s as the wealthiest man in the world and a great leader. It is tempting to play connect-the-dots with this information, to wonder if the king is an alternate-world stand-in for a real figure (if so, Jinnah would be one obvious choice) – but such inferences aren’t necessary for a deeper appreciation of this story: this is not as pointedly allegorical a novel as, say, Salman Rushdie’s Shame or Midnight’s Children, it is more relaxed and free-wheeling.

There are, of course, larger themes at play in the story of a ruler and his “children”, from various classes and walks of life, forming an orchestra of aspirations and delusions. (“Each family had an exotic name,” goes a passage that is ostensibly about a large tree full of birds’ nests, “Each name had a meaning, a purpose. When all the birds sang together, the air was heavy with the sound of 100 maracas, probably 1,000.”) In a strangely moving scene, one of the sons recalls his old father thinking he was once a circus-owner rather than a king, complete with startlingly detailed descriptions of the beehive of activity in the circus tent. Isn’t this how any dying leader might feel about his constituency? This is, after all, a story about life’s rich pageant – about our many performances and acrobatics, the many ways in which pleasures and disappointments criss-cross. I think of life as a game of hide and seek, one narrator says late in the book, as he watches children playing that game – a boy tiptoeing up behind a girl who thinks she hasn’t yet been discovered, each of their faces marked with a different sort of joy or anticipation.

Structurally this may be the most atypical of Salim’s novels. It is the only one other than The Vicks Mango Tree (the first to be published, in 2012) that moves between multiple protagonists. In the other books, we were tied to the consciousness of a single person: the delightfully outspoken Hasina in Tales from a Vending Machine, working at an airport, dreaming of escaping on one of those “little planes” she sees from the windows;
Imran in Vanity Bagh, an imam’s son living in a mohalla nicknamed Little Pakistan; the melancholy Amar in The Blind Lady’s Descendants, feeling like he was born into a doomed family, drawing morbid inspiration from the story of an uncle who committed suicide decades earlier; most recently the unnamed adolescent narrator of The Small-Town Sea who moves with his parents to the small coastal town where his father had grown up (and where he now wants to die).

The effect of reading The Odd Book of Baby Names is trickier. One is more aware of the author’s efforts to distinguish one narrator from another (through Hyder’s stammer, for example, which gives his narration a distinct texture). Some voices are more engaging than others: I particularly liked the ones of Muneer the tailor, and of Humera and Shahbaz as their paths slowly converge; Zuhab’s story was less interesting to begin with, but becomes more central as the book progresses – and as its narrative moves towards small misdeeds followed by bigger crimes: from deception to possible incest to robbery to murder (which also happens to be fratricide).

Much as I enjoyed reading this novel, I was also left with a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction at the very end – as if it had wrapped up too abruptly, something important had been left unsaid, or I hadn’t got to spend enough time with any one narrator. The Odd Book of Baby Names is a book of vignettes – a flash from one life here, another flash there – and very engaging as the minutiae is on its own terms, on the whole I prefer Salim’s single-protagonist novels. Perhaps because one of his major strengths is building a person’s life over a span of time, with new revelations or insights coming at intervals (while we are also allowed to conjecture the more unreliable aspects of the narrative). One of this book’s most funny-sad descriptions is that of the unconscious king’s farts playing “a sad tune” (perhaps like a jester with a bugle in that circus?) and providing the only sign that he is alive. It made me wonder what this novel might have been like if his had been the sole anchoring voice, with the others floating around it as an accompanying chorus.

[Two earlier pieces on Anees Salim's work: The Small-Town Storyteller and A Tree Named Franklin]

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