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Published on: 10/5/14 6:37 AM

Book review: The Blind Lady`s Descendants by Anees Salim


The bungalow of tales

The Blind Lady’s Descendants. The title of Anees Salim’s book has a Márquez-like ring to it; what’s more, the story plays out very like a Márquez tale, slowly reeling the reader in and soon getting her/him thoroughly invested and involved in the fraught family drama being played out on the pages.

The book takes the form of a strange kind of memoir/scrapbook being inscribed by Amar Hamsa who, with typical flight of fancy, imagines people reading it years after his time and years after his house, the large, derelict Bungalow, comes toppling down. It’s a strange account, because Amar avers that he will be alive only as long as he has a story, this story to tell; the moment the tale winds down, he will be gone. Which means the reader is well aware of the unseen clock ticking.

With this, his fourth book, Salim effectively reminds us that he has an exceptional way with words. The family who live in the Bungalow, as well as all who come in contact with them, are sketched with the detailed pen of a pointillist.

There are elegant phrases like ‘mind menders’ for counsellors, elsewhere described as ‘men paid to cure unhappiness’. A man sings a ditty like it had happened to him, others join in as if they had witnessed his shenanigans. Amar does not visit his dead sister’s grave because he fears an inscrutable sadness would pounce on him and stay ingrained in his bones for the rest of his life.

Amar’s mind, he finds at one place, is oozing out through his fingers like sand, he cannot close his fingers and stop the flow. A character bursts into the Bungalow, shattering the soothing silence like glass. This is the kind of word imagery that lingers in the mind.

Who lives in the Bungalow, this house of undefined unhappiness? There is Jasira, who sings, mostly her own praises. There is Sophiya who lives on borrowed time and in that time, literally grows the garden with saplings and shoots picked up from anywhere and everywhere. There is Hamsa the father, who keeps disappearing to Malabar on some unspecified work. There is Hamsa’s wife Asma, trying her level best to be a sturdy prop for her offspring, and failing miserably. There is the blind old grandmother, there is Akhmal, whose fondness for prayer and his kufi cap grows exponentially to end in a predictable cul-de-sac.

Strands of infinite sadness wind themselves about each and every member of the family, mostly around the drifter Amar, even as he perceives his life slowly drifting out of his control. The Bungalow goes to rack and ruin, the members move towards penury; in an attempt to stave off the inevitable, Hamsa starts to sell the teak and jack trees in the compound; thus, Amar says, ‘when darkness creeps into our lives, light comes unrestrained to our premises.’

However, don’t for a minute think this is a story steeped in gloom and doom; the reader is often surprised into sudden barks of laughter. The Blind Lady’s Descendants is written in English, but here’s the thing: a Malayalam patois comes creeping through. So does the inherent Malayali sarcasm. Both add greatly to the heft of the book.

Here and there, evidence of editorial oversights creep in: words run into each other on many a page. An alarm ‘burns’; something ‘opinionated’ her; a head is ‘titled’, something is ‘in’ a shelf, Sophiya Loren is also Sophia Lauren on the same page. Sentences like ‘We had fallen out of talking terms’ and ‘none of your fault’ appear. A purple sari worn at a wedding becomes pink some chapters down; clothes are described as being patina-coloured, Eritrea in misspelt.

But the story rises above such glitches. In the end, you feel like you read the chronicle of many disasters foretold, even though they are told well after they happened. Also, Salim does a great job of demolishing the ‘otherness’ of other communities. The residents of the Bungalow could be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, just about any Indian family.

The Blind Lady’s Descendants /by Anees Salim/ Tranquebar/Pages 297/Rs: 599.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 5 Oct 2014.

Related Links:

Book review: The Small-town Sea by Anees Salim


Anees Salimfamily storystory of a family

Sheila Kumar • October 5, 2014

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