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Published on: 05/22/16 8:13 AM

Book review: Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor


    A wave of emotions

An interesting debut from a promising new writer.    

Kanishk Tharoor`s intriguingly titled book is a slim volume consisting of a dozen short stories. These stories span continents, oceans,  they go underwater at times, they swim among the stars at other times, and once, even descend into the hellish pits of a coal mine.

It’s an interesting cross-section of people and situations, mostly presented to the reader in impassive but well-detailed fashion. The hand that crafted these stories is a sure one, the delineation is impeccable and the phrases turned most delectably. Irony is ever present, human foibles are captured neatly and wryly,  and  some passages are beautifully descriptive.

The reader meets strange and not- so- strange people in Tharoor`s book, people who ghost away in
the wee hours of a morning; people who speak only whorehouse French; people who live in dignified thrift; people who make a pogrom of glass, and then, a kettle-voiced man. An elephant wears `an anklet that, wrapped around a man, would have had all the thickness of chains. Its every step tinkled with the jewellery of another land.` Elsewhere,  while a city tenses up for the oncoming assault, a woman beats the dust from her oblivious quilts. A captain marooned in a strange land where the very air seems heavy with threat, feels like Sinbad, `condemned to soliloquize on driftwood.`

Tharoor has said that some of the stories were sparked by observations, sometimes just a line or an image, and in a couple of stories, the effort to flesh out these observations shows; they  seem rather pointless, told merely for the sake of telling.

Then again, the very act of reading is a deeply subjective one: what reads well for one person may well be a painful telling for another. However, a couple of tales are real gems, standing out in the crowd. One such is `Portrait with Coal Fire`  where irony laces itself so strongly through the story, the reader can practically taste it.

The story is basically a Skype conversation between a Western photojournalist and his most recent subject,  an unnamed coal miner from India. Gently but insistently, the coal miner asks that he be named in the next issue of the magazine, and furthermore, be accorded the dignity he deserves with the publishing of his family portrait. For the photojournalist, of course, the miner is a job done and dusted, if you`ll excuse the pun, and the conversation is beginning to take an unwelcome  turn.

Then, the Iskandar romances,  brief passages  detailing a feat or experience of Alexander, are
delightful. In one such fable, the conqueror directs his men to build a sort of Hadrian`s wall: `Each stone had to be cut to fit the next, since too much mortar in a defensive wall made its collapse more likely. All the iron bolts that joined the stones were coated din molten lead. If they weren’t, exposed iron would rust, the bolts would fray, then the stones would gradually slip out of joint, and soon, invisible from the outside, cracks would spread like spider webs within the edifice. `

This reviewer found that the tales all had a diffused quality to them, as if playing out behind a gossamer veil. There is style, there is elegance of language, this is an author who  has things to say and says it well for the most part but here and there, the reader`s attention does begin to flag at times. There`s no denying though, that one awaits Tharoor`s next with happy anticipation.

Swimmer Among the Stars  by Kanishk Tharoor /Aleph Publications/Rs 499/Pages 188.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 22 May 2016.


Deccan Herald Sunday HeraldKanishk Tharoornew writerpromising debutSwimmer Among The Stars

Sheila Kumar • May 22, 2016

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