Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 06/25/17 7:13 AM

Book review: The Small-town Sea by Anees Salim



This boy’s life

An account of a young life lived on a cliff overlooking an ever-changeable sea. 

Anees Salim remarked in an interview that the success of each book was making it harder for him to write the next book. Well, it is also getting harder for the reviewer assigned to critique his work. Simply because Salim is outdoing himself with each book, and the aforementioned reviewer is hard put to avoid words like masterpiece/ compelling/perfection/excellent.

However, this reviewer will use one such descriptor: lyrical. Salim`s The Small-town Sea is the most lyrical dirge I have read in a long, long time.

The device used here is casting the tale as a manuscript to James Unwin, a literary agent, a talent hunter, as Salim refers to him later in the book. The young narrator frequently drops all formality and chattily informs the London-based Unwin about sundry small-town matters, intermittently requesting that a cartographer`s map be drawn up when the manuscript finally becomes a book. The boy, then, seems to entertain no doubts as to the ultimate happy fate of the manuscript.

Salim  inhabits the boy`s character seamlessly, as evidenced in some of the most charming passages ever, like when the narrator counts and faithfully records the steps to the outdoor roofless bathroom from the back door of Bougainvilla, the house he stays in. Back door to the collapsed cowshed: 38 steps. Cowshed to the bed of yam plants: 52 steps. And so on. Then, his fear that if an intense sadness enveloped  him, it would invariably lead to electric shocks being administered to cure that sadness.

The fact that when he heard his Vappa (father) was going to die soon, he was more frightened than pained by the news. His fear was that Vappa would die and turn into a ghost immediately afterwards,  and the boy  would not even know until the man walked through a wall or did something equally eerie. His attempts to enslave and train a pigeon, and his complete confidence in sending and receiving messages by that very  pigeon.

How, when the time comes, he stands at Vappa`s door and watches him die for some time, then goes off somewhere else. How he quietly but alertly watches the tall  almirah that was trying to hide lest it be seen and carted away from Bougainvilla.  A most appealing boy, this unnamed narrator.

By the time the reader  is through with the first chapter, they are putting faces and forms to the characters,  watching the sometimes roiling, sometimes calm sea on the cliff top with Vappa and his son, totally immersed in the boy`s pleasures and pains.

The author also mixes in moments of disquiet for the reader alongside prosaic observations. Sample this: Vappa and I were standing on the cliff path. I saw a few dark spots that could have been a fleet of ships or a mere figment of my imagination. Vappa probably saw the end of his life approaching, as slowly and surely as the waves did. Elsewhere,  you find the narrator chalking out his Vappa`s name across  a boulder on the Secret Beach. `A` he writes, then `N.` Even as the reader draws a shaky breath, the waves rise up and the boy is forced to break off his chalky tribute.

The humour is sardonic, its sharp edges wrapped in soft cloth which though,  does not really blunt the impact. The narrator frequently tells us what a bird flying overhead, a stuffed deer on a wall, one of the gliders at the beach, a shoal of fish in the shallows of the sea, would see.  There is an instance where Vappa`s friend gives him a big fish to hold while he takes Vappa`s son out into the sea. The glider overhead, though, says the narrator to Mr Unwin, would have seen what looked like a barter of a big fish for a small son.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that The Small-town Sea has gossamer-light but very substantial strands of sadness wrapped gently but firmly around it. This story is a chronicle of loss; loss brought about by death, life, circumstances. The narrator loses his home in the city; his city friend; his father, then his best small-town friend; his mother and a little later, his grandmother. More unhappiness falls to this boy`s lot than is fair. But then whoever said life was fair? Certainly  not the author.

If the story is pictures painted with words, the jacket picture, all moody blues and greens, is  simply stunning.

So. Is this a coming of age tale? An end of life story?  A ramble through a small town hedged by the sea? A melancholy ode to childhood?  The Small-town Sea is a story that will have the reader smile, sigh, chuckle, and hold back a tear.

The Small-town Sea/Penguin Random House India/285 pages/Rs 599.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 25 June 2017.

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Sheila Kumar • June 25, 2017

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