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Published on: 09/26/21 5:46 AM

Book review: Anti-Clock by VJ James

The coffin-maker`s tale

Hendri the coffin-maker is consumed by hatred for his Nemesis, Satan Loppo. He yearns  to see Loppo lowered into the coffin he has personally prepared for him. Taking off from this peg,  ‘Anti- Clock’ by V. J. James has a sweeping arc touching on many subjects, and the philosophical ruminations that Hendri indulges in makes this arc a plausible one.

V J James is a Malayalam writer, and this book, James` second work  to be translated into English,  was published in Malayalam three years ago. ‘Anti- Clock’ went on to win both the O. V. Vijayan Award and the Thikkurissi Award.

Hendri lives in Aadi Nadu, a place being slowly stripped of its future by the evil Loppo. Loppo has been mining and quarrying the hills in Aadi Nadu to the point of no return. Hendri’s loathing of Loppo has a long and painful history which includes Loppo having molested Hendri’s late wife. Seething with thoughts of revenge,  Hendri cloisters himself in his coffin shop. Viewing the world from these confines, he is a melancholy, lonely man consumed by grief at the thought of his family who were wiped out in an accident. Then,  the local clockmaker, Pundit, tells him about the ‘anti- clock’ he is in the process of making, which can turn back time.

For a man like Hendri, prone to living in the past,  viewing that  as a happier place, the clock is a means to be transported back there. However, James does not take Hendri back into the past in a direct or predictable way, though Hendri does find a sense of healing, peace and resolution of old conflicts during the process.

Religion plays a big role in the life of Hendri and the inhabitants of Aadi Nadu. Every chapter in the book begins with a chapter from the Bible. However,  given his desperation to see Loppo dead, Hendri is by no means a pure and pious figure. His life is sustained by thoughts of revenge alternating  with guilt.

James has drawn the character of Hendri cleverly. As a protagonist, this timid, quiet, sad man,  is not particularly attractive; it is his philosophical ruminations that render him interesting. The other characters that people the book, be it Hendri’s father, the villian Loppo or even Pundit the clockmaker, have all been delineated well. Pundit, in fact, is a particularly interesting and colourful figure,  on account of him fighting alongside and saving Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s life whilst being part of the Indian National Army!

The reader is willy-nilly trapped in the coffin room with Hendri, a musty room with spiders running amok, a dirty floor, the half- made coffins, and the tools of Hendri’s trade especially the muzhakkol considered a family heirloom, lying about. The  other locations too, come startlingly to life, be it the graveyard, the osthippura (the storehouse of the sacramental bread), even the suite which can be lowered into the pool in the villian’s lair,  which seems to have come straight out of a Bond film!

The plot cleverly intertwines the slow inexorable march of the story towards the climax  between Hendri and Loppo with   Hendri’s diverse reflections. Hendri, at one point, ponders on the irony of a coffin-maker, especially a poor one, welcoming the  death of somebody, since that means his own family will be fed. For a poor family of coffin- makers to celebrate a festival like Christmas, it would mean death had to come and deprive another family of celebrating. He thinks about how even graveyards have class divisions. The rich have graves lined with stones, the poor with mud. Through the device of Hendri’s cogitations, James is able to give voice to many concerns, like the destruction of pristine environments, the use of Netaji’s name to justify fascism, the displacement and suffering of the tribals due to the building of the Neyyar dam,  and many other relevant matters.

The book has been translated by Ministhy S. Some parts read  clumsily,   as in a sentence that describes a man’s complexion thus:  ‘with his Dravidian colouring.’ And some of it makes one wonder if the original writing was this awkward or if  something was lost in translation.

However, this is not to take away from the fact that translation is an absolute  boon to readers. A world of regional literature has opened up, and this book is a welcome addition to the lot. It allows the reader to enter the world of Hendri and Aadi Nadu,  with its families, friendships and enmities. The readers  then, has to be grateful, indeed indebted,  to both the author and the translator for enriching their world.

Anti Clock By V.J. James. Translated by Ministhy S. Penguin/Vintage Books. 286 pages.Rs. 599.

This appeared in the DH`s Sunday Herald of 26 Sept 2021.


Anti-Clockbook reviewPenguin Vintage Booksquirky taleVJ James

Sheila Kumar • September 26, 2021

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