Book review: The Odd Book of Baby Names by Anees Salim
A bleak kind of hope
Anees Salim`s new book is laced with equal amounts of melancholia and quirk, with the former gaining a slight edge over the latter, which will not surprise the writer`s fans one bit.
The plot hinges on a slender story, that of an erstwhile ruler lying in a comatose state in his palace Cotah Mahal, watched over with more anticipation than concern by the royal physician, the ruler`s legal heirs and a whole host of offspring born on the wrong side of the blanket. The ruler, not a very impressive man at the height of his powers, was an impressive profligate (in the words of one of his legitimate heirs, `some put the number as exactly a dozen, some a little under fifty, but the most imaginative ones credited him with 149 progenies. It sounded like the number of people a ferry had sunk with.`) Thus, we see that the city is dotted with his unacknowledged children, some raging at their circumstances, others resigned to it. All of them find a presence in the ruler`s book of baby names, a volume that is decidedly odd, all the more so since his legal heirs feel it could well be the old man`s last will and testament. Of sorts.
Salim lays out the story in brief evocative passages detailing the stream-of-consciousness interior monologues of nine of the ailing ruler`s offspring, a list that includes Moazzam the respectable, Azam the greatest, Hyder the one who is brave as a lion, Sultan the ruler, Shahbaz the king`s eagle, Muneer the one who shines forever, Owais the fearless, Zuhab the gift of God, and the sole female voice, Humera the bird that soars the highest. Within a few pages, the reader gets a clear picture of these men and this woman, all speaking in distinctively different voices, all who live in the hope of a better tomorrow, one that will let them view the hardships they have endured physically, financially, emotionally, with some degree of equanimity; all bar Sultan, who the years have reduced to a non-corporeal spirit haunting the alley he used to frequent in his childhood.
The ruler and his heirs
There is a Marquez-like touch to how these hapless illegitimate offspring of the ruler live their far- from- comfortable lives but nowhere does Salim allow them to fly into any realm of magic realism; instead, we watch them flail about, attempting to gain some sort of identity and dignity, either by trying to meet the ruler, or sitting by his bedside, or stitching a fez courtesy Nizam Tailors (now that`s a subtle touch!) for him to wear at his funeral when he finally dies. Memory lane has always been a sunless alley, muses one of the ruler`s sons, while yet another recalls the villagers telling him not to go near the sole apple tree because `there are a hundred other nice ways to die.`
Humera (who was wont to sit on a bench on which somebody had chalked a heart, but since a long crack had developed on the seat, the drawing had changed its stature from a symbol of love to one of heartbreak ) drapes her depression around herself like an old quilt, and her brief and hopeful dalliance with Shahbaz is filled with poignancy. But the reader knows what the two characters don’t yet, and we watch as the fledgling liaison crashes and drowns.
Of loss and longing
There is exquisite irony in the fact that just before he slipped into a coma, the ruler, who had been in the curious habit of donning a nautch girl`s costume and travelling incognito through his kingdom, had completely forgotten he was a king and instead, was convinced he had been the owner of the King Circus. He recalled Nehru visiting him but resented the fact that Nehru had not praised the circus verbally or on paper, thus conferring a transitory fame upon it.
Then there is a Brobdingnagian tree in the palace compound that hosts a large number of nests on each branch, each nest holding a family of birds with exotic names. What all the nests had in common was a male bird that flew from one nest to another at will, a bird with an elaborate crown and a colourful bouquet of tail feathers.
A story that unspools in uneven loops, these contemplative, sad accounts by the ruler`s descendants is basically a study of immense loss and unfulfilled yearning.
The Odd Book of Baby Names By Anees Salim. Penguin/Hamish Hamilton Books.
Rs 599. 209 pages.
This appeared in the Sunday Herald of 8 May 2022.