Reviewing a favorite writer’s latest is a bit of a daunting task. For the time being, you go in and hope that it will be more of the same, only better. You look at the advanced reading copy, almost afraid to turn the page and throw yourself into an unknown narrative dimension. When the author is the strangely reticent Anees Salim, he keeps the reader’s anxiety tight and gives his first book in four years a strange title as The strange book with baby names.
Only with a writer like Salim is the funny, quirky, gloomy comic, quirky couple for the course. A few pages inside the book, and you will be rewarded with everything a Salim novel has come to mean to its waiting audience – a dysfunctional family, dark humor, an unusual setting, a storyteller who sets out to draw us all into this clearly. strange but completely believable fictional world.
Much of Salim’s fiction has been asynchronous with the contemporary and in terrible year as 2020-21 has been, this step back to an earlier period is almost like relaxing a muscle you did not even know was pulled into painful tension. The story takes place in the late 1960s (a clever set of clues embedded in the narrative will tell you exactly when), and the story takes place in a previously unnamed kingdom, a princely state annexed by the Indian Union.
One could spend a considerable amount of research energy on finding out whether or not this unnamed state is Hyderabad. It has, after all, a Four Minar, a Lake Hussain, a ruler who had the title Nizam. This Nizam was once in Time magazine as the richest man in the world. He also bore sons named Azam and Moazzam. He lives (and is waiting to die) in a palace called the Cotah Mahal.
Those historically minded among us would be in pain by trying to crack the code of historical authenticity, but The odd book is does not on accession or the complex political maneuver that led to the deprivation of a kingdom from a pedigree royal family. Jawaharlal Nehru certainly appears in the book, but the story does not belong to great men. It is, on the other hand, a chronicle of those on the periphery of a royal family – the crooked things, the maladapted ones – a motley crowd of children of His Highness, who are recognized by name on the pages of his book of baby names and subsequently forgotten.
Salim often play with shape and structure. Descendants of the Blind Lady (2014) is a suicide note. Vanity Bagh (2013) transform what would be prosaic dialogue into delicious little epigraphs. Letters, news reports, fiction embedded in fiction mark much of his narrative style.
IN The odd book, the author makes use of nine distinct narrative voices, each belonging to the children of the displaced king. Two of these are the legally recognized sons and heirs – Moazzam and Azam. The rest are taken from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Shahbaz and Sultan, who grow up on the same run-down street, have mothers who were nautch girls at the royal court. Hyder is a poor servant, hired to keep an eye on the comatose former ruler. Humera, perhaps the only offspring outside the palace who has met his father in person, is struggling with depression.
Muneer runs, albeit without success, a tailor shop specializing in fezzes. Zuhab, who is on the run from her home many miles away, works in a tea shop. Owais, seen only as a voice at the other end of a phone line, is eager to claim a precious diamond allegedly promised by His Highness to his mother. Each of these characters, despite the lack of space, has not just quirks that are peculiar to them, but a distinct personality; is a clear narrative voice.
The book begins with the two princes, Moazzam, being full in his bathtub, surrounded by sparrow songs, and Azam, angry at the possibility of having to share what he imagines, is rightly his. The rumor of His Highness’ death will be the trigger that puts the narrative outpourings of the aforementioned nine offspring. In the long-standing tradition of brothers despising one another, Moazzam refers to Azam as his archenemy.
The hostility between the half-brothers is a pattern that unfolds repeatedly in the novel. There are several confluence points between half-siblings, most of whom are unaware of the relationship they have with each other. Connected by a flimsy bloodline and nothing else, each of Salim’s characters is the main character in their own story. In an interesting reversal, Hans Højhed, the supposed storehouse of power, retreats to the background, reduced to a prop.
Salim’s prose is rich in humor, but he is also a good hand with complex human emotions. Grief and loss have often marked the narrative in his earlier works. IN The odd book, we are consistently created to encounter the haunted element of loss. Zuhab misses the home he has fled from, and imagines his mother mourning his absence, his siblings starving, his home subject to silence in time. Shahbaz has lost both his mother and his best friend to the ravages of the black fever, an eerie echo of the losses so many of us have experienced in the recent, horrific past.
Humera, struggling with alienation and loneliness, begins to confide in lifeless objects, doors and windows and mirrors, lets them scold her, lets their scorn and scolding wash over her, and says goodbye to them in an everyday exercise of taking farewell to the living world. Hyder, who is on the run in a world that refuses to make room for him, imagines a miraculous reunion with his half-brothers, where he forms a family he will probably never get. Hyder might think that “no one is alone in this world”, but experiencing loneliness may be the experience common to each of the characters that ends up on the pages of the book with baby names.
Readers familiar with Salim’s oeuvre will find familiar patterns in the novel, beginning with the surroundings – a former princely state reminiscent of Mangobaag from both. Vicks Mango tree (2012) and Vanity Bagh. Thirteen is still an age where life changes. The unnamed protagonist in Lillebyhavet (2017) is forced to leave the privacy of the home and settle in a new place where his father is preparing for death. Amar Hamsa, the descendant of the blind lady, embraces atheism at thirteen.
IN The odd book, Shahbaz is orphaned at thirteen. Sultan, Shahbaz ‘best friend who dies as a 13-year-old, sees himself as not dead but invisible. The dead continue, while the living lose their ability to see anything but the banal. Sultan, who is good at balls, continues to play, even after people stop seeing him: “Even after they stopped seeing me, I did not stop playing balls, even though there were none to play with. ”
And then there are the race tours, the expansive storytellers that we meet again and again. Zuhab is perhaps the most obvious raconteur figure in The odd bookspeaks to an unnamed listener, spins a story as the other tells endless stories, Scheherazade of A thousand and one nights, never stops so often to measure the interest of his audience. There are other stories inside stories. Like Moazzam’s mother’s girlfriend, the animal keeper, who was eaten by a lion: “Not all of him, but all of his heart and a brother’s part of his intestines.”
Horror is never very far from humor in this strange world. Even His Highness, a man who completely lacks imagination according to his son Moazzam, is seen immersed in the story of a circus. With his insistence on owning a circus, a business that Moazzam claims never existed, the displaced ruler seems to have entered an area of either fantasy or metaphor, where state art and attempts to retain power may be the notion, circus . In this world where great gestures are in vain, where romance is doomed, and death always lurks around the corner, it may be appropriate to borrow from Margaret Atwood and conclude, “In the end, we all become stories.”
If you’ve already been Anees Salim’s reader, you probably do not need a sounding endorsement of The strange book with baby names before downloading it. If you are new to the writer, know that you may be in favor of the story, but you will be just as much for the stylistics. As before, I have a serious grouse over the novel. With 200 and odd pages, it is too short. I would see more of Moazzam’s misfortune and more of Azam’s angry ambition and more of Sultan’s horror and certainly more of Humera’s short story of love. Maybe Salim’s Next will be a great book and just give us more.
The strange book with baby names, Anees Salim, Penguin books.
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