The Boy on the Beach
Even a cursory reading of Anees Salim’s latest novel, The Small Town Sea, reminds one of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, where the most ordinary becomes extraordinary through the writer’s craft.
To mark the ordinariness, we have a nameless 13-year-old protagonist from a nameless little town (apparently Varkala, a beach town in south Kerala) and a nameless father (called vappa). The boy is forced to move from a big city, where the excitement of a metro line is just beginning, to the small city—his father’s hometown. As a terminal cancer patient, his father wants to die in a house near the sea.
The boy becomes friends with Bilal, an orphan who lives at the nearby orphanage with the Imam, and the two become partners in the usual boyish ‘crimes’. When his father finally dies, his mother is pushed into a second marriage and the boy is left behind, lonely and unsupervised in the care of his grandmother.
Each of Salim’s novels has been darker than its predecessor, but this is his darkest yet. All the elements of black comedy are there: the terminally ill on his bed surrounded by relatives planning his obituary, while he stubbornly refuses to die; a street-smart Bilal who invents stories about witnessing pirate battles on the seas; the narrator trying to use an injured pigeon in his house for pigeon-post, etcetera. Vivid imagery prepares the reader for the string of tragedies to occur. The sea, for instance, is almost a character in itself, beautifully described as a “blast of white, a streak of cobalt” and yet nothing but a “liquid desert”.
Still, this book is slower and a notch less exciting than Vanity Bagh or The Blind Lady’s Descendants.
Perhaps this is because the readers are by now familiar with the scenario: the narrators of all three books are young, male, subtly funny, removed from their surroundings and perceived as somewhat slow by their peers. Over the past few years, Salim has easily been Everybody’s Favourite Author. Expectations are naturally high. It will be a treat to see him experiment and whip up something surprising next.
THE SEA IS A CHARACTER IN ITSELF, A ‘BLAST OF WHITE, A STREAK OF COBALT’
The Small Town Sea by Anees Salim Published by Penguin Random House India Pages: 304 Price: Rs 469