The Boy on the Beach

India Today - - LEISURE - —Divya Dubey vappa

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

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