With exquisite humour and language that sparkles, Anees Salim surpasses himself.
The blind lady makes her appearance on page 100.
Does blindness run in her family? The protagonist’s memoir, his farewell note, his chronicling of family woes, call it what you will, it’s probably the last thing he’ll ever write.
Because it’s all written, already enacted by a doppelganger from the previous generation and even the end has been foretold through coded warnings from that man’s life. Like the blind grandmother who listens and forms her own opinions (often cruelly misguided by her family), everyone stumbles along, earnestly plotting out a future that has nowhere to go.
His mother, he says, drove nails into the front door to ward off bad luck.
“Bad luck, then, must have come in through the back door.”
He soon comes to regard it as a sibling. With such self-fulfilling despair the family in the Bungalow are doomed from the beginning and as the shadows gather over their declining home, we are only watching what we anticipate.
There’s one suicide, another in the pipeline, a drowning, bogs of bitterness, a disappearance, many abandonments, much heartbreak, a flurry of falsehoods — all enacted in and around a decaying home watched over by an unhinging family that refuses to see because it’s in their genes.
And yet, we read on with joy, pausing only for a sigh or a chuckle as the author holds together his package of devastation with a wrapping of exquisite humour and language that sparkles without drama, he engages us so that we engage with the family and their little stories, the tragi-comic saga of Amar the protagonist, his dysfunctional parents Hamsa and Asma (two people who “should never have met”, and who have nothing in common but their children), his siblings, vainglorious Jasira, the soon-to-become extremist Akmal, ill-fated Sophiya, and the last who departs instantly so that Amar can remain the youngest.
After his award-winning novel, Vanity Bagh, Anees Salim (whose four novels reach us within a single year) has surpassed himself. The reclusive novelist has a grip on his material that is never in-your-face. He is an equally reclusive story-teller, enabling the first person narrative to emerge stronger.
He ages with the protagonist, his observations always funny and self-driven, mostly eccentric, yet his overview is striking in its originality.
The Bungalow is an island surrounded by metaphoric landmarks. The mosque with its muezzin and timely announcements of prayer and death, the doctor’s clinic which serves as panacea, the cliff and sea below a mirage of relief with tourists and pointers to an outside world, the railway as escape — either a train that may also return with unexpected surprises, or the railway tunnel for a more permanent getaway.
Houses, photographs, trees and food turn symbols. The Bungalow crumbles with its inhabitants.
The grandmother’s house ebbs and flows in terms of its utility. Photographs resurrect secrets of the past, they’re burnt and rise from the ashes. Trees are symbols of replenishment, cut down for survival, the only hope during wretched days. Food is the focus of getting together, and also an instrument of death.
We chuckle at Jasira’s whistling suitor, the blind lady’s Rajiv Gandhi fixation, Amar’s bare-faced pranks and indeed the most routine descriptions.
History is in the background, like the fall of Rajiv Gandhi and Babri Masjid. But the story never seems rooted in place, it could be happening anywhere at all.
The author’s note places the story in Varkala, Kerala, but the book itself doesn’t.
This is a sort of minimalism that also shows there’s only so much you can do with words, it’s the way you use them that enlivens.
In more than 30 years of reviewing books, I’ve wondered at words in blurbs: tour-de-force, epic, brilliantly conceived, impeccably narrated. Words that declare, but don’t point out.
I would say finally that this book comes close to inspiring some of those clichés.