Anees Salim plays with words in his debut novel recounting the days of Emergency, says Manisha Gangahar.
A compelling first novel, says a blurb for The Vicks Mango Tree. True, indeed. But it takes a few pages to realise that it is differently written and, hence, you need to switch on your offbeat sensibilities. The plot doesn’t follow the conventional formula of beginning-middle-end. Moreover, coming from someone who quit studies when he was barely 16 and yet became a writer, the novel has to be worth a read.
The Vicks Mango Tree follows the life of a journalist Raj Iyer, who goes missing in the days of Emergency, in an imaginary city, Mangobaag. But some years later, he resurfaces in a corner of the Municipal Park as a bronze statue. Nobody knows what he exactly did to become famous, though the buzz is that a book, hailing him as a modern hero of Mangobaag, is being written.
This, however, is just the single thread of the narrative. The greater strength of the book lies in the way other fibres overlap and stitch together a novel that doesn’t confine to a single theme per se, but explores how the political and personal or even collective transect in the alleys of a town.
In fact, the town “Mangobaag” could be anywhere in India and appears to be in wink-and-nod terms with a certain kind of urban Indian writing where time is conflated, where broad alleys and mangoes tasting like decongestants are obvious allegories and the characters resemble impersonations. The imaginary city boasts of 54 variants of mango trees, including one with the scent and taste of Vicks Vaporub.
Anees Salim, in his debut novel, recounts the days of Emergency, for many the worst period in India’s post-Independence history. Salim always wanted to write about them, even as a schoolboy, he says in an interview. It is a good read; for, the mix of imagination and reality is enticing and engaging, till the last page.
The story is abut the fictional region called Mangobaag but the context — the 21 months of Emergency in India — is real. Salim pens the life during that period in India when civil liberties were suspended, there were revolts, but which often fizzled out before the day ended, and the censorship that added to the dismalness. Amid all this, the tales of ordinary people unfold. And, with it, the past and the present intersect. The reader goes to and fro, but enjoys the ride, not missing what lies between the lines and grasping the meanings and connotations of words beyond their literal sense.
The narrative has pun, dark humour, but it is not frivolous; the sarcasm only underscores the real as he puts it in a loaded language. For instance, “Your Mrs (Indira) Gandhi… My Mrs Gandhi… They kept disowning her as if she were a pack of contraband they had been caught with,” hints at the conversations that friends and colleagues, Teacher Bhatt and Narain, have about the Prime Minister and also catches the sentiments of the days. Likewise, the instant response of Teacher Bhatt — this damned place has no emergency exit …” — to Raj’s announcement that “It is Emergency” and later his comparison of Emergency to the beehive is more than just playing with words.
The author’s insight into the way ordinary people think and behave comes across as one character analyses the other, finds ways to fulfil his or her own dreams, makes sense of the world around and get on with the routine.
The flashes of irony and the tone of wry irreverence bring a charm to the narrative along with the anomalous characters — Teacher Bhatt, Rabia Sheikh, Alladin, Sunder Iyer and Raj Iyer — each with his/ her own idiosyncrasies. At the same time, the legends — Dr. Abid Ali and Maharaja Muneer Shah — manage to find place in the present.
At another level, in a subtle way, Salim brings out the fallacies, how the words of the interviewee gets tampered with, brutally at times; how the truth is manufactured, just as is history. And, even the obituaries — In Loving Memory of Freedom — could be fake but, more significantly, they could be the only truth affordable. At one point you wonder what the author is doing: there are letters that carry a lot of weight (and are read not by the addressee, but Rabia), here are interviews, there is this constant flow of the stream of consciousness and then the imagery has its own voice. All put together, the literary piece about the Emergency may not be politically correct, and why should it be, but it is provocative and invigorating. The Vicks Mango Tree stands witness to the changes, the present that soon becomes the past, till the day it is felled. And, the end for some is a beginning for others, the stories continue, as the reader sets down the book, deriving his own meaning.
The Vicks Mango Tree, Anees Salim, HarperCollins, Rs.399.