A post-pandemic dystopia: review of Tabish Khair’s The Body by the Shore

Khair’s prose swings between the poetic and the didactic, with no single revelatory moment but a series of case studies

October 28, 2022 09:05 am | Updated 09:05 am IST

You need to take a deep breath before plunging into the “velvet underground” that Tabish Khair has laid out in the guise of a novel. The title teases you into believing it is your regular crime fiction: the body of a man has been washed ashore by the waters of the North Sea, gashed with wounds that have been carefully stitched back. 

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Is he another statistic of the refugee crisis, a symptom of the plague of migrants as they are perceived within post-Cold War European societies gone soft with welfare and the nanny state? Equally, there are hints that this could be a sci-fi morality tale, or what one of the protagonists dubs “scare fiction”, with deluded scientists running amok pursued by demagoguery and visions of world domination.

In an earlier work, Night of Happiness, Khair had isolated what he calls “the virus of violence”. It has transformed everyday life as we know it, assisted perhaps by social media that renders hate as the default option. Or as he asks: “What if the doctors of your society infect you with the virus?”

The Body by the Shore
Tabish Khair
Harper Collins

In the current scenario, Khair moves into a post-pandemic dystopian world in what we are told is Denmark in the 2030s, a bland approximation of a welfare state where everyone is welcome but no one belongs. Khair himself teaches at Aarhus University in Denmark and presumably was involved in a seminar titled ‘Mind, Body and Soul (Denmark): The Cognitive Sciences and Religion’ that forms a reference point for exploring different ideologies. The pandemic may have receded but so have the old structures of belief, most significantly of religion. A new aggressive system of experimental trade-offs with a faceless government- commerce-military nexus dominates what is left of human interaction.

‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’

Poster of the 1977 movie adaptation of H.G. Well’s ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York.

Poster of the 1977 movie adaptation of H.G. Well’s ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York.

The latter half of the novel takes place on an isolated oil rig in the North Sea that is oddly reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ 1896 science fiction novel  The Island of Doctor Moreau, complete with vivisection, now called organ trade, and experiments with human-beast combinations. It suggests that what we might call imagination has not really evolved from a Wellsian perspective.

To some of us, Khair may take off from where Carl Sagan left off when he proclaimed shortly before his death, “We are made of star-stuff,” or that we are children of the stars out there in the vast galaxies whose range and depth we’re only now able to tentatively probe. It is also a modern version of Boccaccio’s  The Decameron that marked a refuge from the Bubonic Plague in mid-14th century Florence.

Khair’s methods have a different edge. At times he can be poetic. There are moments when the writing is as evanescent as the scent of violets that he perfumes the text with. Do we presume that living in Denmark, he has been influenced by Hans Christian Anderson, that enchanter of fables?

Impact of COVID-19

At other times, he becomes didactic, pushing an agenda as if he were an inter-planetary salesman for ‘microbiomes’ on Earth. There is no single revelatory moment but a series of case studies. It also appears to be a direct reference to the effect of COVID-19 and the manner in which the virus has dominated our mind-sphere. 

There are also marvellous descriptions of how trees communicate with each other through a network of neural pathways embedded in their roots. That these are all the result of what he describes as a ghostly brigade of microbes, whether we call them bacteria, virus, or something yet to be named, is left unsaid.

For an Indian audience, the appearance of Jagdish Chandra Bose, the Bengali scientist who was able to demonstrate that plants are as capable of feelings, if not emotions, just like animals, will only come as validation of his vision. Somewhere along the undergrowth, there is also a reference to an activist who could be Gauri Lankesh. While interviewing a Maoist living amongst the tribal people of Odisha, she stumbles upon his motto: “Everyone has a share in the good.”

As the French might say,  Le microbiome c’est moi!

The reviewer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.

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