Sabin Iqbal’s ‘The Cliffhangers’ is about the travails and triumphs of four youngsters in a Kerala seaside town

Sabin Iqbal   | Photo Credit: special arrangment

Author Sabin Iqbal is not his chatty self as he tries to discuss his début novel, The Cliffhangers, set in the picturesque seaside town of Varkala. Like many mediapersons, Sabin is used to asking the questions and he finds it strange to be on the other side of the interview. But once he gets going, Sabin takes one behind the bitter-sweet adventures of four young men from Varkala — Moosa, Thaha, Jahangir and Usman — and their multi-coloured dreams of making it big in the world outside their hangouts.

A poignant tale of growing up in a place that is on the cusp of cataclysmic change caused by the spread of religious jingoism, The Cliffhangers weaves together current events to create a fast-paced, coming-of-age novel about identity and the divided times we live in.

Sabin Iqbal’s ‘The Cliffhangers’ is about the travails and triumphs of four youngsters in a Kerala seaside town

“This is the story of many a young man in many small towns in Kerala. I write about my home town because I know it better than any other place. The four main protagonists are not angels but they are not terrorists or criminals either. It is circumstances that force them to have run-ins with the police,” says Sabin, festival director and co-curator of the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters.

With a laugh, Sabin says he used to be one of those boys with a burning desire to speak English fluently. “Although, I could write correct English, I could not utter a word and all my conversations in English were bottled inside. It was only when I started working abroad in a news desk that I was able to break that barrier and speak up,” he admits.

Journey of a novel
  • The first line of the book was written when I was working abroad. I was sitting in a restaurant when I wrote a line about something Moosa says. It was never used. But that one line set the ball rolling.
  • I had finished the book two years ago and sent the manuscript to many publishers who rejected it. It was my cousin, Anees Salim, who told me not to lose heart but to keep trying. I had resigned myself to never getting a book published. But when I sent the manuscript of The Cliffhangers to David Davidar, he read it and told me to send it to their managing editor, Aienla Ozukum. When her letter came, I was searching for the ‘however’ that usually signalled it had been rejected. It was a dream come true when that was missing. Instead, she said they were happy to publish the book. It has been published by Aleph
  • I have a long list of favourite authors. Anees, VS Naipaul, Gabriel García Márquez and George Orwell are some of the names on the list.
  • The title of the book is evident. The laterite cliffs bordering the beach in Varkala are famous. Growing up there, no day was complete without some time spent on the cliff. The ‘cliffhangers’ also dream, live and hang out there.

Through the eyes of his four main protagonists, the novel sketches a neat slice of life in the tourist haven that was once a sleepy village with its fishing hamlets and laid-back way of life.

“The Gulf boom changed the landscape forever. Once a young man reached the age of 18 and was not pursuing a professional course or not academically bright, he was packed off to the ‘Gulf’ with some relative and that would be his life from then on, doing some job there, mostly unskilled, till the day he decided to return home forever. To speak English fluently was to escape that monotonous life. In the meantime, he might have married, had children and so on.... But by the time he returns for good, he and his family would have become strangers to each other. That is the tragedy of the grass widows of the Gulf,” says Sabin.

Superb character sketches, accentuated by some clever strokes of humour, portray how the separation and the ensuing loneliness change the basic nature of the people in Moosa’s little space. If some, like Moosa’s mother, take refuge in an all-consuming rage, Jahangir’s mother wilts and shrinks while Moosa’s sister-in-law, Rasheeda, finds solace in others.

The slim book has a plethora of characters but Sabin imbues each with definitive personalities, right from the overbearing policeman Devan and the shopkeeper Balannan peddling patriotism to a new brand of nationalists to peripheral people like the priest’s wife who can’t stand the aroma of meat being cooked, Ismail, the lifeguard, and Masood, their friend and cricket scorer.

Sabin Iqbal

Sabin Iqbal   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“I have been asked if the characters and anecdotes about people are autobiographical. They are not. Nevertheless, at some point or the other, I might have known or heard about them. I might have used some of that in the book,” elaborates Sabin.

The tone of irreverence gives the narrative a light touch but he makes no attempt to tone down the fearless and gripping account of how a rape and a murder show up the cracks in a close-knit society.

Although written over two years ago, the novel could well have been written yesterday as it delves into the divisive politics of today and highlights those invisible lines that partition minds. Sabin says it was the mediaperson in him that helped him adapt a series of events that created headlines in Kerala.

Deepak’s illustration of Moosa, the narrator in Sabin Iqbal’s book The Cliffhangers

Deepak’s illustration of Moosa, the narrator in Sabin Iqbal’s book The Cliffhangers   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“But, like author Anees Salim writes in the book, it is a story of struggle and redemption. None of the characters is completely black or white. All of them have their positive sides too, even the killers and the zealots,” he says.

Pausing to reflect on his journey in words, Sabin says to turn author was his biggest dream. And now Sabin has already moved ahead with plans of new tales.

“Eventually, I want to write about the price paid by the men and the women who were forced to live apart because one of the spouses was working in West Asia. There are many stories I want to narrate,” he says.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 2:49:33 PM |

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