Dread has an address: review of Anees Salim’s ‘The Bellboy’

Anees Salim’s latest, The Bellboy, follows a scrawny teen trying to find his way in the world while failing to comprehend its malevolence

Updated - September 10, 2022 02:35 pm IST

Published - September 05, 2022 05:57 pm IST

The small chapters in ‘The Bellboy’ give you fairly normal fragments of life, but they come infused in poignancy

The small chapters in ‘The Bellboy’ give you fairly normal fragments of life, but they come infused in poignancy | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Desolation has different shades. From the slow sting of sadness to the strangling sense of gloom, sometimes a book can take you through the entire spectrum. In The Bellboy, Anees Salim grants us entry into a world that is simple but flawed, where melancholy hovers in the air like an ominous talisman. The story unravels through 17-year-old Latif’s point of view, his reveries and yearnings. It traces his vulnerabilities and pursuits, as the slow-witted teenager embarks on the first-ever adventure of his life.

Latif belongs to Manto Island, a sinking archipelago where he lives with his widowed mother and two younger sisters. His dull and uneventful days come to an end when he is appointed as the bellboy of Paradise Lodge — a rundown, understaffed hotel where people check in to end their lives. For young Latif, his foray into the world outside the island is a desperate wander, a compromise to assume the head-of-the-house role.

The Bellboy’s style is simple and the pace laid-back

The Bellboy’s style is simple and the pace laid-back

Paradise Lodge is hardly a happy workplace and the young boy encounters a dead guest on the very first day. He wants to flee this ‘house of death and decay’ in the beginning, but he slowly gets sucked to its odd atmospherics. He is intrigued by the guests and builds a good camaraderie with Stella, the middle-aged sweeper, who treats him with wholesome kindness. And he remains a mute spectator to the bizarre proceedings of the place until things go haywire following a suicide in room number 555.

Tapping into bleakness

The Bellboy is basically the sights, sounds and memories filtered through the psyche of its protagonist, a logbook of his wide-eyed world view. Latif owns each page, introducing the reader to his deep-seated worries and guileless wonderments. His mother, a cashew worker with permanently bruised fingers, is all grit and determination.

Also read |‘Books can talk for the author’: Anees Salim

The book has a limited set of characters, but very few have names. The style is simple and the pace laid-back as you see no frenzied rush of incidents and implications.

While Manto Island is something like a dystopian prison, Paradise Lodge is lost in bleakness and decay. They are never neutral backdrops, but spaces that fill you with a sense of foreboding and dread. You know they are hiding something more sinister under all the grime and often the island and mainland merge into a giant picture of hopelessness. “From the boat the town looked broken and littered. Every morning the same picture of desolation welcomed him — blanched backsides of buildings that had more presentable facades, growing hills of garbage that occasionally took the shape of a Christmas tree…”

The Bellboy
Anees Salim
Penguin India Hamish Hamilton

Finding the right balance

The prose draws its narrative energy from the pathos, but the author balances heaviness and levity in a masterful manner. There is subtle humour and social commentary as in Latif’s reaction to the saffron thread on the manager’s wrist: “It somehow suggested that no matter how doggedly he worked, he would be constantly frowned upon.”

The small chapters give you fairly normal fragments of life, but they come infused in poignancy. The Bellboy from the Kochi-based writer — whose earlier work, The Blind Lady’s Descendants, won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2018 — may not be a groundbreaking read, but it will definitely leave you shaken.


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