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The king as circus-owner: Anusua Mukherjee reviews Anees Salim’s ‘The Odd Book of Baby Names’

Once upon a time there lived a comatose former sultan who stubbornly refused to die. As a sign of his tenacious grip on life, he farted profusely at regular intervals in his bedchamber, just as in his halcyon days, he had mated indiscriminately, populating his kingdom with his progeny. Since his highness was habitually forgetful, he maintained a catalogue of the children he has sired, with the meanings of their names (bestowed by him) explained. Anees Salim’s latest novel, The Odd Book of Baby Names, constitutes the accounts of a chosen few among the king’s offspring, whose lives gather some steam in the countdown to his passing.

They are all located in a fictitious but well-defined city centred around Cotah Mahal, the king’s mansion. The city is part of a kingdom lost to annexation; Nehru makes an appearance sharing a contemplative smoke with the king just before he is stripped of power. But even in the age of democracy, the hierarchies stay intact, religiously upheld by the people themselves. So Moti Bagh is

The king as circus-owner: Anusua Mukherjee reviews Anees Salim’s ‘The Odd Book of Baby Names’

the posh part preserved in antiseptic silence where lives the king’s depressed daughter, Humera; there’s the bustling commercial district in and around Begum Laila Road with its dingy rows of shops, including Nizam Tailors and Mumtaz Café, where two of the king’s sons (Muneer the tailor and Zuhab the shop hand) can be found; the sprawling insalubrious part of the city roils with life and houses two more sons — Shahbaz the poet and Sultan, dead at 13 in an epidemic, but living on as a ghost. The rich and the poor hardly touch each other, unless in exploitation of the kind that produced the royal bastards.

Within the palace, courtly rules have been replaced by bureaucratic strictures, which are as firm. So entry is strictly by invitation only; the two legitimate heirs, Azam and Moazzam, are still revered as princes; ministers, secretaries and servants (another son, Hyder, is one of the king’s nurses) tiptoe around, always acting, sometimes overacting, according to unwritten rules. But Cotah Mahal is not Kafka’s Castle. Life, riven though it is with injustice, inequalities, loneliness and grief, is absurd, as is death, given the reassuring presence of Sultan’s ghost.

Comic figures

The king, the hallowed font of power, is himself a comic figure. In his dotage, he is convinced that he was a circus-owner. Moazzam contemplates: “If the circus was a carefully chosen metaphor for the kingdom he had ruled, and the acrobatics for the various ploys he, in a desperate attempt to retain power, had employed in vain, I was fine with it. But he never had a penchant for metaphors and allegories. He was a blunt man…”

It is said that he roamed the city dressed as a nautch girl in his youth, and was given to poetry, employing poets to write on his behalf. He maintained a royal menagerie and is suspected of having fed the keeper, Baabar — the queen’s rumoured paramour — to the resident lion.

His only prowess was sexual, it seems. If his decadent and exploitative way of life is passé, the life of loyalty (Hyder) is forgettable, the life of privileged ennui (Humera) ends in self-destruction, the life of arts and poetry (Shahbaz) is utterly useless, even the life of relentless labour as exemplified in Zuhab leads to disappointment. Everything ends in a whimper, or rather, in a long-drawn fart, in the novel’s scheme of things. But if one has to go looking for judgement, the scales can be found slightly tipped in favour of riff-raffs like Shahbaz and Zuhab, who can at least make rhymes out of recalcitrant life or feel alive enough to rebel. As Muneer grudgingly acknowledges, “It was not easy to sack a communist. Times had changed.”

Decidedly odd

The Odd Book of Baby Names is decidedly odd, and therein lies its charm. Nothing really happens here: the king’s death is the MacGuffin, meaningless in itself since he is long past his expiry date, but serving as a narrative ploy in turning his children’s thoughts towards him and themselves. If there is irony, it isn’t rubbed in.

Neither is life’s darker side. Melancholy lurks in every corner but life doesn’t permit tragedies. The brief and doomed affair of Humera and Shahbaz must be one of the funniest in literature, with Humera’s vinegar thoughts bleaching Shahbaz’s secondhand poetry of all colour.

The effect of nonsense is exacerbated by metaphors made literal: the lion has a lion’s share of Baabar’s intestines; a fez being prepared by Nizam Tailors stays half-finished because it is cut in half and one half carried away by its maker; and our king, of course, gives paternalism a whole new meaning by being the biological pater to most of his subjects.

The Odd Book is a novel of quiet, old-fashioned artistry where the author disappears and the characters take over. Its visual counterpart would be a Hogarth painting — teeming with robust, mischievous, unruly life, which cocks a snook at death.

The Odd Book of Baby Names; Anees Salim, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹599

anusua.m@thehindu.co.in


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