September 7, 2015 By Shameer.KS

The Grace of Wistful Laughter

anees saleem

I finished reading The Blind Lady’s Descendants while travelling in a train. I don’t think any other place is fitter to be a spot for reading this book. Trains and railway gave Anees Salim the subtext and context for this charming tale. We hear while our eyes pore over the lines the honking and clatter of a train, even if you are sitting in a cafe. Each halt the train encountered on its way was one of the five divisions of the book. No other book joined my sense of words on a page with that of my own physical movement inside a bogie. An association of sensibility, of sorts.

When the drama of arrangement of a marriage was being brilliantly narrated by the writer, my attention, broken by the shrill cry of a coffee vendor, fell on the pages of the Hindu the passenger next to me was reading, where Barak Obama, won over by Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, suggested the book  for the 2014 National Humanities Award. Déjà vu then set it. It was the same mood of dissociation, dislocation and disintegration that I felt when I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s book sometime back. It was also about how a family gets embroiled in bad luck. However there are differences which place Anees Salim’s book a notch aboveLowland in my evaluation. There is tongue-in-cheek narrations sprinkled with cold-blooded sarcasm; there is the sense of bad luck coming through the back door when the front door is too closed with magic spell to let it pass (while in Jhumpa Lahiri, it breaks the front door open and stays put in the book throughout); and, above all, the first-of-its-kind narration in English fiction of Muslim life in Kerala.

The novel is set in Varkala a small coastal town in the southern part of the state. The locus of the narration is a dilapidated bungalow. Though the space of the story is far from the space where I was brought up, I have clear memory of the time narrated here. The protagonist-narrator of the novel is only ten years older than I.  I vividly remember the pyre of Rajeev Gandhi in flames and the domes of Babari Masjid under threat of vandals milling towards it. But I have something to share with the space too, as the bungalow is the type of a Muslim life caught in the vicious median between uncertainty of national politics and the certainty of poverty in the background of erstwhile glory. Skirmishes, partitions, cry over lost chances, claims and rebuttals, behind-the-curtain dramas, off-the-cuff moves and surprise counter moves. All these that characterize the life of the community at that stage define the actions in the novel.

Morbidity is at the centre of the novel. We see death lurking at every nook and corner. So, while reading the book, we hear a brief, unexpected thud-thud in the mike of the masjid or the shrill cry of Rouhani as if we are about to be intimated of someone’s departure. The vividness of the portrayal makes us feel that the book is nothing but autobiographical. The author seems to be announcing the losses that got accumulated in his life. But the diarist in the novel not only keeps and transmits those morbid memoirs, but he sublimates them using sardonic humour. So, just like the announcement of death made by someone in the absence of muezzin who, out of inexperience, made it appear that ‘the death of such and such is ‘happily’ ‘declared (good riddance), each visitation of bad luck in the novel keeps us in giggles.

And that is another reason why one must read this novel, besides those listed above in the comparison with Lowland….This is the only book that describes someone’s orgasm after he reads a suicide note


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