“Furiously inventive, beautifully crafted and remarkably assured, Swimmer among the Stars announces the arrival of a blazing new talent,” reads the jacket blurb on Kanishk Tharoor’s debut volume of short fiction. Blurbers who perpetrate such enormities under the veil of anonymity should be hunted down and sacrificed on a slab
of basalt under a full moon. They jeopardise literary careers by raising reader expectation to such a pitch that the pages between the jackets can only hold anticlimax. Tharoor’s fiction reveals a lively mind deeply interested in the world, across categories of knowledge. Besides — and this marks him apart — he is keenly aware that every tale worth telling has been told many times before, will be told ever after, and only one of those tellings can be his. There is an old-world humility in this, which contrasts sharply with the turgid prose of the blurb.
Recursiveness is the hallmark of Tharoor’s short fiction. The most talked about story in this book — perhaps because it is the very first — concerns the voyage of an elephant from Cochin to Morocco, exiled to please the heart of a princess. Apparently based on a true story, it also recalls the 15th century cargo manifests of the Chinese admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho), who brought back giraffes from east Africa for his emperor, who was young enough to value exotic animals over mere valuables. According to one tradition, Zheng’s ships also took a baby rhinoceros from Tamluk in Bengal, but that could be yet another fiction.
History, philology and their sister arts form the armature of many of these stories. There is an Alexander cycle, which recalls the era of heroic romances which almost all cultures have witnessed. ‘Tale of the Teahouse’ visualises a Central Asian city waiting for the barbarian horde, and reminds readers that less mature cultures have often been drivers of history in this region, at the expense of decadent civilisations. ‘The Astrolabe’ is set in the early days of colonial exploration, when terra incognita was the realm of the improbably possible.
The most successful of Tharoor’s fictions is ‘Letters Home’, a series of fragments which begin and end rather suddenly, and indicate the contours of Tharoor’s wide reading. The influences are diverse, though they all appeal to a certain bent of mind — the mark of Dubliners and Ficciones is clearly visible, but there are echoes of numerous traditions, ranging from Kafka and Gaiman via JG Ballard to Silver Age science fiction.
The last is seen to best advantage in ‘A United Nations in Space’, in which diplomats aboard a space station observe the mutually assured destruction of their home countries from orbit. The sci-fi touches are crucial to the plot but appear almost unobtrusively, for instance in the behaviour of sand in low gravity, and the overheads of maintaining artificial gravity in space.
Some of Tharoor’s stories are unremarkable, but the only failure is ‘The Fall of an Eyelash’, which is desperately maudlin, and not in an Erich Segal sort of way. And there is a rare slip-up in the Alexander cycle, where Tharoor writes of the smoke from naval guns — clearly an anachronism.
Apart from wide-ranging influences and a gentle but firm grasp over prose which aspires to the condition of poetry, Tharoor’s greatest strength is the elegant brevity of his writing. He knows when to fold his hand and let go of a story, even if it is formally incomplete. He faces a crucial test now. He has ventured into a genre where endings are routinely deferred. He is writing a novel, and publishers can get surprisingly petty if novelists fail to write to the length agreed upon in advance. Hopefully, as he attempts his first novel, Tharoor will be able to retain his sense of an ending.