Name: The Small-Town Sea
Author: Anees Salim
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 599
Life happens elsewhere when you live in a small town. Ambition and adventure, when you go looking for them, are already aboard the first and the fastest train out. Anees Salim’s new novel plays out in one such unnamed little town in Kerala, which sits by the sea but has not even a pizzeria to be proud of. “Real life could be a real bore in a small town, even if it is frilled by a famous beach and a sea that changes its colour from blue to white to ash,” says its unnamed narrator, a boy whose family has uprooted itself from a bigger city. They are on an unusual vigil: they are here to spend the last days of his father’s life.
Departures are the favourite daydreams of small-town residents. But literature and writers have made a home here. The Indian novel in English did find renown with its grand explorations of nation, history and geography, but it has a tensile tradition of writing that deals with life in the minor key. One does not only think of Malgudi but also the early Ruskin Bond stories set in ordinary towns with musical names.
Writers as diverse as Siddharth Chowdhury, Anjum Hasan and Anuradha Roy have similarly struck fictional gold in the small town.
Salim has staked out his own corner in this space, with oddball characters, who are never in step with either success or happiness, who live in large, crumbling houses marked by ill-fortune and dank memories (The Blind Lady’s Descendants). His novels, often bleak, often dealing with death and loss, are told with a surprising, astringent humour. In the breakdown of family ties and his fine observation of middle-class delusions, Salim allows you to see the absurdity before the tragedy.
Even if he is not a comic novelist (comedy in the sense of an affirmation of the goodness of life), The Small-Town Sea is Salim’s most Narayenesque novel yet. That is perhaps due to his protagonist, an endearing boy, who catches on, quickly enough, that exciting things “would never happen outside your head in Vappa’s town”. He lives inside his head, like so many children do, dreaming of metamorphosing into a bird; imagining himself a mafia don and his mother the main henchman as they step out into the backyard to kill a few hens (“they were our former gang members”) for lunch; and ready to believe that the smoke on the horizon is the result of pirate schooners battling it out on the sea. Even the town in Salim’s novel is a throwback to a more autarkic time, when children were not enslaved by cartoon channels and the news of the world had not become your woe.
The boy’s father, whom he calls Vappa, now waiting to die of cancer in his coastal hometown, is an author from another era, with books to his name, but who has been left untouched by celebrity. A testy, largely reticent man, he once longed for a “fair-sized, front page obituary”. (“Dreams, unfulfilled, could come back in the evening of your life as last wishes, impossible last wishes,” the narrator warns us.)
The novel is written as a letter addressed by the boy to a literary agent in London, who had sent many elegantly worded rejection letters his father’s way.
In the face of his mother’s scepticism, the boy holds on to the belief that Vappa had prophesised that his son was a born storyteller. Could the letter be a way to reclaim that legacy and follow in his footsteps? Could it finally offer him a release from the small town that closes on him as the novel progresses? Surely, though, the letter to James Unwin is Salim’s sardonic aside at a literary/publishing culture that had kept him in the wilderness for years before a shower of book deals came his way.
In The Small-Town Sea, watched over by an indifferent and powerful sea, a family unravels. Vappa, Umma, the boy and his infant sister, Little, are powerless in the face of events beyond their control. A son watches his father give in to fear, and is changed by it. A child loses his homes, and realises his parents can no longer protect him. The novel is shot through with the melancholy of a child having to grow up too fast, and learning too soon that human life is about cutting a solitary path.
Before all that, though, father and son set out on a walk by the sea, and end up discovering a secret beach. The boy learns that the sea smells of damp socks, that it is like a forest (“Once you are inside it, you want to be out of it.”) , and that it is “more or less mute”. As he speeds up to catch up with his father, he earns a reproof.
“You should walk either ahead of me or behind me,” he said.
“You should learn to walk alone.”