Musings of a 13-year-old
The Small-Town Sea
Author- Anees Salim
Publisher- Penguin Random House, Rs 599
This novel reflects the extraordinary ability of the author to delve into the psyche of his characters to such an extent that they seem real people narrating real stories. The story is replete with many autobiographical elements, writes SHWETA DUSEJA
The cynical, the terminally ill, the victims of old age, writers, poets, philosophers and doctors have been seen pondering upon matters of life and death often. In Anees Salim’s The Small-Town Sea, a 13 year old boy is seen reflecting upon the death of near and dear ones. The story begins with an account of the child narrator’s father’s death and during the course of the novel, one hears of several deaths within a span of a year. His father’s terminal disease makes him question the matters of life and death and he is constantly brooding on people’s last wishes, “my last wish was to go back to the apartment I grew up in,” “most last wishes were little more than the orders for the last meal,” “if it was mandatory to have a last wish, she (Vappumma-grandmother) was at the right age to have one handy.” His mind is perpetually occupied with the possible deaths of his family members, “Too scared to go inside, I sat in the veranda and imagined my family dying in a car accident, leaving me orphaned like Bilal.” When he notices his baby sister sleeping for too long, “I secretly feared that she had had a tiny heart attack and died in her sleep.” The knowledge of his father’s disease which brought the family to his native town to fulfill his last wish — to die hearing the sea — fills the boy with thoughts of death and the grief that follows it. He fears that his sadness will amount to insanity wherein he would be given electric shocks to be brought back to a state of normalcy.
The pain and uncertainty in the voice of the child narrator seem so realistic that for a moment one is deceived into believing that the story must be written by a teenage boy and not the adult author. It reflects the extraordinary ability of the author to delve into the psyche of his characters to such an extent that they seem real people narrating real stories. Reality often gives birth to fiction. Real life experiences many a times shape the fictional narratives the authors weave. Salim acknowledges “secretly” borrowing his son, Omar’s voice to tell this story. The story is replete with many autobiographical elements which are scattered between the characterisation of the father and the son.
The most obvious parallel between the life of the author and his characters is centred around the most crucial word in his life: Rejection. Vappa (narrator’s father) meets rejection several times before he is able to publish his literary works very much like author Salim who dealt with numerous refusals from literary agents, publishers and editors before his first novel, The Vicks Mango Tree, was published and these are very well reflected in The Small-Town Sea. It was his iron-will that made him persevere like the protagonist’s father, Vappa, who “had become a seasoned loser”, as his unnamed son claims, because of many dismissals. Fighting rejection, he was able to contribute enough to the literary world to earn an obituary in a newspaper. Similarly, the author would not have won recognition in the literary world had he given up after first few rejections. Call it humility or the still-lingering uncertainty, his words were laced with doubt while talking about his novel, The Small-Town Sea when the book was in its initial stages. Salim said with much hesitation in an interview with a leading daily in 2013, “I am working on a book set in my hometown. It’s an attempt to see the lives of people I once knew through the eyes of a 12 year old boy. But, I still don’t know if the book will develop into something worth showing to my editor.”
Salim incorporates his desire to be an author in the child narrator. Anees Salim could not see himself as anything but a writer. His father was also a renowned writer. Salim dropped out of school to become an author and retrace the footsteps of his father with stone-like resolve despite strong opposition from his family. The teenage boy in the novel, from the moment of his birth, knows that he will be a writer. He claims that Vappa had prophesied that his son “would tread the same path that he did and face the same uncertainties that steeled him”. The child narrator is not opposed for his decision to be a writer like the author was. But, his resolve is dismissed as a child’s fantasy. The Small-Town Sea is presented to its readers as a 13 year old boy’s attempt at writing his first novel. It begins with a letter to a British editor, Mr Unwin, who had rejected his father’s literary works and ends with an epilogue. Within this frame, the boy narrates the story of his life which includes his adventures, numerous mischiefs, little jealousies, flights of imagination, musings on life and death and a lot more. Though narrated humorously, it is a sad tale of a family which leaves its home in a city to live in a small town on a cliff facing the sea.
Another similarity that marks Vappa and Salim is their choice of language. Like Salim, Vappa chooses to write in English instead of his mother tongue, Malayalam and the author’s anxiety around the politics of language is very much evident in the novel. The narrator reflects, “Would the fact that he wrote in English and not in his mother tongue make the local newspapers push the news of his passing to an inner page?” Had the author written in Malayalam, the readers of English would have missed reading works by a brilliant storyteller. Much is lost in translation. I strongly recommend this book for its beautiful narrative style, the take on life and death from a child’s perspective and all the fun-filled adventures of the unnamed narrator and his friend, Bilal despite a gloomy ending.
The reviewer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi
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