It is tempting (and convenient) to label Anees Salim’s The Small-town Sea as Narayanesque in theme – a thirteen-year-old boy is compelled to leave the big city for an unnamed coastal town, with his family. The novel’s setting is also reminiscent of R.K. Narayan’s breeze-blurred landscapes – this is a town with a clay road called Madama Lane, a house called Bougainvillea, cotton trees and coconut groves, laundry lines that “ran from tree to tree in the copse that stood between the garden of the dead and the house of orphans, and even the hint of a breeze provoked a shower of cashew flowers…”
But the resemblance to Narayan’s chocolate-box towns peopled with lovable bumpkins is restricted to the novel’s scenic roads and cashew orchards and squawking parakeets. This is a book about a child’s prolonged bereavement couched in pranks and making fun. This is a book where excursions to the beach turn hideously wrong. Childhood here is frequently interrupted by untimely death, departures and bad dreams. There is nothing Narayanesque about its bungling characters and their capers; to read it as a countryside adventure with hints of post-modern gloom is to ignore the torrential undercurrents of what the narrative describes as “this small, depressing town…”
The nameless boy, our narrator, tells the story of his Vappa, Umma, Vappumma (the English meaning of each name is provided in a short glossary that appears at the beginning of Book I) through a letter to a literary agent, James Unwin of Unwin & Associates. The device of the letter, which alludes to Salim’s own experiences as the recipient of graceful and restrained rejection letters from literary agents, also provides the narrative its texture of unwitting irony laced with loneliness. There is hilarity in moments of grief – the narrator’s father, Vappa, who is dying of cancer, has moved his family to this seaside town to fulfil a last wish – to spend the last days of his life by the sea that presses against the town of his childhood.
As Vappa slips in and out of coma, he places his fingers on his lips, a gesture his family assumes is a final demand for silence. It isn’t though; the boy-narrator is quick to observe that it is a plea for a cigarette, “He took a few impatient drags from the imaginary cigarette, blew out rings of fictitious smoke and then started to talk again.”
Comic moments are the froth and bubble of this intensely melancholic narrative, but they are not mere escapism, for the boy narrator’s hilarious observations are the straws he clings to when submerged in grief. His imagination too, is an exit route from his small-town life, where melodramatic events occur mostly in the narrator’s head. “Suddenly I wanted the peace in Vappa’s little town broken in a big way, I willed pirates to come ashore, I craved for guns to be drawn from dripping holsters and fired in the air, bombs tossed into the police station, blockades put up across roads, railway lines blown up and, most importantly, all communication systems battered to a pulp.”
The narrator is also prone to nightmares, both when asleep and awake. When he sees a trail of blood on the floor, he imagines that his mother has bled to death in the bathroom. “But if she died now I would be so mad with shock that they would have to gag me and puts lots of electricity through my head to make me normal again,” claims the narrator, whose excitable imagination often conjures dread before reality reveals itself to be unremarkable.
Fittingly, The Small-town Sea is the fictional representation of a nightmare that has plagued its author. “I dreamt that I had died and that my son Omar was stranded in my hometown,” says Salim about the genesis of this book, his fifth. It is Omar’s voice that tells the story, it is Omar who articulates and heightens, through his fanciful postulations, the author’s very real fear: “What happens to one’s family after one is gone?”
Salim grew up in Varkala, the coastal town in Kerala which lends its topography to the town in The Small-town Sea. His earlier fiction too, is set in places that resemble Varkala, or are hybridised versions of towns and cities that Salim is familiar with. His first book, The Vicks Mango Tree, published in 2012, has Mangobagh as its backdrop, a place Salim describes as “a cross between Hyderabad and Lucknow.” Vanity Bagh, published in 2013, is also the name of a mohallah in Mangobagh.
“I’m a bit of a town planner,” says Salim, “I enjoy creating places that fit into my fictional world, and often, I give them landmarks, like that clay road called Madama Lane in The Small-town Sea.” Salim’s landmarks – roads, secret beaches, local schools, mosques, graveyards, railway lines – are mundane structures or geographical features that transform into protagonists when small-town exploits are performed around them.
Ian Jack, in the prologue to his book Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012, mentions travelling by train through India’s many mofussils, to become, “a frequenter of the neglected and obscure.” He then delineates the specific charms of each province: “Who would believe that the best hotel in Dhanbad was called the Bonanza? Who knew that Marlon Brando’s first wife came from Chakradharpur on the old Bengal & Nagpur? Who couldn’t resist a smirk on discovering that in Lucknow the slang for homosexual was ‘chhota-line wallah’ because the station there took both the broad and metre gauge?”
Salim too, is a chronicler of the neglected and obscure. The mofussils inhabited by his characters are fenced-in localities of delicate foliage, insignificant landmarks, small triumphs and tragedies. In The Small-town Sea, Salim defines small-townness by providing a glimpse of the day’s news: “The page had an overdose of small-town news, of upcoming festivals at shrines, of public water taps that had long stopped running, roads that badly needed mending, students who did well in district-level competitions, people who needed complicated surgeries or rare blood groups to survive and gangs that ran drug rackets.”
Habits too, can be quirkily small-townish: when the boy narrator’s grandmother, whom he calls Vappumma, exchanges gossip with her neighbour, Gowmathi Ammumma, she always stands on a slab of flint near the wall at the rear of her house. When she combs her hair, she scowls at the white strands that appear on the bristles of the old comb.
Points-of-view can belong to the tiniest creatures that inhabit small towns: the narrator provides the reader with a bird’s eye view, a fish’s eye view, the aerial eye view of hand gliders, and the glassy eye view of a stuffed antelope. By projecting reality from these varying perspectives, ordinary events transcend the boundaries of their small-townness, and acquire the stature of folklore.
To transcend, or simply run away, is perhaps the grandest act of heroism a small-towner can perform. A few of the characters achieve this via a Gulf Air flight. For the narrator, left behind in the small town, it is the life of the mind he turns to, over and over again, for adventure, solace and escape.
Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi