Have you ever lived in a small town whose only claim to fame was the sea? If you haven’t, you would think the children there would grow up playing on the beaches, taking long walks and perhaps grow up to be creative and romantic. But in Anees Salim’s fifth novel, the small-town sea is far from the hero. It’s mute, laconic and tragic. It’s a backdrop that a boy of 13 years of age tries hard to flee from, but never succeeds. The unnamed hero of our story never learns to love the sea—the sea that smells not of fish, but of damp socks. He is convinced that some of the people who died mid-voyage didn’t drown, but simply died of boredom. “The best part of the sea is where it meets the land.” And it’s his first trip out to the sea that teaches him the hardest and most important lesson of his life: that his father would soon be dead and he would need to learn to walk alone and grow up quickly to look after his little sister.
Salim’s protagonist is a storyteller based in a small town with a beautiful sea, red cliffs and trains whistling in and out—one can imagine it to be based on Kerala’s Varkala, the town that Salim himself grew up in and hated all of his growing-up years. Yet, as he has often said, he has now learnt to love it again. In the story, the boy hates it because he is uprooted from a bustling city, the company of his best friend and a developing Metro rail track by his writer father with a terminal diagnosis, who decides to spend his last days in his sleepy hometown, listening to the sounds of the sea.
Burdened also with a prediction during his birth that he would grow up to be a storyteller like his father—for some time an impossible wish—the boy learns to live with his loneliness, the impending tragedy and a new friend from the orphanage. Soon, he is uprooted again, this time to his grandmother’s house after his father’s death, where he walks alone, foreshadowed by the tragedies to come and an endless wait for the return to the big city. Salim vests his protagonist with unbridled imagination and rare observation.
When he helps his mother kill chickens for a feast, he imagines himself to be a mafia don, with his mother as his henchman, taking revenge on treacherous gang members. A spiral of smoke in the distant sea triggers a story of pirate ships attacking each other and getting destroyed in a fire. He sees things sometimes as birds or stuffed antelopes—“being prone to wild stretches of imagination is the malady that haunts anyone with a penchant for storytelling.” It’s this imagination that enables the boy to see life beyond the separations, and wait for a time of hope and reunion.
Salim is a celebrated writer with a long history of writing and rejection—just like the father in this novel—redeemed by the publication of four books in quick succession. With the last two books being nominated for, and eventually awarded with, the Hindu Literary Prize and the Raymond Crossword Prize, he seems to have made up for lost time.
He draws his protagonists’ worlds in minute detail, digging deep into their inner lives with so much tenderness that the mundane observation often transcends into the memorable. His ability to look at the events from a great distance imbues his writing with a sense of detachment and foreboding, and his players are seen careering towards unfailing tragedy not like a signal-free train, but gently, like an undulating leaf that will silently, but surely, hit the ground.
The Small-Town Sea is a book written not by an aspiring writer who dropped out of school at 16 years of age, but by an acknowledged and awarded literary writer. Salim has elsewhere spoken of the burden of expectations life now places on him, and clearly the expectation from his fifth book is high. He would be happy and relieved to know that it doesn’t disappoint. The Small-Town Sea takes away a lot, but leaves us with a trove of memories in return, melancholic yet hopeful.
Paromita Shastri is a former financial journalist