A coffin maker’s tale of revenge, against his enemies and nature wreckers
Malayalam writer VJ James creates a perfect setting for Anti-Clock, a novel about a coffin maker and his philosophical ruminations about death. Hendri, the narrator, lives in a village called Aadi Nadu. Once a land of rolling hills and pristine forests, it has lost its splendour through mindless quarrying. Decades ago revolutionaries fleeing the police during the Emergency took refuge in the forests, which is now a wasteland where tensions rise everyday between union workers and quarry owners.
In the vast expanse of a village under siege by competing forces and climate change, the book begins to paint Hendri as a tormented soul stricken with loss and grief. The coffin maker, who inherited the trade from his father, is mourning the death of his wife, Beatrice, and their three children. They were killed when a tamarind tree in the backyard fell on their house. Hendri is also plotting the death of Satan Loppo, his classmate in school, who owns most of the quarries in the village. He has crafted a coffin for Loppo, who must be punished for raping Beatrice.
The plot thickens with the entry of Pundit, a 112-year-old watchmaker, who is building a clock that could run backwards. Hendri is enamoured by the idea of an anti-clock and the possibilities of time travel. The novel, whose events were running like clockwork, soon begins to unravel. The rest resembles a runaway train that is hurtling towards nowhere. Pundit and the subplot he creates take the wheel away from Hendri and render his own inner struggle and the historical and environmental significance of Aadi Nadu irrelevant.
Much of the mismatch between the build-up of the novel and keeping it alive comes from the disconnect Hendri experiences with his inner demons as his reclusive life takes a sudden turn towards new acquaintances. For a man who refuses to leave his coffin shop, Hendri is drawn to David, the son of his only friend Antappan, and Shari, a tailor who is David’s girlfriend. Pundit, meanwhile, emerges as a former British Army soldier who saved the life of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and as someone who believes Bose is still alive.
The novel does well when it sketches the dark interiors of the coffin shop where Hendri meditates about the devil inside Loppo, who has taken the life out of the sleepy hamlet and turned it into a wasteland. His daily life revolves around the memories of his dead wife and departed father, the original coffin maker. Antappan, the only living person in his life, is a grave digger who, like his friend, inherited the trade from his father. Both of them are dealing with a dead village, whose hills have disappeared and water sources dried up.
In its main character’s wish for revenge, the novel draws a parallel between the spiritual quest for peace and the people’s desire for a flourishing environment. Even as Hendri plots revenge, he yearns for all the glories of the past—a village thriving in natural riches and his own happy family. Aadi, in the name of the village, means ‘first’, also beginning. The anti-clock is an antidote to not only correcting the history of a hamlet, but also the psyche of its people, who are ultimately responsible for the destruction of their surroundings. The patron saint of Aadi Nadu is Saint Anthony, the finder of lost things. The first chapter of the novel begins with a verse from the Book of Lamentations, a mourning for a lost city. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people. How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations,” reads the verse.
Anti-Clock was first published in Malayalam three years ago as his seventh novel, though its journey began decades ago when the author was drawn to a coffin shop near a church in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, where he was a scientist at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. James then wrote a short story, which was published in a Malayalam weekly magazine. Buried in his memories, the coffin shop returned to his literary world when he saw a collection of old clocks with a space station colleague. Anti-Clock is his second novel translated into English after Chorashastra: The Subtle Science of Thievery.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
V J James; translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S
Penguin Random House
Pp 286, Rs 599