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“Death provokes stories in a small town like ours”—Anees Salim’s The Small-town Sea is a provocation after death. Narrating the story of relocation through the eyes of a 13-year-old, the plot is also about loss of innocence, guilt, nostalgia and remembrance. Images play a dominant role almost as a parallel narrative, be it the dead pigeon landing on a patch of blanched sunlight, teeming with brown ants, pulled from the dark corner of a Bougainvillea or the secret beach that takes away a childhood companion. Likewise, smell marks a predominant presence in the novel, almost like a stray character. Death, love, warmth and fear come as experiences realised in and through a fusion of senses, in synesthesia.
The story runs in two phases: circling around a father who aspires to die in a small town near the sea, demanding a relocation of the entire family, and another centering on a son who craves for his lost world in the city, where a new metro-rail line is awaited with much expectation. As much as we are made familiar with the city and the small town in fairly realistic terms, the magic is created through a long trail of images that are a fantastic blend of the real and the imaginary.
The story runs around a father who aspires to die in his small town, demanding that the family relocate, and the son who craves for the world of his big city with the promise of the Metro.
The reality of death pervades the storyline. In a poignant depiction—through the shades of grey, with which characters are portrayed—of how people go on with their lives in the wake of death, struggling for survival, Anees Salim has evolved as a true chronicler of our times. The reality of our small-town cultures and the humdrum lives of otherwise mediocre people and their aspirations are caught in the bird’s eye view of the narrator. A sort of profundity laces routine descriptions, as in when the boy realises that the beautiful sea his vappa had decided to die listening to is beautiful only from the shores. With the wisdom of a philosopher, the boy limns the sea thus: “It took a near-stranger to make me realise that the sea was nothing but a liquid desert where boats were camels, waves were sand dunes, ships caravans and the horizon the lone oasis.”
One can regard the small lives in The Small-town Sea as Lilliputians in a world of mad rush for survival. Its small-town is one that wakes up with the muezzin’s call. But the book doesn’t contrast a pristine village with a vilified city. The father’s shift from the city back home is a journey to serenity, a journey to his roots; whereas for his little son, the journey is a move away from the happening place where the metro beckons and sings the rap of fast urbanisation. The child misses the small flat by the metro line and a way of life to fulfil his father’s last wish. The descriptions are from two perspectives—one of the dying father, who feels time passing through him and that of the boy, who feels himself passing through time—in different presents, like the previous present and the subsequent present of a Darwish poem, where “we are in need of myth to bear the burden of distance between two doors”.
The guilt-ridden 13-year-old and his plunge into stealing and later the death by water of the friend subtly portrays the animalistic instinct of survival. Death and guilt are two recurrent motifs here and there is a shocking normalcy with which the characters continue with their lives after death. Death hovers over the novel as a pervasive shadow—death due to negligence, death as serendipity, death as an anticipation—in different shades. There is guilt, but there is a ruthless casualness of gaming with which the younger ones look at life and death, at killing and surviving, at hiding and running away. The pitiless indifference in narrating one’s father’s death or mother’s remarriage is in a Marquezian vein—not as subterfuge but more as reportage. As the little narrator says, “a house in mourning is a museum of sorts”, we feel the flaneur fleeting through the everyday lives of the small-town, bringing down the magnitude of living and dying to minuscule, quotidian scales.
In the epistolary narrative, what one should not miss out is the deeper connection between the father and the son, masqueraded in the tone of monotony and indifference. In fact, one of the most touching moments comes when the father asks the son to walk either ahead or behind, to learn to walk alone. That is one of the rare moments when the characters, concealed in a strange dullness of restrain and ordinariness, expose emotional depths. Like his other books, Salim’s new work is on a par with many renowned novels of Indian writing in English.