I have vivid memories of discovering a Bangla novel at a local library. Set in the early nineties, the novel revolves around a spiral staircase, which is the sole survivor of a family catastrophe in Kolkata. An elderly couple pass away one after the other, leaving their selfish heirs behind. As soon as the couple die, they begin to encroach on their property. The book evoked a certain kind of helplessness in me as a young reader, and I found myself going through a similar experience while reading another Bangla novel. The inevitability of fate, the selfishness of a new generation, all packed in one, it was an emotional rollercoaster, and for those who have grown up in joint families, something straight out of reality.
The classic “family saga”, so to say, is a multifaceted conflict. Within the pages of books, many households experience a battle of egos while many face an economic crisis through which the whole family trudges through. Many others, however, can rise beyond the convention of the family saga, turning a novel into a tapestry of much more than just human emotions and family conflict. One might ask, how is an individual shaped through the actions and motivations of their family? How does the family, in the literature from this part of the world, make or break “the hero’s journey”, the journey of a child toward adulthood and selfhood?
Upon discovering Anees Salim’s novels, one might realize that there is more to the tale of families than their day-to-day lives, their trials and their tribulations. In The Blind Lady’s Descendants and The Small Town Sea, we meet two unique protagonists—the wayward yet sensitive Amar Hamsa and the unnamed adolescent boy. The former is grappling with suicidal urges while the latter is dealing with the untimely death of his father. As we read on, we slowly unravel how their families have pushed them to the edge, helped them cope with loss and become independent individuals in the course of their journey.
Anees Salim, a Malayali writer based in India, is prolific and accomplished. Not only has his Blind Lady’s Descendants won him the Raymond Crossword Book Award in 2014, it has also gotten him one of India’s highest literary honors—the Sahitya Akademi Award, in 2018. His more recently written title, The Small Town Sea, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize, while his Vanity Bagh had won it in 2013. The author first came to prominence with his debut, The Vicks Mango Tree. Anees Salim had placed both Vanity and Vicks in the same universe—the fictional town of Mangobagh, much like Marquez’s Macondo. It is an eccentric, absurd little town that is closer to reality than we think, where every Muslim is named after a famous Pakistani personality. Compared to the Mangobagh books, Descendants and Small Town Sea have firmer roots in reality. Both have a small-town setting, both close to the sea. They deal with the inevitables of both personal and family life as birth, death and marriage—in that order.
In The Blind Lady’s Descendants, the “Bungalow” is a crumbling ruin of a once glorious past. The blind lady is the maternal grandmother to protagonist Amar and his siblings, their “Nanu” so to say, in Bengali. Salim’s mother tongue is Malayalam, and after reading the glossary on page 15 of The Small Town Sea, the reader finds out how to say Nanu in his language—Ammumma. Is Amar’s Nanu the only person who is blind in the Bungalow? Every family member is delusional, oblivious or in vain hope of things improving for them. Jasira the beauty queen has forgotten what it is like to be poor after being married to a well-to-do man. Amar is determined to find a white tourist to marry. Amar’s mother has stuck nails in the front door to ward off bad luck, yet, “Bad luck, then, must have come in through the back door.”
The Small Town Sea is perhaps a life Salim imagines for his children after his demise. Both of the novels deal with fathers, but in Descendants, the father is more or less absent. It is in Small Town Sea that the importance of a legacy is realized. The unnamed adolescent narrator, his Umma and his baby sister Little are distraught after his Vappa’s death.
Vappa is an admirable character, a role model for a child who wants to pursue a writing career just like the father. In an unbelievable feat, the little boy claims that he remembers his father’s prophecy about him—that he is to be a writer when he grows up. “Maybe this is what the kid wants to believe,” we find ourselves reasoning.
Our English classic books have told us that the best way to develop a character as an individual is to have him removed from home. While James Joyce’s Portrait has the artist enrolled in a missionary school as a young man, Mark Twain has both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn run away from home. Anees Salim’s Amar, though, returns home after his daily epiphanies, his adventures and often his misadventures. It is through his deceased uncle Javi’s memories that he discovers his own suicidal urges. His gateway to his sexuality is through his aunt, his first lesson in coping with grief is after a family death. The unnamed boy from The Small Town Sea is busily writing a correspondence with the same literary agent who rejected his father’s manuscript. He has taken it upon himself to walk in his father’s footsteps and fill his great shoes as a writer. The correspondence is not merely his duty or his destiny, it is also a gateway to his individual self, where every word is helping him to grow as a writer and develop his individual style.
In our overly dramatized soap operas where every character’s reaction is amplified through visual and sound effects, the individual is often absent and “the greater good” of the family takes the front seat. Characters that dare to be selfish are villains or vamps, and we often fail to see their perspectives in the story. Anees Salim’s protagonists are nothing like the angelic hero or heroine of a daily soap. Amar Hamsa is the voice of the book, yet he is no angel. He relishes the blow-up doll and fantasizes about his aunt, yet he records through his empathetic lens how both he as an individual and his family are falling apart. The unnamed boy from Small Town Sea stops to see the mannequins at the shop window—parents and their two children, the perfect family. Through the notion of the “whole” family unit crumbling and the remnants grappling to survive, he finds the strength to build a lasting friendship and his self to face the challenges of the future.
Families may not be our safe refuge, families may conflict with the self more often than we like, yet our families shape who we are. Anees Salim’s novels remind us where we come from, and how we use that knowledge to grow our own dwelling places in our minds.
Qazi Mustabeen Noor is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.