A chance discussion on writing and getting published during an evening with some friends led to me getting to know about the author, Anees Salim. Our friend said, ‘Have you read, Anees Salim? He is a Harper Collins-published author. Anees is my friend. He has won several notable literary awards.” And I, in bewilderment, replied, “Wow.” To know someone who was a close friend of an acclaimed author was the closest I had ever come to a famous writer.
Anyway, the next day, when we were at the airport, I decided to pick up one of Anees Salim’s award-winning books, only to realize that all his books had either received an award or had been longlisted for one. The storekeeper gave me the only book he had of Salim’s, ‘The odd book of baby names’ and asked me if I was a friend of Salim’s. And I, with a tinge of pride said, ‘A friend of a friend.’ Hearing this, he smiled and said, ‘Anees is a gentleman and an exceptional writer.’ I smiled, paid for the book and left. Isn’t it nice to be endorsed by a random bookkeeper, not only for the person you are but for your writing too? Isn’t that what you’d want if you wrote a book?
As a thin ribbon of smoke rose from the edge something stirred in me and I slapped the book against the railing until small specks of fire fell to the floor and died down. It was not just a book of baby names. It was an unusual memoir my father was leaving behind, memories condensed into names; memories of many kisses, lovemaking, panting and feeling spent. Can a life be like a jigsaw puzzle, pieces waiting to be conjoined? Like a game of hide-and-seek? Like playing statues? Can memories have colour? Can the sins of the father survive his descendants? In a family – is it a family if they don’t know it? – that does not rely on the weakness of memory runs a strange register of names. The odd book of baby names has been custom-made on palace stationery for the patriarch, an eccentric king, one of the last kings of India, who dutifully records in it the name of his every offspring. As he bitterly draws his final breaths, eight of his one hundred rumoured children trace the savage lies of their father and reckon with the burdens of their lineage. Layered with multiple perspectives and cadences, each tale recounted in sharp, tantalizing vignettes, this is a rich tapestry of narratives and a kaleidoscopic journey into the dysfunctional heart of the Indian family. Written with the lightness of comedy and the seriousness of tragedy, the playfulness of an inventive riddle and the intellectual heft of a philosophical undertaking, The Odd Book of Baby Names is Salim’s most ambitious novel yet.
My take on the book
Anees Salim’s writing style appears plain and straightforward on the surface. But, it is this manner of writing that leaves the reader in awe. The author begins the book with ‘ This is my side of the story. Azam, my half-brother will tell you the same story, but in a different way. He is certain to crop up from nowhere, probably in the next chapter and give you a completely different version.’
The writing is vivid, enabling the reader to visualize the place and the characters. And while the ability to describe may sound like a necessary prerequisite for any successful author, Anees Salim’s lucid writing and use of unique metaphors to describe any situation is commendable . No longer will you look at the trees, the sky and the lake or even inanimate objects like a bench in the park or even a staircase, in the same way. Anees puts to words that which we notice but find hard to describe.
‘My glance drifted towards the lake. Its surface tranquil in the absence of a breeze reflected the streetlights in long creases along the embankments.’
‘The marbles fell on the uneven floor, each with its own separate beat, filling the house with a glassy pounding, before rolling off to different corners to rest.’
About the book
The story is set in Hyderabad and makes a passing mention of Nehru and the annexure of the kingdom to India in 1948 resulting in the loss of power of the Nizam of Hyderabad. As the story is set around the last year of the King’s life, the timeline must be around 1965-1967, when the last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, died. The book is a work of fiction but clearly draws a leaf out of the late Nizam’s life in terms of the ruler’s loss of power to India, names of his sons, Azam and Moazzam ( Nizam’s two legitimate children) and him being on the cover of the Times’ magazine (the Nizam was declared the richest person on earth in 1937 as per the Times’ magazine).
There are eight characters in the book who are some of the many children the King fathered. The chapters are short and easy to read. Each chapter is written from the point of view of each of the 8 children. While Azam and Moazzam are the King’s legitimate sons and live in the palace, the others, born out of wedlock are unknown to each other and lead lives of anonymity. Muneer is a tailor and Zuhab works in a restaurant as a busboy- both boys work in stores close to each other on Begum Laila Road, a busy trading part of town. Humeira, the king’s daughter lives in a posh part of the city, Moti Bagh- she is the only one that the King seems to maintain some contact with through her growing years. Shahbaaz, the jobless poet and Sultan (who dies at the age of 13 but continues as a ghost in the story) stay in the neglected part of town while Hyder, the caretaker to the king, moves around the palace, tiptoeing.
The author’s ability to weave a story with multiple characters with no heroic qualities, so intricately, and make them grow on the reader is admirable. I was surprised that I felt anything for the characters by the time the book ended. I hadn’t thought the book could evoke any emotion in me but it did. In Anusua Mukherjee’s (a book reviewer on the Hindu newspaper) words, ‘ His only prowess was sexual, it seems. If his decadent and exploitative way of life is passé, the life of loyalty (Hyder) is forgettable, the life of privileged ennui (Humera) ends in self-destruction, the life of arts and poetry (Shahbaz) is utterly useless, even the life of relentless labour as exemplified in Zuhab leads to disappointment. Everything ends in a whimper, or rather, in a long-drawn fart, in the novel’s scheme of things. But if one has to go looking for judgement, the scales can be found slightly tipped in favour of riff-raffs like Shahbaz and Zuhab, who can at least make rhymes out of recalcitrant life or feel alive enough to rebel. As Muneer grudgingly acknowledges, “It was not easy to sack a communist. Times had changed.”
Below are a few excerpts from the book – each part is dedicated to one character, and each section ranges from a few lines to 2 or 3 pages and therein the story is revealed.
Azam, the greatest
I opened my father’s book of baby names. His hand was surprisingly tidy, but wherever he had kept the nib of his pen pressed to the coarse surface, there was a smudge which turned the near copperplate into an overcautious child’s attempt to force neat handwriting.Though there were only about 100 pages, the book gave you the false promiseof an exhaustive chronicle…I decided to read one page a day, as if it were a book of prayers and I was ordained to read it only that way.
Meherbano, princess of the water
Azam, the greatest
Moazzam, the respectable
Hassan, the handsome
Humayoon, the blessed….
Moazzam, the respectable
‘I don’t know exactly when my father started believing that he owned a circus company. I don’t even know if he really believed it or if he just pretended to be a former curcus boss to hide the pain of having to sign his kingdom away.
During the months that preceded his long spell of illness, our conversations, brief and irregular, almost always revolved around the circus. The first time I heard his mention the circus, I took it as a curious case of bad memory, but when he persisted and recalled nothing but his days as a circus owner, I knew he had lost his mind as irreversibly as he had lost his kingdom.’
Hyder, the one who is as brave as a lion
‘Every time Azam walks into the Cha…Cha…Cha…Chamber, I feel a burning sen…sen…sen…sensation at the tip of my pri…pri…prick. It is fear. I…I…I…know it is fear. But with Moa…Moa…Moazzam it is a different story. I feel a pleasant chilliness in my heart. It is lo…love. It is the kind of love a younger brother feels to…towards a wasted eld…eld…elder brother. A while ago, he came into the Chamber and put a hand on my shoulder, as if we were fr…fr…friends, or bro…bro…brothers, but he doesn’t know that.‘
Who the book is for?
The book may not be everybody’s cup of tea- certainly not anyone looking for a thrilling murder mystery or a romantic chick flick or some action. The humor in the book is observational in nature. There is not much of a story either, hence the mixed reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. However, if you’re a serious reader and can appreciate a fine writing, it’s definitely worth a read. The story moves slowly at times and if you are impatient like me, you may wonder where the author is going with it. The word, ‘odd’ in the title couldn’t be more apt. But the book is a lesson on how a story can be crafted beautifully around a particular scene- in this case, a dying king whose occasional farts are the only sign of life. The book is a treat to read for any aspiring writer or anyone who appreciates good writing. The use of soliloquies and monologues to take a dig at royalty, life, death and human nature makes it an interesting read.
Overall, the book is a treat to read for any aspiring writer or anyone who appreciates good writing. Just one warning- the extensive use of metaphors can get tiring sometimes.
I hope you enjoyed reading the review. If you did, be sure to check out this space. This year, I plan to do a lot of reading because as Ernest Hemingway rightly said, ‘There’s no friend as loyal as a book.’
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