The Small Town Sea
by Anees Salim
Publisher: Penguin Random House India (2017)
The cozy reading spot,
Or the rigid work desk
The reason behind this letter is in ‘The Small Town Sea’, and is the most obvious as one reads along.
Taking the book out of its cover I went on a hunt for a bookmark. A book and a bookmark is like chai and toast, easily replaceable with biscuit or roti, similar to tickets and wrappers, relating to the narrator with death and pain.
Anees Salim’s The Small Town Sea, is a book on delicate pain, childhood abandonment and growing out.
The Small Town Sea opens with a 13 year old narrator losing his father, 3 days after his birthday. And it goes on to narrate a journey from a metro constructing city to a town owning a helipad. As the name suggests, the book is set in an unnamed town that neighbours an unnamed sea. The house is described to have “white walls, pale blue windows, and an unsociable front door” and the sea, “a liquid desert where boats were camels, waves were sand dunes, ships caravans and the horizon the lone oasis”.
The setting of the book is very RK Narayanesque with the firangpani tree, cliff side house called Bougainvillea, the childlike adventures and coconut groves with clay roads, makes you immediately turn the page. The suggestion of having a map brings the biggest resemblance to a Malgudi feel.
“A really handsome one with the town square on one side and the sea on the other, and the space in between with small-town landscapes: schools, water tanks, temples, marketplaces, mosques, the railway station, post office and the roads that the characters walk every day, like ghosts from another time”.
The Small Town Sea is written with utmost care, bringing in beauty, humor and sadness together. Anees Salim’s writing can be described as very intricate, like embroidering his words with emotions. Slowly building up to something grimly beautiful that remains close to your heart.
The book is said to be a fictional representation of a nightmare that haunted the author where his son was stranded in the author’s hometown. And it is the voice of his son, Omar that is used to narrate the story. The Small Town Sea is a chain of stories, seamlessly woven together. And we are introduced to Vappa(father), Umma(mother) and Little(younger sister) among other characters.
Throughout the book the narrator is described to have a complicated relationship with death and Vappa (his father).
Death and the narrator frequently come in contact, changing childhood excursions into traumatic experiences. But the narrator holds your hand and takes you through it with sentences like “Vappa’s resting place was on the lowest terrace of the graveyard, in a row furthest from the mosque, near the wall that had lichen growing in the shape of mountains” and saying that his father would have approved of this spot. The author somehow made the idea of afterlife or death, beautiful like a Tim Burton’s movie. It didn’t colour death black but added an imagery of hometown to it, which seemed beautiful but stagnant to the narrator.
“Bilal smelled like cashew in springtime and I always associated the smell of cashew flowers with death”
The narrator’s relationship to death seemed like the one, the third brother had with death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A weird relationship, that slowly and strangely grows on to you.
It takes various shapes staying so close to the narrator as if death has become one of the protagonists of the book. And the narrator has become familiar with death as one of his family members.
The narrator’s father in The Small Town Sea plays a ghost like figure throughout the book. Their relationship could be described as strained or stranded.
“You should walk either ahead of me or behind me”, “You should learn to walk alone”– is one of the handful moments of the two. The father is shown to be dying and teaching the narrator to live and hold the family together, after his death. . The narrator is rarely shown with the father, we don’t see their relationship throughout the narrative, and there are four or less moments of them together. But we know that the narrator and his father are close. His father is present in every step of the narrator’s way.
“I felt Vappa stand behind e and push it, Iheard him softly grunt under the effort.I felt his breath fall on my shoulders.”
The most tender and heartwarming relationship in the book is of the narrator and his younger sister, Little. It is the brother-sister kind of love that is similar to Joshua and Jennifer in the Malayalam movie, Koode. Where the narrator carries Little, plays with her, telling her to wave at the passengers in an ongoing train; similar to the affections showed by Joshua towards Jennifer.
The Small Town Sea is a bittersweet tale. It has tragedy written on every page with humor in its corners. Like a coconut tree climber called Tarzan. We see a side of the narrator away from death, a side that dreams of a future. Even though it is a childish but an elaborate dream like building an empire of a pigeon messenger service, reminding us of the famous childhood Shiekh Chilli tale(where he dreams of unrealistic things). The book holds strange truths with the sentence, “Photographers are kleptomaniacs”, taking things without permission and Uncle Rashid snide comment on how he thought writers and the like, were meant to live forever because their words do so.