#DesiBooksReview 1: Let’s Revisit the Past Without a Time Machine

Veena Muthuraman was born and raised in Thiruvananthapuram, India. She took the long and winding path through Chicago and London to Edinburgh in Scotland, where she currently lives.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 1

Anti-Clock by V. J. James; translated by Ministhy S. | Penguin Random House, India | June 24, 2021

Anti-clock by V J James. Translated by Ministhy S.

Neyyar. Aruvikkara. Pechipara. Thenmala. Peppara. Meenmutti.

Where I come from, dams made great picnic spots. Every school trip or family day trip that I remember from my childhood involved an outing to a dam. We admired the carefully laid out botanic gardens while the teacher shouted at us not to touch anything, waited eagerly for the shutters to open as we held on tight to the railings, and snuck out to the edge of the forest hoping to catch a glimpse of a wild animal. This proliferation of dams is not surprising for a state like Kerala, where the concentrated monsoon precipitation has to be channelized to meet the state’s electricity and irrigation needs throughout the year. But that Neyyar Dam, the most frequent day trip destination of my childhood, could have a backstory hadn’t occurred to me in all these years. The story of the construction of this very Nehruvian structure in the heady years following Independence—and the collateral destruction of lives, habitats, and livelihoods—is one of the many strands in Malayalam writer V. J. James’s latest novel, Anti-Clock. The building of Neyyar Dam, granite quarrying, and sand mining all serve as substantial examples of the relentless and wanton destruction of nature and the plagues it unleashes—both to the inhabitants of Aadi Nadu, the fictional village of the novel, and to us readers.

This is James’s seventh novel, translated from Malayalam by Ministhy S, and was shortlisted for the JCB Prize in 2021. It is narrated in the first-person voice by Hendri, a coffin-maker who inherited his occupation from his father. His father’s philosophical musings, his own daily reading of the Holy Bible, and Saraswathy teacher’s literature lessons back in high school are all major influences in Hendri’s telling, though his life is governed by a single-minded passion—more of that later. Along with Hendri, James brings to life a number of beautifully drawn characters who form the throbbing heart of Aadi Nadu: Antappan, the gravedigger and Hendri’s drinking pal, who had to exhume his own father’s bones when the cemetery ran out of space; Gracy, a rival coffin-maker’s wife who ushers in a quiet revolution by becoming Aadi Nadu’s first and only woman coffin-maker; Kapyar, the kind appam-maker who fashions the sacramental bread inside the Osthippura; David and Shari, love-birds who wouldn’t be out of place in an old world Malayalam movie. Anti-Clock is at its strongest when sketching the inhabitants of Aadi Nadu and their daily existence. In the deceptively simple voice of Hendri, these people acquire lives filled with pathos and humor. 

The characters live under the shadow of two of Kerala’s enduring institutions: the church and communism. Through Hendri’s ruminations, we come to understand what it really means to belong to the church—the value that the individual gets from being part of the community as well as the price exacted in that process. Ultimately, you get what you pay for, whether that is the decorative coffin or premium real estate in the graveyard. Revolutionary songs and slogans blare in the background in Anti-Clock, and the communist and trade union movements are represented in the form of Karunan, a man who refuses to bend to market forces, come what may. There are allusions to the uneasy relationship between church and the communist party, which has been a mainstay of Kerala politics over the past century. With David and Shari, we are shown the younger generation, which has no affiliation to either of those mainstays.  

A grieving recluse, Hendri lives and works inside his shop alongside mice, cobwebs, and coffins. His only outing seems to be the occasional late-night drinking session with Antappan among the graves. Hendri’s all-consuming hatred of Satan Loppo, who is the personification of every real and fictional villain in the history of the world, is one of the central metaphors of this novel.  

Hendri has personal scores to settle with Satan Loppo, whom he holds responsible for the defilement of his beloved wife, Beatrice, and the death of his entire family. He also believes that Satan Loppo stands for everything that’s wrong with Aadi Nadu and the world as a whole. If this strikes us as hyperbole, Hendri realizes it himself and is often prone to second thoughts. Intense guilt at going against the church’s teachings and his father’s philosophy gnaws at him throughout and he wonders whether it’s his own grieving imagination that has made him see his nemesis as the Satan himself. But these thoughts don’t last and Hendri is certain that his only salvation is in the total destruction of Satan Loppo. So he waits patiently in his shop, biding his time, listening to David and Shari speak of the devil, while the coffin meant for Loppo remains ready and gleaming.  

Into this world appears the eponymous Anti-Clock: a device invented by Pundit, a 112-year old watchmaker who has done many things in his past life, including fighting alongside Subash Chandra Bose in the Indian National Army (INA.). Pundit invents this machine to turn back time but, in case you are wondering, it doesn’t exactly work like a Tardis. The Anti-Clock throws the whole idea of time into chaos and, as a result, unpredictability and calamity ensues. The idea here is that it portends a move backward, to return to a less corrupted state of affairs. Clearly, James sees the Anti-Clock as the main character in the book, and he says as much in his introduction.

Malayalam literature is no stranger to magical realism. If I am allowed one more personal digression here: in my younger days, as I once sauntered about with a copy of The Autumn of the Patriarch, I was cornered by a family friend who gave me a fascinating lecture on the similarities between Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and O. V. Vijayan’s Khasakinte Ithihasam as well as of their respective influences. This uncle had read Gabo’s debut novel in Malayalam as a young man growing up in interior Kerala. The state’s love affair with magical realism isn’t simply a fling of the past as the recent award-winning S. Hareesh novel, Moustache, has proven. So it’s not surprising that James is also enamored of this tradition.

However, for this reader, the Anti-Clock and its eccentric inventor felt like unnecessary distractions in such a self-contained world. Aadi Nadu doesn’t need a time machine of any sort; it is perfectly imagined and portrayed without it. Perhaps there was a need for a narrative device to propel the story forward, but did it have to be so contrived? 

In the end, the Anti-Clock does what it’s intended to do and drives the narrative to its inescapable conclusion following a showdown between Hendri and Satan Loppo. We leave the coffin-maker doing what he does best in the shortest possible time: measuring out and building another coffin adorned with art and lace work. 

In one sense, Anti-Clock is the story of an “ordinary” man and his relationship with his community and to nature—a universal story. However, this diminishes what James has accomplished here. This particular story is rooted in the hills and valleys of Aadi Nadu, and Hendri transplanted anywhere else becomes a different story altogether. Anti-Clock is very much the story of a unique man in a very specific place and time. A fictional world so rich and haunting does more than make us admire the writer’s craft. It allows us to revisit the places of our past—as I intend to do with Neyyar Dam when I’m back home in Kerala—and our histories with renewed vision.

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Veena Muthuraman was born and raised in Thiruvananthapuram, India. She took the long and winding path through Chicago and London to Edinburgh in Scotland, where she currently lives.

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