The Odd Book of Baby Names by Anees Salim | Penguin Hamish Hamilton | November 15, 2021
Reviewer: ANANDI MISHRA
As the pandemic enters its third year, a sense of tiredness pervades our collective consciousness. We are tired of writing that is staunchly immersed in the present moment. It intrigued us at first but slowly wore us out. The Odd Book of Baby Names finds us at the corner of this acute juncture. We have lost too much, gone through more than we can express, and are jaded. Here comes Anees Salim’s novel as a much-needed respite, a welcome retreat. It comforts the reader like a cool hand pressing on a fevered forehead. Although it deals with themes of death and loss, it urges us to put all else aside and immerse ourselves in its fictive world.
Near the beginning, a description of midsummer evokes nostalgia, even yearning, for the dog days that are behind us all. Salim writes, “The height of summer always turned the wall of the alley a tired sea green first, and eventually, with the plants wilting down to a fine brittle, a deep brown.”
The Odd Book comes four years after Salim’s last and is as richly textured and affecting as his previous novels. Despite its morbid themes, there is also an element of comedy at the fringes, all held together by a canopy of characters who are equal parts funny, desultory, and murky. This book also marks Salim’s departure from literary fiction as he dips his toes into the shifting sands of near-historical fiction. It’s a “tragicomedy” set in the 1960s in a city that mysteriously resembles present-day Hyderabad, and about a ruler who has fathered more than a hundred children. Narrated in the form of nine stories that often bleed into each other, the book takes Salim’s oeuvre of writing on and about loss forward.
A news item floating around states that the ruler has died, bringing two of his sons, Moazzam and Azam, to confront each other. While both vehemently dislike each other and are relieved to find out that the news was fake, Azam is secretly obsessed with the historical powers embedded in the eponymous book. He’s astute and afraid of the book’s potency. If it reaches the hands of the wrong person, it might bring infamy to the family: “I wanted to find the book of baby names just to dip it in petrol and surrender it to the flames.”
And that opens the proverbial can of “names.”
As we encounter one child after the other—Sultan, Humera, Hyder, Zuhab, Owais, Muneer, and Shahbaz—we find ourselves in constant conversation with Salim’s wry voice. These vastly different characters are reflective of their father’s kaleidoscopic life and hint at curious possibilities in their lives before and after these narratives. For example, Hyder stutters in speech but is a fluent caregiver. Humera, the daughter of the ruler’s mistress, has regular thoughts of suicide. From Muneer’s penury to Zuhab’s anger to Owais’s dogged determination, we see a variety of temperaments and an increasing sense of irony. There’s a poet too, Shahbaz, who comes with a fabled tragic past that turned him into a poet. His best friend is a ghost, Sultan, who was also one of the ruler’s many offspring and a talented marble player.
Based on their quirks, these children get their own little monikers: Zuhab, “the gift of god”; Owais, “the fearless”; Moazzam, “the respectable”; Hyder, “the one who is as brave as a lion”; Sultan, “the ruler”; Azam, “the greatest”; Humera, “the bird that soars the highest”; Shahbaz, “the king’s eagle”; and Muneer, “the one who shines forever”. Beyond easy identification, these tags also frame them with a certain kind of levity. Yet, as quirky and sublime as these monikers might be, they betray no sign of the grasping and duplicitous nature of each of these nine characters. Each of them is working their own schemes to claim a stronger stake than the others while using every opportunity to get ahead in life.
With the current radical rightwing political climate in India, we could read the lives of these nine characters and their experiences as Muslims growing up across social hierarchies as a political exploration. At one point, when Nehru makes a fleeting cameo, we might be tempted to claim the book’s ambitions to be larger than its inherent premise. But Salim keeps the stakes low. He doesn’t allow our attention to divert too much from the story about siblings trying to make sense of their father.
The juggling of voices and multiple perspectives creates an intentional back and forth that reveals shared personal histories and lineages between all the characters. We see them haggle their way into the narrative of a dying patriarch who couldn’t care less.
Salim’s poeticism is taut and his descriptions are metaphoric. He uses symbols and flashbacks to explore deep tensions in middle-class Indian families. His earlier book, The Small Town Sea, has a startling description of a mosque and its loudspeaker at night. It returns in The Odd Book, as a potent motif: “All of a sudden, I remembered that the mosque behind the Wall of Erasers had recently acquired a pair of loudspeakers, and they could shatter the moment I had found so poetic, the moment that stood like a wire fence between coldness and grief, a boundary made of silence.” The mosque, its speaker, the call of the azaan at dawn—these seemingly mundane things that constitute the dailiness of a Muslim person’s life build a cinematically immersive world.
In a passage about the contents of a contested box, Salim writes: “An untidy assortment collected over many decades: tubs of pain balm, tasbihs, tattered pocket diaries, stubs of pencils, coins long out of circulation, candles, a bobbin of twine used for anchoring kites; things that would remind Hamza Chacha of a lifetime of toil under Bada Topiwalla’s wings.” In these painful, pointed details, accrued seemingly over years, he casts a loving look over a disappearing world.
The writing is not overly sentimental and comes to life with piquing, uncommon details. For example, often, the characters’ experiences and emotions are grounded not in their expressions or language but in the noises made by the things around them. Humera’s resentful relationship with her father’s house shows in “(t)he squeal of the rusty gate,” “the groan of the wooden steps,” and “the bed (which) was the rudest bully of all.”
The book turns a keen eye to what lies beyond the tangibles—the forms of nature, life, and living surrounding the characters. Describing a bench, Salim ascribes a godliness to it by paying attention to the beauty of its everydayness: “He was brushing dead leaves off the bench, preparing himself to sit on the corner where the sun molded shadows in exactly the same shape every evening, identical even in the size of the dapples and the sharpness of the edges.”
Unlike the small, nondescript, sleepy Indian towns populating his earlier novels, The Odd Book, is set in an unnamed big city. Dotted throughout with clues like Four Minar Lake, this city is evocative of the charm associated with Hyderabad. While those earlier novels were reminiscent of works like Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic In My Head and Neti Neti, and Janice Pariat’s Boats On Land, this book, with the big city at its heart, stands apart from Salim’s own body of work thus far.
In a recent interview with The New Indian Express, Salim said: “I write to calm myself down. That doesn’t need any inspiration. It’s a personal need.” And that is the purpose The Odd Book serves to the weary readers among us, who arrive to it searching for an oasis of calm.
At 200-some pages, The Odd Book can be read in a day, but it actively resists the temptation to binge-read. The nine diverse and tightly packed narratives invite us to pause and consider our individual plights even as we try to ascertain our own allegiances to various characters. Balancing compassion with a clear-eyed sense of irony, The Odd Book leaves us asking for more. For fans of Salim, the novel is an elegant mediation on family ties, loss, and lineage, set in a world where love and absence go hand in hand. For new readers, it’s a perfect introduction and a prompt to read the rest of his work before the next one comes out later in 2022.
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