Anees Salim said in an interview to The Hindu: “Books can talk for the author.” If we go looking for Salim as revealed in his novels from The Vicks Mango Tree (2012), Vanity Bagh (2013), and The Small-Town Sea(2017) to the recent The Odd Book of Baby Names(2021) and now The Bellboy(2022), we get the impression of an elusive figure, a chameleon-like author who pours himself into his characters and becomes them. He can be a 13-year-old heartsick boy (The Small-Town Sea); a corpulent and effete middle-aged “prince” whose father has long lost his kingdom; the same king’s choleric and depressed illegitimate daughter ( The Odd Book of Baby Names); or a 17-year-old bellboy much possessed by death because he works in a lodge where people usually come to die ( The Bellboy).
If they have anything in common, it is a mellow wistfulness, an inner poet who is awake to the beauty around him and is gently mocked for his naivete by another, more worldly-wise self of the author. Aptly for a writer who, like a dramatist, disappears in his creation, Salim’s characters are haunted by a feeling of performing life, into which they are flung without their consent. There is a sense of life as a charade on which only death grants some meaning.
There is death galore in The Bellboy since at its centre is the aptly named Paradise Lodge. Situated on the mainland of an archipelago of islands, it is a rundown hotel whose lodgers keep dying, much to the advantage of the manager, who robs the corpses of bits and bobs. Described as “five floors of mortuaries, topped with a misleading neon signage”, Paradise Lodge gives Latif, a teenager from the neighbouring Manto island, the shivers when he lands up there for work. He immediately wants to run away, but “the thought of his dead father’s photograph on the living room wall, of the lunch his mother had packed for him, and the library-like silence of his insular village held him there”. And so, everyone is a prisoner of his own device in Paradise Lodge, from where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave, as Latif finds out.
This is chilling and funny at the same time if you like gallows humour. The laughter is ironic, directed chiefly at the string of privileged people who cross Latif’s path, whom he observes keenly but who cannot be less bothered about this poor, nondescript bellboy. Some of them, like the manager, treat him like dirt; some, like the actor who comes to stay at the hotel, are patronising; but most are indifferent even if well-meaning.
Latif’s class makes him inconsequential and disposable, like his father before him. Latif’s father drowned while accompanying an ecologist on a tour of their sinking island (marked by marshes and verdant landscapes and threatened by rising sea levels, Manto seems a lot like Kerala). His avoidable death affects none but his family, which becomes further impoverished, necessitating Latif’s venture to the mainland for employment. The ecologist’s widow, who belongs to the well-meaning but indifferent group of people in relation to Latif, showers marigolds on the oblong patch of land Latif’s father had dug up to plant cassava days before his death, mistaking it for his grave.
What also lends to the laughs is a sense of happenings as scenes in an absurd play, where Latif is both a minor character and the audience. Watching the ecologist’s wife make the faux pas, he is mortified as much for her as for his own family, which, for the ecologist’s class of people, is too insignificant to merit true understanding. Latif’s class is his cloak of invisibility. It can act to his advantage in rare situations. Here is Latif witnessing a drama involving a sobbing, cuckolded husband, his voluptuous wife, and her strutting lover in one of the hotel rooms: “Latif did not know whether he was expected to stay or leave. He preferred to linger; everyone loved a soap without commercial breaks.”
With a “soft spot for losers and sufferers,” Latif is also the artist manqué. His banal life, consisting of killingly same ferry rides to and from the mainland to Manto island, feels real only when he makes colourful stories out of it which he narrates to the hotel help, Stella. Even ecological disaster becomes a story in his telling, and so scaled down, made less baffling. The hero of his stories is his doppelganger, Ibru, who, unlike him, leads a super exciting life. But in his quiet, self-effacing way, Latif is also a hero, an exceptional human being with a fatal flaw. His dogged honesty leads to his undoing because in a corrupt world, it amounts to foolishness.
Salim excels at leaving things unsaid in his slim, sharply edited novels. While something apparently laden with meaning like Paradise Lodge can prove to be a mere setting—valuable only in the mirth it provides—something as inconspicuous as Latif’s name and what it says about his identity, can prove to be momentous. The laughter becomes laughter in the dark in the blink of an eye, reminding us that the existential anguish that gives rise to the realisation of life’s absurdity is, after all, deeply political. Latif cannot be left alone with his daydreams because he lives in a country very similar to ours, where newspapers announce triumphantly, “Saffron sweeps nation.” He can be pushed around till somebody higher up finds a suitable use for him. And then discarded and erased. The only person who loves him as an individual, apart from his mother, is Stella, who, as a female Christian labourer, is as much of a minority as Latif is.
The denouement of The Bellboyleaves you gasping because it does not seem to be warranted by the previous flow of events. But when you think of prevailing political realities of the country, it starts making sense and the realisation is devastating. The effect is not unlike that created in the works of Kafka or Beckett, but Salim’s novel is more concretely described, its world-building is sharper than that of the absurdists.
The story is strewn with minute attention to details such as the rain falling like “colourless pebbles”, the red carpet of flowers under the gulmohar tree in the hotel’s driveway, the starfruit tree at the back of the lodge, “pumpkin light” and more, which are jewel-like in their sudden, precious beauty. They beckon at a world larger than Latif’s story that is both unaffected by his life and also given meaning when he beholds it with appreciative eyes.
He shares his sensitivity with the third-person narrator, who notes things like: “Under the full moon, he [Latif] bathed and bathed until only a cupful of water and the moon were left in the drum.” It is as if Latif the “insatiable storyteller” has a brother in the narrator, who too spins stories out of the banal and breathes life into it.
Anees Salim is an unusual voice in Indo-Anglian fiction: he writes not to please but to challenge the reader into understanding. Where novelists go for pages of drama, Salim goes for a few chiselled words, which are more impactful. There is no fluff, no flourish, no self-conscious exposition of the author’s position. But there is his po-faced humour, which can simultaneously lighten and darken a situation and make you question your own position with regard to the characters.
Salim’s 2021 novel, The Odd Book of Baby Names, has been longlisted for the JCB Prize for literature and earlier he had won The Hindu Literary Prize for Vanity Bagh. The Bellboy should make it to the lists of the top literary prizes next year. This is one writer who deserves more appreciation than he is usually given.
- The novel is chilling and funny at the same time if you like gallows humour.
- What also lends to the laughs is a sense of happenings as scenes in an absurd play.
- The laughter becomes laughter in the dark in the blink of an eye, reminding us that the existential anguish that gives rise to the realisation of life’s absurdity is, after all, deeply political.
- The denouement of The Bellboy leaves you gasping.
- The story is strewn with minute attention to details.