Tabish Khair’s latest novel, The Body by the Shore, traverses time and continents to chart the mutating forces of greed. Set in a post-pandemic world, it stretches as far back as the 16th-century Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon’s quest for the mythical fountain of youth. Khair extrapolates the unpredictability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to the future, which, in his telling, is filled with the violence of unchecked capitalistic greed concealed under the banner of survival.With the destructive potential of virulent microbes and plagues in the background, Khair’s portrayal of our collective future seems all the more scary because it is so real.
The Body by the Shore
In the novel’s future world, massive undertakings such as the colonisation of Mars and undersea farming are being funded with scant regard for the weaker sections of society. Forbes dubs the year 2030 as “The Greatest Age of Prosperity Known to Mankind”—there are now more millionaires and billionaires than ever before. Simultaneously, America simmers under race riots, India and Brazil are torn apart by violence over food shortages that their governments promptly blame on “anti-national, mischievous” elements.
The India of the future is revealed through sprinkled news clippings: saffron has been declared the compulsory colour of school uniforms; a journalist named Jyoti Lankeshwar is gunned down in the offices of her radical feminist and Marxist weekly in 2027. Coastlines are sinking, islands are getting submerged, but it is the best of times because the financial market is thriving, property prices are rising. The people who count in this world are euphoric with success. Khair asks the disturbing question—does survival mean the survival of the fittest?
In the midst of this “euphoric” world, he places reluctant individuals forced into action. Jens Erik is a retired police officer from Denmark with a poor opinion of immigrants and wary of change. He becomes an unlikely hero when he is forced to revisit an old case after being accused of bigotry by his daughter. It all starts when the unidentified body of a young black male, missing all organs, washes up on the shores of Denmark.
Other characters include Michelle, a young Caribbean cleaning woman, down on her luck, who is deceived by her new lover; Harris Maloub, a former secret agent now leading a quiet life as a teacher in Denmark, is pulled back in by a former colleague. Meanwhile, there are sinister happenings. An abandoned oil rig in the middle of North Sea is turned into a resort for the rich. Funded by a state-corporate nexus, it hides a darker secret. An obscure seminar from 2007 titled “Mind, Body, and Soul: The Cognitive Sciences and Religion”, dismissed by the academic community, is back in the news again when all of its participants are found dead, untraceable, or confined to a psychiatric ward.
One of the strongest features of this novel is the diversity of the characters’ backgrounds and world views. Between them, they represent widely different ideologies and point at the various cultural factors that shape human behaviour.
In The Body by the Shore, Khair seems to be pondering the origin of evil: in a novel full of odd happenings, there is no clandestine agency or government splinter group gone rogue that can be pinpointed as the arch enemy. Instead, there are people who lead one another astray. Evil wears a familiar face.
“Khair upends the anthropocentric point of view as he shows how tiny organisms have a greater sense of community than humans have.”
What Khair seems to prophesy is the fading of human connections: when Jens Erik goes to his old police station, he finds robotic dogs have replaced some of the jobs done by humans. Technology has manipulated human understanding to such an extent that humanity has to be redefined.
Struggling with indifference, the characters must decide what it means to be human and question the supposed superiority of the human race. At the heart of this novel are the fundamental building blocks of life—cells, mitochondria, and microbes, and they carry the answers to all the big questions.
Marked by hubris
Khair upends the anthropocentric point of view as he shows how tiny organisms have a greater sense of community than humans have. Trees, fungi are capable of inter-species communication in ways we cannot begin to fathom. Khair makes us realise that it is this inter-species relationship at the microbial level that is essential to our survival: “If microbes were to be eliminated from the earth, many infectious diseases would disappear. But much of life would disappear too.… Humans would survive a bit longer. Maybe even for a few years. [But] slowly, we would perish. Painfully.”Humans are no longer at the apex of the great chain of being. Rather, they are at a mighty disadvantage because they are filled with hubris, which does not cripple tiny organisms. “If you put slime mold in the center of a maze, with food at its entry, it slowly moves and finds the shortest path to it. How does it do so? It is just a humble cell with many nuclei.”
Ninety-eight per cent of the human genome is deemed to be junk, simply because we do not understand how it works. But there is no waste in nature: only humans generate junk. “We even junk human beings: Parents, class-friends, ex-partners, anti-nationals, Jews, Palestinians, Yazidis, Rohingya. It is a never-ending list. Our civilizations can be indexed against this.” Khair reiterates that the basis of our differences—this quest for purity, for a singular belief, race and people—is by definition unnatural. At the microscopic level, no organism is pure, singular, or exclusive.
In an action-packed thriller with illegal experiments in secret laboratories, black-market organ trade, racial discrimination, refugee crises, climate change, eugenics, government-corporate collusions, the mingling of science and religion, Khair looks for deeper truths and drives them home in moving prose. The Body by the Shore, which resists slotting into a convenient genre, is a tribute to the power of fiction to lead us to the heart of the matter in ways no polemic ever can.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator.
- Set in a post-pandemic world, the novel stretches as far back as the 16th-century.
- Khair extrapolates the unpredictability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to the future, which, in his telling, is filled with the violence of unchecked capitalistic greed.
- The India of the future is revealed through sprinkled news clippings.
- The people who count in this world are euphoric with success. In the midst of this euphoric world, Khair places reluctant individuals forced into action.
- One of the strongest features of this novel is the diversity of the characters’ backgrounds and world views.
- Struggling with indifference, the characters must decide what it means to be human and question the supposed superiority of the human race.