Book Review

A Book About Loss: The loss Of Power, Hope And Love

Book Review: The Odd Book of Baby Names has a historical background and is narrated by multiple voices. It is also about our relationship to the wider universe of English literature

Author Anees Salim writes with assured fluency and considerable imagination. It’s like listening to Indian classical music when you read his work. He is a writer’s writer, and writers adore his novels. His new book, ‘The Odd Book of Baby Names,’ is equally incisive and beautiful as his previous work. It has a great language style, a compelling tragedy, and clear storytelling. The Odd Book of Baby Names has a historical background and is narrated by multiple voices. It is also about our relationship to the wider universe of English literature.

He writes in the book. “As a thin ribbon of smoke rose from the edge, something stirred in me, and I slapped the book against the railing until small specks of fire fell to the floor and died down. It was not just a book of baby names. It was an unusual memoir; my father was leaving behind, memories condensed into names; memories of many kisses, lovemaking, panting and feeling spent.

Salim’s latest novel, set in the mid-1960s in an unnamed location with enough hints to suggest it is Hyderabad and its last king that is being fictionalised, effectively captures the decaying world of a ruler and his kingdom, the hold he once had over his people and courtiers but also touches on the decay of the physical body and mind. The lives of the eight offspring unfold as the King lies dying throughout the days, each demonstrating how little he meant to them yet casting a tremendous shadow over them by his absence.

Is that a metaphor for how folks slog through decisions made by today’s leadership with little concern for how they affect the common man and woman? That is for the author’s benefit. This novel is about so much more than fandom.

The Odd Book of Baby Names is the story of a dying patriarch and his eight children, who think of their father in different ways, some with spite, some with love, some with admiration, and some quite indifferently. The book begins at Cotah Mahal, where the obese and always inebriated Moazzam, his other legitimate son, is having a bath, serenaded by hundreds of sparrows. A sudden shriek sees him exiting the tub and running down the palace corridors, “wearing only the armour of lather and a few accidental prettifications by way of rose petals.” The news of their father’s death, fake though it turns out to be, brings Moazzam and Azam, who dislike each other, to his chamber. We also learn that Azam is rather obsessed with this book of baby names. The many emotions are treated so precisely in this book that you will be submerged.

Can life be like a jigsaw puzzle, pieces waiting to be conjoined? Like a game of hide-and-seek?

Like playing statues?

Can memories have colour?

Can the sins of the father survive his descendants?

In a family – is it a family if they don’t know it? – that does not rely on the weakness of memory, runs a strange register of names. The odd book of baby names has been custom-made on palace stationery for the patriarch, an eccentric king, one of the last kings of India, who dutifully records in it the names of his offspring. As he bitterly draws his final breaths, eight of his one hundred rumoured children trace the savage lies of their father and reckon with the burdens of their lineage.

This novel, The Odd Book of Baby Names, gives a touch of whimsy to a multi-perspective narrative that manages to be sad, humorous, wise, playful and most importantly, highly engaging. The story revolves around a dying patriarch and his offspring, who remember him with various degrees of love, resentment, apathy and hatred. Within this book is another small book in which the king has written down the names of his countless children. Only two of them are legitimate, the others being born out of wedlock. Anees Salim, a gifted writer, has attained a pinnacle with this magnificent work of sentimentalism.

Layered with multiple perspectives and cadences, each tale is recounted in sharp, tantalising vignettes. This is a rich tapestry of narratives and a kaleidoscopic journey into the dysfunctional heart of the Indian family. Written with the lightness of comedy and the seriousness of tragedy, the playfulness of an inventive riddle and the intellectual heft of a philosophical undertaking, The Odd Book of Baby Names is Salim’s most ambitious novel yet.

This book is undoubtedly about loss; the loss of power, hope, love, memories and most importantly, the loss of connecting. Though all of the characters in this novel are siblings, they take various courses, live different lives, many of them remain unknown to each other, and each is doomed to carry a sense of emptiness till the end. Their common ancestor is a sensation of bereavement. Nothing extraordinary happens, but all the small incidents that a common man experiences are there in the book in vivid colour. For those who enjoy mature, serious literature, Salim has written yet another great book.

Ashutosh Kumar Thakur

is Bangalore based Management Consultant, Literary Critic and Co-director with Kalinga Literary Festival

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