A king is dying in an unnamed city, which nevertheless sounds suspiciously like Hyderabad. He lies in his palace, Cotah Mahal, attended to by a stuttering caregiver, showing no visible signs of life—save periodic long and loud farts. We know he is a “fallen ruler” who has lost his kingdom, possibly when Indian ended the practice of privy purses for royal families in 1971—his legacy tarnished by the accounts of various historians. “Like every fallen ruler, my father harboured a grudge against historians,” says his son Azam, one of his two legitimate ones. “Historians seldom do justice to the fallen.”
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One thing he seems to have been remarkably good at is procreating; his multiple sexual encounters spawned numerous children—no one is sure of the exact number. While clearly a poster boy of neglectful parenting, the king was astute enough to keep a record of the children he had personally baptised, documenting their names in a thin book with pages “almost as flimsy as butter paper”.
In Anees Salim’s latest novel, The Odd Book Of Baby Names, this thin book is central to the story, adding a touch of whimsy to a multiple-perspective narrative that manages to be sad, funny, wise, playful and, most importantly, highl engaging. In an interview to The New Indian Express published on 12 December, Salim describes his novel as one essentially about loss-- of power, hope, love, memories and bonding. “Though all the characters in this book are siblings, they walk different paths, they lead different lives, many of them stay unknown to each other, and each is doomed to bear a sense of emptiness till the end. It is the sense of loss that is their common inheritance.”
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 an 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. “I wanted to find the book of baby names just to dip it in petrol and surrender it to the flames,” he says.
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From there, it’s a hop, skip and jump into the minds and lives of his other children, the illegitimate ones: suicidal Humera, the daughter of his mistress; Hyder, the stuttering caregiver; Shahbaz, a poet with a tragic past and doomed future; the ghost of Sultan, a maestro marble player and Shabhaz’s best friend; the stingy Muneer; the homicidal Zuhab; and the persistent Owais.
This is tragicomedy at its best—the constant reminders of the fragility of life and love, familial cruelties, loneliness, the shamefully large and persistent gap between the haves and the have-nots don’t take away from moments and observations that are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Take, for instance, this description of an attempt to beautify a pitcher in Muneer’s tailoring shop as part of a rebranding strategy, a personal favourite. “Our attempt to make the pitcher less ugly by dressing it up in a jacket Hamza Chacha had sewn from hundreds of silk pieces seemed to have backfired,” says Muneer. “The makeover made it look like a destitute man with amputated limbs piddling drip by drip onto a bedpan.”
Or this one, when the poet Shahbaz courts the sad and lovely Humera, unaware that they share a father. When Humera recounts a dream in which Shahbaz saves her life, his reaction is amusingly realistic. “I did not possess the kind of valour or foolhardiness that made people dive headlong into lifesaving missions,” he thinks. “Even if I was that valiant, I would probably have tossed a hank of rope to the drowning…. I would never have stripped myself and jumped into the water. The state of my underclothes would have attracted ridicule even in the face of an emergency.”
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This is not a novel that enshrines history or attempts to be a sweeping epic of its times. Instead, it unearths the magic in the mundane with a razor-sharp lens, magnifying the bleak humour, inevitable horror and unexpected beauty of existence in prose that is as ingenious as it is poignant. The vignettes culled from the lives of all nine narrators that dart in and out of the pages, sometimes intersecting, leave a reader desperately wanting more. I know I did.