The Coming-of-Age Story of a Muslim Boy Wins India’s Highest Literary Prize

May 28, 2019

In late 2018, India’s highest literary honor was awarded to Anees Salim’s fourth novel, The Blind Lady’s Descendants (Penguin India, 2015). The novel is a suicide note by the blind lady’s grandson, Amar Hamsa.

The Hamsa family lives on a decaying tropical estate in an unspoiled coastal town in Kerala. In exquisite prose, the reader becomes Amar’s confidante, as he shows us his life, framed by a compound surrounded by mahogany and teak in seemingly endless gardens.

Amar’s family’s isolation starts slowly and reaches a pitch that is heartbreaking. With no clichéd references to the Garden of Eden, Amar sifts through secrets and revelations, as he searches for the heart of experience in this seeming paradise. We hold on, hopeful that Amar Hamsa will not give up, for he writes his world with irreverent humor, his descriptions unflinching yet beautiful.

Anees Salim makes you fall in love with Amar and the town that is based on the author’s own hometown, Varkala. The author was born in 1970, and his protagonist is born in 1968, making this novel feel like an actual memoir. Amar is twenty-six years old when the book begins, and he recounts both past and near-present seamlessly. The movement in the novel reminds one of another book, A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, who, like Salim, makes us fall in love with his characters. But then he breaks your heart. In that sense we are also reminded of Arundhati Roy’s A God of Small Things.

When Amar’s mother, Asma, drives nails into their front door to keep bad luck out, Amar is six years old. “Bad luck, then, must have come in through the back door, for, by the time I considered myself grown up—thirteen or fourteen, at most, sixteen—I had started to regard it as a family member, our parents’ fourth child, someone elder to me and younger than Sophiya, who would walk away with most of our small fortune much before I turned my present age—twenty-six.”

We hold on, hopeful that Amar Hamsa will not give up, for he writes his world with irreverent humor, his descriptions unflinching yet beautiful.

The truth is, the bad luck does not just come from the outside (with Hindutva on the rise). The world is a mirror to the questionable choices Asma and her husband make. Their isolation pulls the siblings closer, like the siblings in Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.

Salim’s small-town descriptions and narrative tenderness are also reminiscent of R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond, but this book is relevant in ways that are even more prescient. The fortunes of this Muslim family are interlocked with the outside world and history, thus bringing important context to the reader. What is at stake is a gentle masculinity and the vulnerability of men like Amar. Across the world, we see boys like him in need of something they are missing. The risks are palpable throughout the book. Such chronicles into the male psyche are especially relevant. We see small towns across the world, including in America, where opportunities can feel elusive, and narratives emerge of isolation and rage.

So here is a universal portrait of a boy as he enters adulthood and grows into a man. The introspective voice, the truth-telling, the playful eroticism, the disavowing of religion, all emerge into a parable for masculinity anywhere. Like in Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and Caitlin Moran’s side-splitting How to Build a Girl, we meet male characters trying to survive in a changing time, despite a lack of control in their lives.

At the end of Anees Salim’s book we are left with many questions about this fragility, wondering whose responsibility it is to make the bad luck turn to better times.

Washington, DC

Leeya Mehta is a prizewinning poet and essayist. Her column “The Company We Keep” runs with The Independent. She has just finished a novel, Extinction.