Tongue in cheek, debutant author Kanishk Tharoor begins with the idea of Exotic India in the opening lines of the first story, Elephant at Sea, in his collection of short stories.
Apparently inspired by an incident he heard about in his childhood, the story is centred on the wish of a Moroccan princess to own an Indian elephant. The Indian government – living up to its reputation – takes six years to process her application. Consequently, by the time the elephant is en route to Morocco, the princess is studying sociology in Paris, and the rest of Morocco is clueless about what must be done with the creature when it arrives. Foremost among them is the second secretary to the Indian embassy in Morocco. The situation is exacerbated by the presence of a dedicated mahout accompanying the pachyderm. Instead of being excited at the prospect of travelling home on a plane, the fellow spends his time making ‘ridiculous demands for an elephant nobody actually wants’.
As Shashi Tharoor’s son, expectations from Kanishk Tharoor are naturally high. The book jacket wedges his name between ‘ancient and modern masters of fabulist surrealist and magical short stories’ like Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Angela Carter. A lay reader might take that with a smidgen of salt. Tharoor, however, does not disappoint. In fact, one could perhaps add Geoffrey Chaucer to the list. The author’s distinctive voice shows a storyteller who has spent years perfecting his craft. The refrain or half-refrain in some of the stories (‘Seven days before the Khan’s army razed the city…’) at times harks back to the charm and lyricism found in Arabian Nights or in the likes of Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte D’Arthur.
The collection straddles a huge expanse both in terms of space and time. For instance, The Teahouse or The Mirrors of Iskandar transport us to another era in history (though the latter can be a little underwhelming sometimes); stories such as A Lesson in Objects, The Fall of an Eyelash or The Loss of Muzaffar are written in the realistic tradition and focus on personal or cultural struggles in Time Present, while some like A United Nations in Space are futuristic in outlook. Well-known writer Amitav Ghosh considers it ‘serendipitous’ that he came across this collection when he was preoccupied with the idea of the Anthropocene (geological epoch when human activities began to impact the earth’s atmosphere). Referring to the collection he points out that the stories skilfully break several literary conventions in that sense.
The title story, Swimmer Among the Stars, has for its protagonist the last speaker of a language at whose doorstep ethnographers appear with digital recorders. The narrator says, ‘It simply confirms reality to the last speaker, that the old world of her mind is cut adrift from humans and can only be pulped into a computer.’ Later when she begins to regale her audience with songs in her language, she is grateful to them to have allowed her to ‘feel old’ in her language. There is no one to whom she can bequeath this inheritance: ‘She is proud that nether of her children are vulnerable to false nostalgia […] She would not have them bound to her relic. She would never wish that loneliness upon them.’
The themes of estrangement, loss and loneliness run across all the stories. The author is also obsessed with ideas of speech and language and the inadequacy of words. Storytellers and storytelling form a significant thread in the narrative. Portrait with Coal Fire, for instance, is about a poor miner’s interaction with a magazine reporter/storyteller over Skype, where he fails to comprehend why the writer cannot publish his family’s picture in another issue of the magazine; in The Astrolabe, a ship’s captain finds himself on an island, in a situation reminiscent of Sinbad or Gulliver, where no one speaks Arabic or Greek, Castilian or Majorcan, and he begins to think of the islanders as ‘tongue-less cannibals’. In The Teahouse again, as the city waits to be erased by the Khan’s army, the narrator says, ‘Only the booksellers were out in force, possessed of that blind faith in the text. There will always be books to sell. There will always be people to read.’ In The Mirrors of Iskandar, Iskandar’s retinue tells stories ‘to escape domestic tedium’ during their waiting period.
In spite of the humour on the surface, most of the stories are deeply philosophical and tinged with a sense of helplessness and melancholy. The essence of the book is evident in the words the mahout speaks into the elephant’s ears in the first story: ‘Sleep well, my beauty […] If you dream, don’t dream of home and don’t dream of me. Dream of the sea. You and I are now so alone in this world….’
With brilliantly portrayed characters such as the mahout, Muzaffar, the miner and the stranded sailors amongst others, this is a compelling debut collection that must not be missed.