Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | When innocence meets adversity and cliques clash with character

Deccan Chronicle.| Kinshuk Gupta

Published on: October 29, 2022 | Updated on: October 29, 2022
Cover photo of 'The Bellboy' by Anees Salim (Photo by arrangement)

Cover photo of 'The Bellboy' by Anees Salim (Photo by arrangement)

In the first 100-or-so-odd pages of William Faulkner's landmark novel The Sound and the Fury, we look at the world through Benjy Compson's eyes - the youngest son of the Compson family, and an intellectually slow child. Younger sister Caddy's accomplice, and unable to wrap his head around the abstract concept of time, Benjy is the only one able to smell the decline of the family, even Quentin's suicide, but is unable to communicate it to anyone around him, crying being his only respite.

Looking at the world through the lenses of characters like these transforms our experience. We become acutely aware of its bounties, excesses, or callousness. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Blind Lady's Descendants in 2018, Anees Salim, in his most recent novel The Bellboy, uses a similar approach, except that here Latif, the central neurodivergent character, doesn't double as a narrator. The presence of an omniscient third-person narrator, however, makes differences between the two 'worlds' look subtle, which, I believe, is one of the many strengths of this novel.

In the opening pages, we see Latif negotiating with the manager of the antithetical Paradise Lodge, "who never ceased to remind Latif of a savage-looking footballer". A resident of the sinking Manto Island that looks like a bra on the map, Latif, is forced to join there as a bellboy - a lodge where people check in to commit suicide. Page after page, the spectre of death looms large in Salim's seventh novel, and so the stark inability of Latif to make his way through the world becomes more evident.

While the premise of the novel is a familiar one - and one might also be tempted to call it a "coming-of-age story" - what sets it apart are frequent forays into Latif's convoluted brain that through simplistic (but skewed) logic invites troubles. "I wanted to be an ambassador of marginalised people and tell their story," says Salim about the need to model the protagonist like him. "Latif is neurodivergent. He is the easiest victim."

Our earliest encounter with his innocence happens when he steals the actor's white shirt at the top of the stack of clothes after his fateful suicide. He keeps it tucked to his chest but constantly imagines somebody following him, and later, to absolve himself of the guilt, drowns it in the river.

Except for janitor Stella, who listens intently to him, he shares a transactional relationship with the rest of the world, even with his mother and two younger sisters. Salim seems to be intentionally painting a grim, brutish picture of the world around Latif, whose contorted sense of 'right' and 'wrong' ironically stands counterpoint to the maligned humans that surround him. His mother is far from the ideal - taking advantage of her husband's death to land Latif a stable government job by bawling melodramatically at the Camp Office. Following his uncle's sudden death, when the house is drowned in grief, she sneaks out of the house and orders Latif to go to work, stating "nobody will get to know about your absence". His classmates return just to take revenge for a pencil jab during school. His father dies an untimely death after being violently drowned by the officer who had come to survey the island for possible signs of decay.
Religious divide registers subtly in the novel, and so does Salim's concern about the environment and ecology. The manager's Hindu identity is dealt with in a light-handed manner with the mention of the red thread tied to his wrist, which we dare to think of as a wasted opportunity initially, when suddenly after a few fifty pages, we are taken by surprise: "Every time he looked at [the mop handle], he saw the hand that wielded it, the saffron thread on the wrist. He felt the absence of the thread would have made the retribution less painful, much less insulting."
The way Latif cooks up stories to tell Stella during lunch about his alter-ego Ibru - a chivalric, tender-hearted boy who lets people have their way - remains one of the most heartbreaking sections of the novel, repeatedly reminding us of the free-spirited heart of the boy which we tend to forget in the wake of his tomfoolery. Even his coming-of-age story never feels cliched. The adolescent confusion, experimenting with condoms, masturbation, and the first flush of attraction, while feeling oddly familiar, read distinctly, as Latif doesn't adhere to usual norms but devises his own unique ways. For example, when he feels attracted to Georgie, the Christian girl from the group who has come to visit the seminary on their island, he is unable to articulate his emotions. He stabs her arm with a sharp pencil and runs away.

While the novel eventually becomes political, mirroring our dystopian present, what works for me is Latif's transformation from an insignificant chap to the breadwinner of the family. Something in him hardens once he realises that he earns for the family, as is the case with most men in typical middle-class households. Not raising his voice as a child, he even beats his younger sister with a stick after a particularly bad day at work. However, even after earning money, doesn't disability continue to weigh in, the novel seems to be asking.

The Bellboy
By Anees Salim
pp. 232, Rs 599

About The Author

Kinshuk Gupta is the associate editor for Usawa Literary Review and the poetry editor for Jaggery Lit and Mithila Review.

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