Stylistically assured, keenly imagined, and written with a poetic receptivity, Kanishk Tharoor’s short fictions A Swimmer Among the Stars accomplish what so little of modern fiction does today: put beauty and wonder into storytelling.
It is not said often enough that India’s first exports were stories, narratives that travelled to, and found roots in, distant lands and cultures, influencing them and being influenced by the devices and machinations of generations of storytellers through whose minds and words they were reimagined and transferred. It certainly was not one-way traffic: the legends and myths from other lands too made their way to India, to be reshaped by Indians’ ingenuity.
The Sikandar Nama or Romance of Alexander was such a legend, retold in the Indian context in different traditions. But “The Mirrors of Iskandar”, the last story in Tharoor’s collection, is not exactly a re-imagination of Alexander’s legend from within a particular cultural perspective. In this retelling we see glimpses from the legend as it exists in different traditions, interpreted by the author, and assembled as fiction in a wholly new snipped-at-both-ends version of the legend.
The cluster of parables titled “Letters Home” record the discoveries, failures and triumphs of humans from various historical eras and mythical records, trying to understand the world that lies beyond the extent of their vision, reach, and experience, and which will change them, as it will be changed by them in their encounter.
Unlike a prince falling in love with the image of a princess, and undergoing trials and travails to find her, in “Elephant at Sea,” a young Moroccan princess falls in love with the image of an Indian elephant. And let me tell you that anyone who has seen the kindly, happy, rounded face of an Indian elephant could easily imagine why the princess would prefer him over his fiercely majestic African brother, whom she certainly had seen in the hundreds. An ambassadorial providence grants the princess her wish to have an Indian elephant, and the beast is dispatched from India, once the bureaucratic providence is done with due diligence, in a good six years, by which time the princess had grown up and lost all interest in the object of her desire and was already studying sociology in Paris.
The image of the elephant in the ship’s hold, “mimicking the sound of the [ship’s] engines, as if through imitation it could bridge the divide between thought and matter and speak with the grey monstrosity of the ship,” and the elephant playing by the seaside are brilliantly imagined and rendered. The world begins to change by slow degrees into one observed and experienced by the elephant. There is a happy ending – please let me give away the ending of this story, at least – with the elephant introduced to philosophy and champagne by the princess, although one did wish she had not subjected the poor guy to critical theory.
I have the terrible habit of giving away the ending of other writers’ stories so I’ll stop here. In the process of writing the review I communicated with Kanishk Tharoor by email to resolve certain matters, and inquire about other stuff in the works. Here is the correspondence, reproduced in full. Just as I suspected, producing good fiction is relatively simple.
MAF: Tell us all there is to know about fiction writing and such.
KT: You turn on your laptop, open a fresh document, fill the room with monkeys, let them tap away at the keyboard, leave, and close the door behind you. Couple of hours later, the first draft of the story is done, and just needs some polishing. Cleaning up a monkey-infested room, however, is harder. I wish writers didn’t make such a terrible mess.
MAF: What are we going to read next from you? Do I hear a novel?
KT: I am working on a novel, but the next thing from me is actually something you can listen to... I’m presenting a radio series on BBC that airs at the end of February, called the Museum of Lost Objects. It’s about antiquities that have been destroyed in Iraq and Syria in recent years, and it conjures them through some really wonderful personal narratives that we’ve found.
MAF: A door-stopper or a slim volume one could slide under a door?
KT: The novel will be somewhere in between. I wish it could be slim – I love short novels, probably my favourite form – but looks like it’ll have to be longer.
MAF: Was there any guiding principle in putting this collection together? Were there any stories kept from inclusion in this collection?
KT: With maybe one exception, I think all the stories are united by tone and imaginative mood. If I excluded stories it was probably more out of a sense that they weren’t ready yet than thematic consistency.
MAF: The stories or narratives have a beginning, middle and an end, in the sense that an opportune moment has been selected to begin the narration and by the end of the narrative the possibilities of that story have been exhausted.
KT: Maybe that comes across in the reading, but I don’t know if that’s always true in the writing. Part of the trouble I have with some short stories is that things can shift so easily with just a few changes here and there that there is no sense of narrative exhaustion, and I have to wrestle an end as elegantly as possible onto the beast.
MAF: Was this particular style of writing or tone employed because it was suited to the subject being explored?
KT: Yes, but I also think this is the tone I feel most comfortable writing in generally... gentle but sweeping, lyrical but slightly aloof, and so forth. I like to think that I’m channelling something older, that my stories are flecked by the firelight of the storyteller and older ways of telling. I don’t know if that’s really what’s happening, but I suppose it’s an aspiration of my work. That said, though my stories take up imaginative subjects, they’re still written in a realist mode. But that tone that I’ve described is I think nimble enough to talk about diplomats in space or a ship in the Antarctic or reimagine Alexander the Great in all his glory and humiliations.
MAF: Is this style significantly different from what you are using in the novel under progress, or is it more the kind of subjects that appeal to you, and the style and idiom that suits them?
KT: At least in parts, it is the same. But the novel has different challenges, and I’m adapting to them, so we’ll see...
KT: I guess the last few answers put you to sleep. My apologies.
MAF: No, awake! I would like to report that my personal favourites are “Elephant and Sea,” “Letters Home,” and “The Mirrors of Iskandar,” but I also very much loved “A Lesson In Objects” for how the whole edifice of desire was brought crashing down on our poor hero by the lovely villain. Only a cook could be so controlled and methodical.
KT: To be honest, I think I imagined it as a more bumbling, young, helpless cruelty, but if readers see method in it, so be it! (And I’m too very fond of “Letters Home” and “The Mirrors of Iskandar”, glad you liked them.)
MAF: Who are your favourite dead authors?
KT: This is the prompt where I often list a bunch of eminent Southern European and South American writers, thank the folklorists of the 19th century, and nod at medieval poets and the composers of ancient epics. But in terms of the sheer accumulated pleasure his work has given me over the course of my life and how much it excited my imagination at a young age, I’ll just list JRR Tolkien.
MAF: What are you reading?
KT: I’m travelling at the moment, and have three books with me: Ivan Turgenev’s A Hunter’s Sketches; the Historical Atlas of the Celtic World; and Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings.
MAF: The recipe for masala chai lacks cinnamon! Why hold this spice? How do you explain yourself?
KT: An unforgivable oversight, but not one that I’m guilty of outside the page, thankfully!
MAF: Any thoughts on how cats became such a huge internet phenomenon?
KT: I think this is a question better asked Nilanjana Roy, who has made them a literary phenomenon too.
Swimmer Among the Stars, Kanishk Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.
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