Book review

Sadness is devastatingly beautiful in Anees Salim’s new novel (or is it his imagined life?)

A dying man teaches his son to walk alone so that he can hold the family together afterwards.

Before I start my review of Anees Salim’s fifth novel, The Small-Town Sea, I have a reminder for sadness. Sadness, the next time you decide to come to me, make sure you have crossed paths with Anees Salim before you catch up with me.

I – or anyone, for that matter – cannot avoid sadness. At some point in our lives, we have to be touched by sadness, and I want to be touched by a sadness that is Anees Salimesque (if I could invent a term like this). There should be beauty and humour in my sadness. My sadness should have a taste – maybe “a dry, citrous tang”, like Salim’s sadness has in his novel – so that I would be able to savour my sadness as long as it lasts and not just wish it away.

The Small-Town Sea is, as the title suggests, set in an unnamed small town and a sea, an unnamed sea that, “in a way, had been a neighbour” to that small town. That sea was “almost a living thing; restless, sleepless and famous for its mood swings.” At the heart of this story set in a small town by a sea is a young boy on the throes of adolescence and a family crisis. His father – who, “[apart from eking] a living out of writing advertisements”, was also a reputed and award-winning author who wrote in English and not in his mother tongue – is dying of cancer.

Sea of memories

The boy’s family was based in a city where his author-advertising professional father used to work, a city where tracks for a new metro railway service were being laid down. But the family of four – the boy, his parents, whom he called Vappa (father) and Umma (mother), and his infant sister, whom they called Little – relocate to the seaside hometown as the father wants to die in the town where he had grown up.

They rent a house named Bougainvillea on a sea-facing cliff. The boy joins a local school where he befriends a happy-go-lucky orphan named Bilal, the father attends to his treatment and meets his childhood friends, the father dies in his hometown as he had wanted, and the boy finds himself confronted with newer challenges.

The Small-Town Sea is the story of a family, of the bond between a father and a son, of two friends from absolutely disparate backgrounds – and it weaves a tapestry of memories and anecdotes which are so personal and intimate that they made me wonder how much of it was real and how much imagined. The story is told through the voice of the boy who has been lifted out of his life in a big city and dropped into a small town by a sea.

Salim’s last novel, The Blind Lady’s Descendants, was told in the form of a suicide note – a novel-length suicide note by the narrator, Amar Hamsa. The Small-Town Sea is told by the boy, first, in the prologue, in the form of a cover letter addressed to a literary agent based in London who had declined to represent the boy’s father, and then, as a novel written in the form of a casual letter to – or just a conversation with – that same London-based literary agent.

The conclusions are irresistible.

For Salim works in an advertising agency in Kochi – a seaside city in the state of Kerala where the metro rail service was opened to general public just a few days ago – but his roots are in scenic Varkala, a small town, a beach destination on the Arabian Sea a little north of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala.

A life in fiction

In the Acknowledgements, Salim thanks his son Omar, “whose voice [he] secretly borrowed to tell this story”. Salim dedicates this novel to Adah, his daughter, who was born a couple years ago. And the difference in the ages of the boy – the narrator of The Small-Town Sea – and of Little is remarkably close to Salim’s real life.

Salim’s struggles with literary agents based in the UK and the USA before the Delhi-based Kanishka Gupta got him immediate, back-to-back deals on his first four novels has now become a minor legend. The similarities between Salim’s own life and the lives of his characters in this novel are obvious.

As a resident of Kerala and a native Malayalam speaker, Salim could have written his books in Malayalam, but he chose to write in English.

And the politics of language and how differently Indian authors whose first language is not English but who choose to write in it are seen in the vernacular language media in India is revealed right at the beginning of the novel.

Didn’t he contribute enough to literature to have his death reported on the front page? But hadn’t much water flowed under the literary bridge since he won that prize? Would the fact that he wrote in English and not in his mother tongue make the local newspapers push the news of his passing to an inner page?

The dying father wished to die in his hometown. That was a wish that could be fulfilled. But how could one influence the obituaries that would appear in vernacular language newspapers after his death? Was it just a dying author’s wish in a novel, or is it a wish embedded somewhere deep inside Salim’s own being? Does writing in English and not in Malayalam affect Salim’s own life in some way?

The happiness that vernacular language newspapers cannot give the dying author comes, as he waited for his death, from delayed fan mail.

“The letter said very nice things about a book Vappa had written long ago. Vappa read it twice; once aloud like a story for children, the second time quietly like a prayer…Vappa put the letter beneath the mattress and lay down on the bed with a strange smile on his face, and if he died in his sleep that would have been the perfect ending for him.”

Acceptance. Perhaps that is all most writers want. Acceptance and acknowledgement of their work – no matter which language it might be in. Yet, despite everything, there is a little something more that every person – and not only a writer – yearns for. Is it so easy to achieve that little something?

Salim’s engagement with memories and the way memories return to the boy’s mind is worth a mention. After moving home, “each room he entered seemed to have memories instead of furniture”.

At one other point, the boy visualises the journeys that memories make in the mind as a trail of his mother’s menstrual blood:

“The trail of blood ended on the blue cushion that had travelled with us from the city to the cliff. Just like the sewing machine, or the many sticks of furniture, or like so many memories.”

As long as the father is alive, he is seen as a man who doesn’t speak much, even to his son, and has certain wishes that might not be fulfilled. Yet, in an emotional scene set in a “secret beach” that the boy discovers, it turns out to be the boy whom the father has pinned all his hopes upon. After his death, the father wishes to see the boy hold the family together.

When the boy takes a boat ride into the sea, the father is afraid.

“‘What would have happened if the boat had sunk?...Who would be there to look after Little when I am gone?’”

On their way home from the secret beach, the father asks the boy to not walk alongside him.

“You should walk either ahead of me or behind me,” he tells the boy. When the boy asks why, the father says, “You should learn to walk alone.”

After the death of the father, Salim, through the eyes of the boy, takes a look at the broken family – now consisting of just three members – through a “family” of mannequins placed in a readymade garment shop:

There was a whole family of mannequins in the shop window. A family of four, just like us if Vappa had still been around – a couple, a boy and a little girl with twin ponytails…I always wondered how this family could have ended up in, of all places, this small town. They must have travelled in trucks from far-off cities, or in the brake van of a long-distance train, or even in a cargo ship from a neighbouring country. They probably did not travel together, did not even know each other until they were put in a shop window and ordered to paint the picture of a happy family.

The boy’s family does not seem happy. It is understood that it is difficult to be happy when a loved one is suffering from a terminal illness. And there is more sadness and heartbreak the boy and his mother have to face after the death of the father.

Is it possible to gauge the depths of Anees Salim’s sadness for being able to write two devastating yet devastatingly beautiful novels in a row? No, it is not for me to do that. Nor is it my job to measure how many pages in The Small-Town Sea are a reflection of Salim’s own life, what hopes and insecurities he harbours in his heart.

It is also not possible for me to order my sadness to be Anees Salimesque. All I can ask is that if sadness were as beautiful as it is in The Small-Town Sea, I would like to be a character in a novel by Anees Salim.

The Small-Town Sea, Anees Salim, Penguin Random House.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.