Anti-Clock by V.J. James is a portrait of a grief-stricken man through the lens of his occupation. The novel, translated from the Malayalam by Minithy S, tells the story of Hendri, a coffin maker. In this novel, James demonstrates the way in which religion messily permeates the life of his protagonist.
Each chapter begins with a verse from the Bible, and the book itself begins with Hendri’s explanation of his ritual around Biblical verses – a ritual he associated with his father. He says that his father instructed him to always skip seven lines and then begin reading the Bible, which he did even on the day his father died, in accordance with his wishes.
Almost immediately after this explanation, we are told that Hendri’s daily habit of reading these Biblical verses means little to his actual piety and religious soundness. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel. What Anti-Clock does masterfully is trace the lines of living in close proximity to religion and the cracks that form along the way.
Hendri almost immediately admits to us his religious fault lines when he says, “I have a wicked intent that goes against the teachings of the Scriptures,” going on to talk about his desire to kill the person he calls Satan Loppo. Hendri’s anger, melancholy and grief are expressed to us in haunting and striking ways. “Wasn’t my shop a big coffin, housing someone who was long dead?” he asks no one in particular, without providing any answers.
Hendri laments the fact that his business depends on the deaths of others, that his livelihood is built on grief. “Whenever the bell chimed death, a ray of hope arose in our hearts,” he says in guilt-soaked prose. We get the sense that his occupation is tied up with many things— his family legacy being a major factor.
Anti Clock creates a world within the coffin shop that Hendri owns, and cloisters us within it, almost as if we, as readers, are trapped in a coffin of the protagonist’s guilt and grief. The space of the coffin itself becomes important in the novel. Hendri remembers what he told his fearful wife: “A coffin keeps you safe like a womb and rocks you to sleep like a cradle”.
He also recalls them making a coffin their “love-nest” after she stops fearing coffins. In Anti Clock, coffins become a space for sex and debauchery as well as a space of death. Coffins house sexual encounters, mouse-tails, premature death wishes.
Friendship and family are inextricable from each other in Anti-Clock. Hendri says that as a coffin maker who inherited his occupation from his father, he also inherited his friendship with the grave-digger, Antappan from his father, who was friends with Antappan’s father. Of their friendship, Hendri says “The glue that binds us together is the corpse that connects the coffin to the grave”.
The two friends remember their fathers, and ritualise this remembering. “We would sit atop a grave in which the dead slept and guzzle liquor in the potent presence of souls” Their ritual around their fathers also took place in the presence of these souls. Hendri’s attachment to Antappan comes not only from their long friendship, but also from shared experiences.
He recounts Antappan’s anguish at having to exhume his father’s remains from his grave as a part of his job, in order to make space for other graves. The cruelty of professions dealing with death is also reflected in Hendri’s life – in the heartbreak of having to make coffins for his wife and children.
Someone else that Hendri seems to connect with is Pundit. The first thing we are told about him is that he too, has outlived his loved ones, and that like Hendri, he lives a solitary life. Through the way James narrates his protagonist and characterises Antappan and Pundit, and lays out the things Hendri notices about them, we understand more about the protagonist’s framework of understanding and deep-seated sadness. In many ways, Anti-Clock is littered with those who want desperately to control things that they cannot.
The plots pivots around the Anti-Clock itself – a device of the Pundit’s making. The Pundit and Hendri are deeply engrossed in the process of making the Anti-Clock, which moves time backwards. Hendri’s eagerness to rewind time, to avenge the losses he has suffered come through often.
“Of one fact, I was sure: the Anti-Clock intrigued me tremendously. I felt a rushing eagerness to know whether it would start chomping up time, starting slowly at first before grinding away at it vigorously”, he says. The novel continues by exploring the space of Aadi Nadu and the way in which time, death, modernity and emotion are entangled within one another.
Anti-Clock is a series of vignettes that form a picture of a complicated man’s complicated relationship with religion. It deals with the pragmaticisation of faith in daily life and all the shades of grey that it brings about. Hendri’s life is beset with all manner of engagements with death, time, guilt and grief – James dextrously weaves these engagements into the space of the coffin shop in Aadi Nadu and the compelling narrative that he weaves around Hendri and the people around him.
Anti-Clock, VJ James, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S, Vintage.