‘The Odd Book Of Baby Names’ Captures The Essence Of Dysfunctional Family

The book by Anees Salim chronicles the life of a dying patriarch told from the point of view of his eight children, who think of their father in different ways, some with bitterness, some with love, some with admiration, and some with indifference.

Anees Salim writes with measured pace, assured fluency and considerable imagination. Reading him is akin to listening to Indian classical music, soothing and melodious. Anees is a writer’s writer, and writers adore him as they get to learn so many things. And, like his previous novels, his latest one is equally incisive and nuanced. A compelling tragedy, The Odd Book of Baby Names has a historical background and is narrated by multiple voices.

Anees’ wordplay is so fascinating that you at times forget the story and characters and just relish his beautiful writing. Let’s taste a bit from the novel: “As a thin ribbon of smoke rose from the edge, something stirred in me, and I slapped the book against the railing until small specks of fire fell to the floor and died down. It was not just a book of baby names. It was an unusual memoir; my father was leaving behind, memories condensed into names; memories of many kisses, lovemaking, panting and feeling spent.

Now, let’s talk about the plot. Anees’s latest novel, set in the mid-1960s in an unnamed location with enough hints to suggest it is Hyderabad and its last king that is being fictionalised, effectively captures the decaying world of a king and his kingdom, the authority he once had over his people and courtiers is now have declined. Not only that but also his physical health as well as mental health is on the downhill. The novel also captures the lives of his eight offsprings, most of them born out of wedlock as the King lies dying. Through these characters, we get to know the different facets of the King’s personality.

Is the story of the king a metaphor for how the hoi polloi have to go through hardship for the decisions made by today’s leadership in the heat of the moment.

The Odd Book of Baby Names also chronicles the life of a dying patriarch told from the point of view of his eight children, who think of their father in different ways, some with bitterness, some with love, some with admiration, and some with indifference. The book begins at Cotah Mahal, where the obese and always inebriated Moazzam, his other legitimate son, is having a bath, serenaded by hundreds of sparrows. A sudden shriek sees him exiting the tub and running down the palace corridors, “wearing only the armour of lather and a few accidental prettifications by way of rose petals.” The news of their father’s death, fake though it turns out to be, brings Moazzam and Azam, who dislike each other, to his chamber. We also learn that Azam is rather obsessed with this book of baby names. The many emotions are treated so precisely in this book that you will be submerged.

Can a life be like a jigsaw puzzle, pieces waiting to be conjoined? Like a game of hide-and-seek?

Like playing statues?

Can memories have colour?

Can the sins of the father survive his descendants?

In a family—is it a family if they don’t know it?—that does not rely on the weakness of memory, runs a strange register of names. The Odd Book of Baby Names has been custom-made on palace stationery for the patriarch, an eccentric king, one of the last kings of India, who dutifully records in it the names of his offspring. As he bitterly draws his final breaths, eight of his one hundred rumoured children trace the savage lies of their father and reckon with the burdens of their lineage.

This novel, The Odd Book of Baby Names, gives a touch of whimsy to a multi-voice narrative that manages to be sad, humorous, wise, playful, and, most importantly, highly engaging. The story revolves around a dying patriarch and his offspring, who remember him with various degrees of love, resentment, apathy, and hatred. Within this book is another small book in which the king has written down the names of his countless children. Only two of them are legitimate, the others being born out of wedlock. Anees Salim, a gifted writer, has attained a pinnacle with this magnificent work of sentimentalism.

Layered with multiple perspectives and cadences, each tale is recounted in sharp, tantalising vignettes. This is a rich tapestry of narratives and a kaleidoscopic journey into the dysfunctional heart of the Indian family. Written with the lightness of comedy and the seriousness of tragedy, the playfulness of an inventive riddle and the intellectual heft of a philosophical undertaking, The Odd Book of Baby Names is Anees Salim’s most ambitious novel yet.

This book is undoubtedly about loss, be it the loss of power, the loss of hope, the loss of love, the loss of memories, and, most importantly, the loss of connection. Though all of the characters in this novel are siblings, they take various courses, live different lives, many of them remain unknown to each other, and each is doomed to carry a sense of emptiness till the end. Their common ancestor is a sensation of bereavement. Nothing extraordinary happens, but all the small incidents that a common man experiences are there in the book in vivid colour. For those who enjoy mature, serious literature, Anees has written yet another great book.

Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bangalore-based Management Consultant, Literary Critic, and Co-director of the Kalinga Literary Festival. You can reach him at ashutoshbthakur@gmail.com.