The Cripple and His Talismans | Anosh Irani
A breathless volley of words
I first came across Anosh Irani’s The Cripple And His Talismans when I was self-exiled in a cold North American town far away from home. According to the back flap, Irani had been born and brought up in Mumbai, but had emigrated to Canada, where his book was published.
Reading his insouciantly fantastic story of a self-absorbed man in search of his missing arm was like hearing someone crack a joke in a language I’d grown used to hearing only inside my head. His version of Bombay as surreal and stark and serendipitous was not exactly the Mumbai I used to visit on summer vacations, but it was less bombastically prescriptive than the Outsider tour guides written in books like Shantaram and Maximum City. Some measure of his words were allocated for the Anglo reader, requiring translation, but enough were unexplained—gestures made as habit, not performance, for an audience that knew what khopcha and bun-maska and the “tip-top” finger sign were.
Rereading back home in Delhi a book published in 2004 and only just released in the subcontinent of its setting, I am afforded the luxury of being more critical. This is a book that manages, by sheer poetic craft, to rise above the Orientalist clichés that comprise its individual ingredients. Besides a solipsistic and wretched bully of a narrator, the story features lepers, mysterious eunuchs, criminal babas, squalid streets with beggars and dogs and shady cigarette stalls. The three women with speaking parts are a mourning widow, an adulterous mother and a tragically-beautiful prostitute. In case the exotic India button has not been hit hard enough, there are also safaris into Mughal kingdoms, Bollywood films, sheesha smoking, chor bazaars, fake folk tales about talking animals, government bureaucracy, gangsters, and (pre-dating a certain Oscar-winning film) examinations of the shitting habits of slum dwellers.
The story, however, is fundamentally an experience in language poetics. His unnamed first-person protagonist narrates the tale in many tongues. The English of missionary schools: “It is sometimes more convenient to raze lives than raise them.” The English of the bilingual code-switcher: “What tea, Munni! Class. Too good.” And the English that is actually translated back and forth between the shared cultural lexicon of the author, reader and character: “No electricity? What you are talking, madam! If we did not have electricity, would I be shocked at your questions?” Irani’s translations are not always satisfactory, especially when portraying the poor, but he hits moments of jagged delight with prose sharp as diamond cutters often enough so that for those sentences alone the book is worth reading. “Dawn breaks. It breaks the poor first.”
Similar to stories written by other men about cities they plunder like a mistress and praise like a muse—Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere, China Mieville in his “weird fiction”, Irani’s setting sways on the scaffolding of his words above his characters.
Irani’s imaginary Bombay sits not next to Rushdie’s meticulously historical Midnight’s Children but rather, the idealized and demonized city of Kahani, in Haroun And the Sea of Stories. The allegories are real, but the identities are blurry. In a city where religious and linguistic identities have caused riots, the narratorial disregard to details is what makes the tale unreal. Though there are coffins for fingers and flowers for Sai Baba, we do not know if the protagonist after death will be buried, burnt or eaten by vultures.
Irani’s city is the tiny world of a person living in Town where local trains can get lost in the murky margins of stations too remote to warrant names, and where no autorickshaws exist. It is a time without mobile phones or cable TV, before multi-drug leprosy treatment and multiplexes. It is a space where disabled bodies can be turned into metaphors and where whores and eunuchs exist, but sex workers and transgendered hijras do not.
In discourses around genre there are two common dividing lines. Authorial identity separates the atheist straight white dudes writing SFF and the erotica-peddling white women writing paranormal romance from the translated brown people who believe in ghosts and multiple gods and write magical realism. Narrative agenda meanwhile claims that escapism via soul-bonding animal companions is fantasy, allegory via dystopian cyborgs is literary fiction and social chastisement via talking parrots is post-colonial literature. And though “horror” is only applied to books about zombies and not, say, genocidal pogroms, Irani’s appropriation of the madness within Mumbai might as well be filed under that category. Because every fetishized ritual of poverty and lyrical voyeurism of violence in the book is matched by the spectre of our daily newspaper with its gang-rape headlines and luxury condominium advertisements. For every pathetic, grotesque soul caricatured as violator or victim, there is the reality of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil (and conversely, of good).
Neither the moral nor the metaphor in this tale carries through to a sustained conclusion, but well-written novels do not need well-argued theses to be worth reading. Read it for the audacity of a wordsmith who sets out to write a prose poem of the fantastic, mythic, horrible and hilarious memories he has of a city he once knew, and like a tennis player returning more volleys than he drops, manages to keep breathless and wondrous. Because it is the way the game is being played, and not the outcome, that counts.