by Tamara Kaye Sellman
The Cripple And His Talismans, by Anosh Irani
I haven't read a good puzzle in a while, so it was a pleasure to travel through the riddled bowels of Bombay with Anosh Irani's privileged protagonist as the young man seeks to find his missing arm.
Yes, you read that right. The nameless narrator has mysteriously lost his arm and now, like so many others with missing parts, he's tracing his way through the dark labyrinth of an overpopulated city with the idea that he will find his missing left limb.
I found this magical realist title in 2005 at the Word on the Street literary festival in Vancouver, BC. Winding my way through the sprawling street far, it seems fitting now that I should have come upon a reader's tent where a performance was in progress: it was author Anosh Irani, who sampled with wonderful animation a section of his book for the audience, and with such acidic charm that I had to buy it. Being an editor and book reviewer, the much-desired book entered the queue of "so many books, so little time" and only now have I had the pleasure of reading and reflecting upon it.
Irani's sense of humor is oxymoronic: compassionate and wicked at once. His protagonist isn't someone you'd pick out as having good karma: a man of privilege who used to beat up little boys and, even now, uses the "power" of his crippling to mess with the heads of waiters in tea shops. But there are moments in the story which redeem him, like the time he gives the beggar boy five coins after a fat woman in a taxi refuses to do so while waiting in traffic (how interesting that a world so overcrowded could still be missing so much). It is the first time the protagonist, who comes to think of himself as a "novice" cripple, begins to understand how his kindness to the beggar boy mirrors something redeemable in himself.
Mostly, though, the protagonist winds his way through these avenues intent only upon solving riddles so that he may be reunited with his arm: it is the only thing that feeds his will to live (an hysterical scene where he fails to complete his own suicide mission confirms to the reader what the protagonist has wanted since childhood: to die).
Irani's tale is built upon a foundation of several variants and storytelling techniques inherent to magical realism. The missing arm (and the fact that our unlikely hero is nameless) is metaphoric of the condition of modern India, a place where bits and pieces of the whole body of that nation continue to mysteriously fall through the cracks, thanks to absurd hierarchies of bureaucracy which aim to meet all of the needs of its citizenry, but which still fall woefully short. In example, the protagonist's inquiry into state mental health services leads him to a dead end phone dialog with a high-end coffin maker.
One of the chief narrative conceits of this book is the way in which the reader enters almost every chapter believing that the protagonist must be dreaming:
I look to the sky in absolute delight, for I know that God is about
to throw me an arm. Instead of rain, arms will fall to earth, separately
and in pairs, in different coloured skins, in various shapes and sizes.
All cripples can pick and choose, and take a few home with them in
case of damage or wear and tear.
The dreamlike quality of each of his various singular ventures in the quest to find his arm continually makes the reader wonder when or whether the man is going to wake up and find his arm reattached (which doesn't happen, but trust me, that's not much of a spoiler).
Because of this dreamlike quality in the narrative, the reader can't help but question other details within the landscape which support the idea that the story isn't being told in the real world or in the world of the literally fantastic, but in a space between:
Three black and yellow taxis are stuck behind a water tanker, which
has Beware of Dreams written on it. Why only dreams? It is better to
be wary of everything.
It is as if Irani himself is warning readers to pay attention not only to the obvious departures from reality in his liminal world, but also to the little clues left to us in everyday waking life.
Another successful narrative technique in Cripple is Irani's insertion of bits and pieces of fable which inform the notion of disembodiment. The reader knows from the prologue that the journey of this nameless character is going to be less about the recovery of the arm and more about the inherent lesson of going without, of finding an identity even as parts of it have been sliced clean away from his body.
Irani's writing is bold, gorgeous, vulgar, and acerbic all at once, and I heartily recommend this book to fans of The Arabian Nights or the convoluted works of Jorge Luis Borges, for the storytelling in The Cripple And His Talismans is spectacular and the twists and turns (literally) gritty, yet simultaneously filled with marvel and irony. Every page merits a laugh out loud, so make sure you read this where such behavior is acceptable!
Story Copyright © 2008 by Tamara Kaye Sellman. All rights reserved.
Previous: Scheherazade's Children by Jenni Fagan
About the author
Tamara Kaye Sellman is the publisher of Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism (www.magical-realism.com) and director of MRCentral.net, an interactive membership celebrating literary magical realism worldwide.