Relegated to a life of loneliness inside a coffin shop replete with dust, spiders, and mice, Hendri is building a coffin to lower down his sworn enemy, Satan Loppo. Tethered to this plot is the novel of Malayali novelist and short-story writer, V.J. James, Anti Clock, which was shortlisted for the JCB Prize last year.
Hendri, a widower, is an erratic character fraught with confusion and contradiction. With prose that is unadorned and gripping, we are transported into the head of the man and get cloistered in his ruminations. For once he is a brutal killer. But soon he gets trapped in an unending maze of self-loathing.
"The Yama in me was struck by a mischievous fancy then. I caught hold of the tail which was extending through the coffin's fissure and yanked it…Since the box was meant for Satan Loppo, I had always imagined his body inside. His body, too, was forbiddingly dark and furry like that of a mouse. Satan could assume any form, couldn't he?"
He ponders over the irony of being a coffin maker, especially a poor one, who gets to celebrate Christmas only when the other family is bereft of it. The celebration that comes at the cost of bereavement. On times when he is not overcome with revenge from Loppo — who molested his wife Beatrice — he is subsumed by guilt stemming from his timid father who would light a candle every day.
And as the novel progresses, we learn that it is not only personal rivalry, but is also fuelled by Loppo's occupation as the owner of most quarries in the village. The village of Aadi Nadu, Aadi meaning the beginning in Sanskrit, once bustled with roaring rivers and folded mountains. But the widely prevalent practice of mining has ripped off the village of its natural bounties. Loppo, who is the personification of every wrongdoer, is one of the central metaphors of this novel.
Hendri's only outing seems to be the occasional late-night drinking session with Antappan — one of his two friends, coincidentally a gravedigger, who works in close tandem with Hendri. He had to exhume his own father's bones when the cemetery ran out of space, thereby allowing the coffins of the rich to be buried.
Such characters populate the entire novel; their contradictions deeply rooted in the sociocultural milieu propelling the plot ahead: Gracy, a rival coffin-maker’s wife who heralds quite a revolution by becoming the first and only woman coffin-maker; Kapyar, the appam-maker who fashions the sacramental bread inside the Osthippura; Anthony, the patron saint who is the finder of lost things; David and Shari, lovebirds famous for their corny love.
Hendri's placement as the protagonist of the novel changes when we meet his second friend, Pundit. A 102-year-old, a watchmaker by profession, Pundit, was a part of Netaji's INA and credited with saving his life. He is working tirelessly to build an Anti–Clock. A clock that can reverse time to allow our happy inhabitation in the past. After which the plot almost moves like a hurtling train, and after a series of events, concludes with the showdown between Hendri and Satan Loppo.
Through this entire journey, the novel tries to unfold strands that have had a significant impact on the history of Kerala. For example, there is a mention of displacement of Adivasis and harm to the pristine environment following the construction of Neyyar Dam. What caught my attention was the way the author depicts the intersection between church and communism. Each chapter starts with a phrase from the Bible that we are told in the very first chapter Hendri reads before sleeping — opening any random page and leaving seven lines from the top. Revolutionary songs and slogans blare in the background in Anti-Clock, and the communist and trade union movements are represented in the form of Karuna, a man who refuses to bend to market forces.
The translation does justice to most parts, trying to distinctly capture the nuances in speech patterns of these characters. Hendri's voice during remorse and revenge can be heard distinctly. But this is not to say that it doesn't stagger — a daft word choice or a clunky sentence makes you think that it could have benefitted from the incisive eyes of an editor.
In the end, one thinks if choosing grave-diggers and coffin-makers as the main characters came from just being fascinated by the profession. The subtle and cohesive connections that the author makes between them require a great deal of craft and multiple rounds of edits. For instance, the coffin hints toward boxes around which we build our lives. Hendri's shop feels similar to a coffin. The thought of revenge has coffin-ed the life pulsating inside him. He even contemplates, "Wasn't my shop a big coffin, housing someone who was long dead?
James' seventh novel, and second to be translated into English, is a deep meditation on time and the chaos that ensues when it is annihilated.
Kinshuk Gupta is the associate editor for Usawa Literary Review and the poetry editor for Jaggery Lit and Mithila Review.
By V.J. James
Translated by Ministhy S.
pp. 304, Rs.399