The book title arrests the reader with its sheer quirkiness and an instant image of a young man doing the butterfly stroke in space amidst celestial bodies floods the mind. In keeping with the title, the 12 short stories authored by Kanishk Tharoor in the book Swimmer Among the Stars lead the reader down a cliff edge path of reason. No two stories in this collection move around any common focal point; as is the case of most short story collections, every work of writing appears to travel along independent, arbitrary and skewed orbits.
The first story begins with the journey of an elephant from Kerala to Morocco. Dispatched to pander to the whims of an elephant-loving princess, the protagonist proves to be a savvy, sea-loving pachyderm, handling the long journey with more aplomb than its morose mahout. In direct contrast to this endearing story is the futuristic ‘A United Nations in Space’, where a coterie of international diplomats drift around in space even as they look down and witness their planet being systematically ravaged by natural calamities and man-made disasters. The zero gravity conditions on board are conducive to conversation, music, table tennis and whisky drinking; a couple of representatives even attempt ballroom dancing!
Another departure from the predictable is the story ‘The Loss of Muzaffar’, which talks about the amazing culinary prowess of Muzaffar, the jealously guarded cook of the Celestinis. Set against the backdrop of the toppling of New York’s towers and a stash of family emeralds, the story snakes towards an astonishing end. Tharoor’s prose is exquisite: “Muzaffar, too, didn’t grow older, only his eyebrows evidenced the passing of time. They billowed and turned a quiet silver, two rain clouds above the doldrums of his eyes.”
‘The Astrolabe’ skims back to a period where seafarers assumed that the world was flat and oceans stretched a long way before falling off the face of earth. A lone survivor of a shipwreck is washed up on an island and discovered by its inhabitants. What follows is a graphic study in pagan horror.
Some of the stories tread the fine line between fiction and non-fiction and ‘Letters Home’ is a clutch of musings revolving around cultural evolution and escapades of the adventurers of yore. Mildly journalistic in nature, the pieces are strung together by the author’s whimsical observations.
A story that instantaneously grabs attention has to be ‘Tale of the Teahouse’, in which a group of people gather at a tea-house daily to sip tea, chatter and argue around every topic under the sun. As they watch the menacing advance of the Khan’s army and the city stands facing sure destruction, the tea and conversation continues unabated even as other mundane activities in the city tick on.
Just as the reader is beginning to bemoan the lack of conversation and the slightly impersonal nature of the stories, comes ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’, which, from beginning to finish, is a dialogue between a coal miner and a magazine photographer (with a translator playing a pivotal guest role). Tharoor, with immense skill, brings out the pathos of a coal miner’s life. The story also touches upon editorial policies made in the rarefied spaces of publication houses, which often result in tragic collateral damages. Nearly every story in this precious collection deserves mention. ‘Icebreaker’ conjures the lonely white canvas of the Antarctic region while superimposing the glittering lights of the aurora australis on it; the imagery created is breathtakingly beautiful. A 12,000-ton icebreaker finds itself stuck, jammed on all sides by icebergs. Ships looking to rescue the icebreaker also fall prey to the treacherous ice of Antarctica. The men and women on board (cooks, journalists, crew, researchers and captains), their activities and private thoughts in these moments of crisis are described with a wry humour which is disconcertingly at odds with the bleak landscape. Oddly, the title story revolving around the last speaker of a dying language and the ethnographers’ attempts to record it for posterity is the weakest in this collection. Inspired by the fables, folk lore and tropes revolving around Alexander the Great, the last (splendid) story, ‘Mirrors of Ishkandar’, takes pages from the great conqueror’s life, embroiders and interprets them for the reader with the author’s unique touch.
A lot of the stories are without sturdy temporal and spatial moorings, there is deliberate avoidance in providing geographical locations to where the tales are being played out; real time also appears to be on holiday here. This lends the stories a dreamlike quality, generally associated with reading surrealistic magical fables springing in foreign lands. Tharoor’s prose is rich, imaginative and free of needless complexities; it is the plots of the stories that stand out with their edgy unpredictability. The throw of imagination is immense as the author gathers fodder from history, mythology, culture, geography and much more, adding his own spin to everything. Having accomplished writers in the family could often weigh down an author but there is no trace of self-consciousness in the writing, no evidence of cramping of style. Rather, like an enthusiastic time traveller, Tharoor whizzes across histories, time zones and civilisations, pausing every now and then to make off-kilter observations that read hugely valuable in the contemporary age. A fascinating read, Swimmer Among the Stars promises great things to come from its young author.