Stories are meant to take readers to a faraway place. They are intended to be time-traveling devices. They are supposed to make us cry, laugh, think, ruminate, ponder, and wonder at the infinite possibilities of this universe.
Stories carry us along without impeding the journey with signposts that mark the writer’s voice.
Kanishk Tharoor’s debut book of short stories, Swimmer Among the Stars, allows the readers to go on several such journeys. It is the perfect debut which exhibits the length and breadth of the writer’s literary universe.
The book is an eclectic collection of stories spanning various periods and places. Stories like Swimmer Among the Stars surprise you with the pragmatism of the situation while fleshing out an extraordinary character. A team of ethnographers interviews the last speaker of a language. The speaker is uncertain of the existence of several words in her vocabulary and their absence from her memory. However, she relishes the chance to speak her language, and she enjoys the company. The ethnographers are just eager to record as much as they could.
Another story, Elephant at Sea, manages to be both funny and poignant. It narrates the predicament of the Second Secretary at the Indian Embassy to Morocco, when he has to receive an elephant from India, as a gift for the Princess. The elephant and his mahout endear themselves to us as they journey to a strange land across the seas.
The story, A United Nations in Space, attempts to speculate what might happen in a future that seems to be wrought with storms, melting glaciers, and water surges. The UN Secretariat in NY is submerged up to the twelfth floor, and the member representatives are now orbiting in a space hotel, as they try to find a suitable location to build a new headquarters.
An enthralling section of this book consists of fourteen stories that build upon fables about Alexander the Great. The section called The Mirrors of Iskandar brings forth some of the romantic folklore that traveled across lands and tales of valor about Alexander.
One of my favorite stories from the book is of a migrant student, a refugee who builds a home away from home. The story is about how she waits for her brother to join her and how the myth of the wish-fulfilling fallen eyelash keeps her hopes alive, hence the name The Fallen Eyelash.
The Loss of Muzaffar is an ode to a family cook who suddenly appeared at the doorstep of the Italian family in New York and disappears one day, just as abruptly.
The Astrolabe is deceptive as it appears to be the story of a survivor of a shipwreck who finds himself stranded on an island where the inhabitants speak French. The story ends with a bizarre action by the islanders that reveals more about their painful past.
The last story, titled, Icebreakers, takes the reader to the Antarctic where national borders and international relations take a back seat when explorers face the stubborn forces of nature. A Russian icebreaking ship gets stuck in the ice, and the crew watches Bollywood films while they wait for someone to rescue them, striking up a camaraderie with the Chinese team of another icebreaker that came for rescue and got stuck.
As a collection, the book inspires a reader to explore beyond the book and pick up different genres from across the world. The stories are unfettered by limitations of themes, past and present. It accords a strange sense of freedom to the reader.
Swimming Among the Stars makes the reader eagerly look forward to the writer’s voice in a full-length format, curious to know what genre he will finally choose. This flexibility can be a boon as well as a bane. The writer Kanishk Tharoor seems to be adept at pulling in the reader across various genres but leaves the reader perplexed about what to expect from him.
Book Name: Swimmer Among the Stars
Author: Kanishk Tharoor
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Book Type: Hardcover