‘The Small-Town Sea’ Is a Melancholy Trip Through Childhood

I started reading The Small-Town Sea right after I decided to move away from home for a while. I had promised myself that I would finish it before I was airborne, but like most self-promises that did not happen. Instead, I read it during fits of calm when the plane shook a little less or when the dull ache in my head stilled a little. Soon, in a new place, on a temporary bed (made with sheets my mother packed), I read Anees Salim’s words slowly and carefully. And on the night I finally finished the book I went to bed with a dull ache that didn’t stop for a long, long time.

“I think it’s just a wild stretch of the imagination, and being prone to wild stretches of imagination is the malady that haunts anyone with a penchant for storytelling,” goes one sentence in the book. In the face of minor and major losses, many amusing fictions proliferate inside his 13-year-old head. Graduating from one loss to another, he quickly learns that having a narrative can be a seductive, powerful thing. Seeking the pity and sympathy that his tragic past gives him claim to, but not wanting to share his own details, the boy weaves a story replete with minute details – but out of the sad past of his companion, Bilal.

Salim writes, “Sometimes I imagined the photographs on the living room walls listening to me speaking on the phone and making wild guesses at what was said at the other end, and I occasionally smiled to mislead them.”

Anees Salim
The Small-Town Sea
Penguin Random House, 2017

Like the father in the book who is a writer, for a while I too returned to a place by the sea to search for stories. A story about the inevitability of loss naturally leads you to consider the tally of your own losses. Stories about the futile walls we put up against our losses urge you to walk down familiar pathways in your mind, turning you into a storyteller of grand fictions. But with its deafening roars and billowing waves, reality tends to swallow up most of them. Although sometimes that quirky piece of furniture, crouching in the shadows, really is playing hide and seek with someone and would, at the first indication of an incoming footstep, flee from the scene.

We arrange our own tales across the vast sea of memory and life, in the foolish hope that they will transform into sturdy rocks, and block the waves of loss. Sometimes, the cracks in these defensive rocks do yield something beautiful – like the secret space that father and son discover on the beach. But happy stories, Salim reminds us, can turn sour, often with just an errant sentence.

The book, set in a place with gentle breezes and quiet lulls, makes for a calming read. Inevitably, the tragedy of the story trickles down into the reader, like a raindrop racing down a windowpane. And in gentle, smoothly winding sentences, Salim broke my heart with so little.

The stories we tell ourselves and others about us might not don life vests and deliver us to a new reality, but they give us shade while we sit on the beach, looking at the sea and waiting for the inevitable, if temporary, wave to lift us up.

Ananthu M.C is a 22-year-old aspiring writer who studies literature in The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Find him on Instagram at @tumbling_weed