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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #51 (December 20, 2005), page 16.
No malice, just mischief
The Cripple and His Talismans
By Anosh Irani
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005
Hardcover, 244 pages, $22.95
By Josephine Bridges
The Cripple and His Talismans is a charming tale of mysterious dismemberment, schoolroom torture, murderous rage, defecation, and mosquitoes. Yes, you read that right. This is Anosh Iraniís first novel. He may be a genius. He is absolutely a writer to watch.
"I do have my reasons for not working," confides the protagonist. "I was either in a brothel, or I was thinking about being in a brothel: I was either drunk, or I was thinking about getting drunk. When I look back, my time was well spent." While his behavior is hardly commendable ó and it gets a lot worse than boozing and frequenting houses of ill repute ó there is something refreshing about a narrator who isnít afraid to say all those dreadful things the rest of us dare only to think.
The Cripple and His Talismans is the story of the protagonistís quest through surreal Bombay for his missing arm. In pursuit of the limb he meets lepers, a woman who sells rainbows, a door-to-door chicken salesman, a coffin maker, a purveyor of human arms and legs, and a couple of "squatters" who give new meaning to the word. The chicken merchant insists that his poultry are engaging in black magic. "Look them right in the eye," he tells the narrator. "Itís like staring into an evil cave." In the background, Bombay itself looms like some sort of colossal character throughout the narrative. "That is the beauty of this city. Everything is close by. If you die, a cemetery is just around the corner. If you want to have someone killed, a contract killer is ready with a neatly typed contract."
Anosh Iraniís writing is both simple and startling, his musing on faith and morality especially quirky and strong. "Hellís design is loosely based on a railway platform: no urinal, lots of people, and you have to buy a ticket even though you do not want to be there," he writes. He attributes the movement of religious photos hanging on a wall to capricious higher beings: "If we do not pray, the gods get bored. If the gods get bored, they play games." Skewering even compassion with the best line in the book, the limb-merchant tells the narrator, "The world can be changed not by ending suffering, but by a more judicious distribution of it."
The Cripple and His Talismans is written with such a light touch that very serious matters donít even make us wince. "Even though it is night, Mr. Pís coffin enterprise is open. This makes sense to me. People die at all times." The narrator inspects some of Mr. Pís wares and notices that one of the coffins bears the label Made in England. "First the British kill us," the narrator quips, "Then we import their coffins. How touching."
Anosh Irani, born and raised in Bombay, is a master of making the unthinkable downright comical. The protagonist looks back at a suggestion he made following an unsatisfying evening of dancing bears, acrobats, and clowns. "I asked Mother if she would take Father, climb to the top of a tall building and jump off. I would stand on the street and watch them fall. It would certainly be more daring than anything I had seen in the circus. She was disturbed by my question." The reader, on the other hand, is probably trying to suppress a wicked giggle.
In his depiction of the protagonistís childhood nemesis, now an adult, the author may also be describing himself as a writer: "There is no malice in him at all, just a mischievous gleam in his eyes." The Cripple and His Talismans is downright splendid. I canít wait to see what Anosh Irani comes up with next.