The 13 stories in Swimmer Among the Stars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Kanishk Tharoor’s first book, speak of the always present and persistent attempt to explain oneself, to make oneself understood — to the other. It’s a process fraught with dangers, and often, doomed to fail. Yet the effort to explain oneself is necessary, though languages may be different, and nothing may be in common, not even the memory of a shared home.
The stories range in place and time, from Persia to New York, and move from the ancient world to the present and then to the future, when events unfold inside a space station. Tharoor, profiled earlier this year in Vogue India with his twin, lives in New York. The stories in Swimmer Among the Stars mirror several of the concerns raised in pieces written for The Guardian, The Hindu, and India-based magazine The Caravan, pieces available to read on his website too.
In the title story, an old lady who may be the very last speaker of her language records her words for a team of ethnographers who would like to store her language in computerized archives. She thinks about how living with another language, the “common language,” used by everyone around her, has changed her, and it is little wonder that her own language is now dying with her.
Yet there are ways, known only to herself, by which the last speaker has tried to preserve the language of her childhood. Tharoor writes:
But always, in the darker corners, she placed mementoes of her own, a proverb, a snatch of a rhyme, some light daily expressions the glimpse of which would startle her family. With nobody to speak her language to, she began talking with objects, the pots and pans, a creaking door, the sharp corner of a table.
Though plagued by self-doubt — and Tharoor deftly juxtaposes this play of inner thinking with what happens around her — the woman acquiesces, though she knows that she cannot truly be the repository of a dying language.
For one, is the language, even in the way the last speaker uses it secretly, truly pristine in the manner she remembers? She has even coined words in her language that never existed before: “Swimmer among the stars,” the title story, is her word for an astronaut. This title story provides a kind of thematic framework for the others that follow.
Why Understanding Matters
Tharoor piles on images and objects in a rhythmic and poetic way. This is how “Tale of a Teahouse” begins:
Seven days before the khan’s army razed the city, judges presided over their courts, babies were breast-fed, the teahouse clattered with cups emptied and smashed, puppeteers led shadows through the alleyways, men and women made love and the hum of schoolboys repeating their lessons echoed from the marble-and-granite schools.
This story reveals the conversations that unfold in the fortified city’s only teahouse, as a khan’s army advances in the distance. The teahouse patrons do not understand the khan’s motives and try to explain his reasons to themselves: Invasions were common in this period, but would the khan’s army move on after looting, or decide to stay on indefinitely?
An elephant in another story (“Elephant at Sea”), which mirrors in some ways, José Saramago’s celebrated The Elephant’s Journey, makes the journey from the seaport city of Cochin, India, to to Morocco’s capital Rabat. What prompted the gift of an elephant leaves a junior Indian diplomat bewildered.
The mahout, who has accompanied the elephant all the way from Kerala, has, in course of their long journey, developed an affinity with the elephant. It is an understanding between man and animal in contrast with the circumlocution and mixed-up messages that marks exchanges between governments and diplomats.
“Perhaps understanding…as these stories, polished like parables, show, will be elusive or possible only in a somewhat distant future.”
“The Icebreakers,” is one of two stories in this collection set in the future. The Russian captain of an icebreaker caught in the frozen desert of Antarctica, waits, with his crew, for a Chinese ship to rescue them. The latter itself is soon trapped in ice as are the other rescue ships that arrive, only to meet the same fate. What comes into being is a veritable ‘United Nations’ in the South Pole.
The captain, suffering from a debilitating asthmatic attack, finds himself in the care of the Chinese ship’s doctor; the ship’s Filipino cook conjures up every culinary marvel for the world’s crew caught in these frozen lands. It could be an almost a tongue-in-cheek story of future Chinese domination, or more, of the elusive camaraderie possible among people who speak different languages in the face of inexplicable danger and uncertainty.
Perhaps understanding, in a world so divided and suspicious of the “other,” as these stories, polished like parables, show, will be elusive or possible only in a somewhat distant future. There is however, one story that stands apart.
The Necessity of Secrets
Set in the past, soon after Alexander’s time, it is when the Eastern Roman Empire ruled by Antiochus faces off the armies of Persian ruler Darius. Two foot-soldiers, who shore up the last rows of ‘the phalanx’ (as the story is titled) converse about their past. We never know their names; we know how they look: there is a red-bearded one and one with a mole.
As the fate of the battle hangs in balance, one recounts to the other the time they had traveled to the latter’s village. It was a happy time, and the soldier with the red beard realizes that one “does not need to have a language to understand, that one need not be at home to feel at home.” In the end, he finds this village in the mountains unbearably hard to leave.
“In this one story, Tharoor hints at the richness and joy that is possible when one is truly understood by another.”
In this manner, as the two soldiers now in battle, realize that the moment of retreat is on hand, they tease, advise and even insult each other. Yet there is one secret, at the story’s very end, that the man with the mole will never reveal to his friend.
In this one story, Tharoor hints at the richness and joy that is possible when one is truly understood by another. This understanding does not need a common language or shared history. Even so, it is also essential that some things remain secret. Secrets are what make for curiosity. Secrets — especially the unfathomable, indecipherable motives that drive every individual — are what make up the magical core of stories.
Kanishk Tharoor’s richly-told, world and time-spanning stories, encapsulate the effort of understanding, and more.
* * *
Aditi Kay is a writer who has completed her first novel. She works as a freelance editor and management consultant. Presently, she is based in Baltimore, Maryland, but has lived mainly in India and Singapore. Find her on Facebook.