‘I was born because of one man’s inability to read.’
With these lines opens Nikhil Kumar’s ‘Anya’s Lyric’. If the gorgeous cover image couldn’t grip you with curiosity enough, these lines do. Not just with curiosity, though. Notice how in just a blink you have been welcomed into an intimate world by an ‘I’ who perhaps will tell all, beginning right from why that ‘I’ was born. The ‘I’ wants you to listen. The ‘I’ has a story. And you are already an audience even before you said yes.
Nikhil could not have begun his book better. Everything that this petite book impressed me with is contained in its opening lines. The causality behind events which drive the story; the characters ordinary yet significantly identifiable by a singular trait; the narration personal, heartfelt and sad. Like this man and his ‘inability to read’, who is nameless yet has played a pivotal part in giving birth to none other than our narrator - Anya.
Anya? ‘A girl who couldn’t understand her actions’. You know, a ‘special girl’ who needed ‘a different kind of education’ along with the other ‘retarded kids of school, social rejects, all of us.’ This story is Anya looking back to those times when her ‘brain was incapable of grasping threads of reality and logic … Back then (when) it was scary’ as a grown-up who is only partially out of her ‘condition’ now because of…
Because of. Causality.
The relationship between cause and its effect is the defining aspect of this story. Rather, all the many stories within this story, plaited neatly into one. ‘Anya’s Lyric’ is a collection of fast-moving, very gripping events happening to an array of characters, with the various threads eventually and sometimes surprisingly crisscrossing each other. Like synapses in the brain! Those points of meeting, often between unrelated characters or unconnected events, help stitch Anya’s story into one patchwork quilt. Very symbolic of how a ‘special’ mind works and talks, wouldn’t you say? Trying to maintain eye contact but almost always failing to. Trying to converge to and thus convey one idea but through many, not entirely insignificant, diversions.
No surprise then that the story in ‘Anya’s Lyric’ relies heavily on coincidences, to the extent that patters, as if predestined, appear. Nothing is as it seems, or won’t be a page later. But it was all meant to be, one starts believing. And Nikhil Kumar is cruel! He hurtles the story forward. With no breathers and intrigue a constant companion, the reader finds herself guessing what will happen next.
What is happening? Disruptions. The well-established routines which each character had before are shorn of all comfortable predictability with a simple ‘but that day’ or ‘at the precise moment’ or ‘this had never happened to him before’ … leaving the attentive reader reading more attentively. These disruptions not just move the story ahead but also spell trouble. Like for the postman with the pink letter, who suddenly finds himself doing what he was not supposed to be doing. Suddenly. A Godot-esque meaninglessness and madness ensue. A sense of eerie providence envelopes all the lives bumping into each other, and not just Anya’s life – conceived on an odd day and born on a strange day too.
Anya’s story, like the many others which meet it, is replete with a dreariness – a primal monotony of sadness featuring men and women we see every day; people on the road, in the fruit market, along railway lines, in temple queues, ‘dreaming of a better life’. Which makes the characters ordinary. Yet, Nikhil doesn’t let them enjoy their facelessness. By endowing each with a story of his/her own which in turn feeds his protagonist’s story, the author gives them a spotlight which an onlooker at a red light doesn’t care to. A lot of them have no names but most of them have been given something which makes them momentarily stand out in our universal studio of reality. We may only know them as ‘the woman with the mole on her left cheek’ or the man who had ‘never gotten greedy’ or ‘the pot-bellied man’ or ‘the boy with a twisted leg’ but we have been shown their lives and minds. Enough to make us realize they are products of the filth in our own backyard. In their hatred and crimes, their superstitions and greed, and their love and longing they are very real!
Of course, among all of them Anya is special. She has been given a voice. She narrates her own story. Now, when you begin reading you notice how Anya is a little girl struggling to make herself understood to the world. But, why does she come across as so articulate to us? Is this an author contradiction? Is it because she is hiding her clear head from those around? Or, is the story a looking- back, from a wiser point of view? When you are convinced it’s the third, you start noticing her clinical, disjointed way of receiving the gravest of situations in her life.
‘Three important things happened to me on the twenty-ninth of February, the year I turned sixteen: I fell in love, my father died, and I fell out of love.’
The matter-of-fact tone makes you sad. Her not knowing how to react right makes you see the terribleness of her situation. And yet you see beauty in all her staccato sadness. She keeps you close. Much like a lyric, her words are heartfelt, even when she is a ‘filthy girl, almost a woman, sitting in the mud and dirt and playing with sticks and stones’, ignorant in her derangement. She confesses to us how ‘I try to remember my story as best as I can’, so we know some things may not be as they seem to her. But then again, that’s the sentiment running below the complete story of ‘Anya’s Lyric’, all along. Of invisible eddies of fate becoming whirlpools and subsuming lives…
The role of language in portraying Anya’s mind was an important one. Even keeping all the stories tight and cleverly connected required craft (and craftiness). Nikhil Kumar has managed both well. Sometimes he’ll just show without telling, leaving the reader loitering around, guessing. At other times, he’ll revel in the repetition of words over the course of long sentences.
‘In a forgotten part of town, where it was dangerous for respectable people to wander, stood a forgotten, derelict building, concrete-grey and falling apart at the seams, on the second floor of which was a forgotten apartment with a dirty blue door which had a Bugs Bunny sticker stuck on it by some forgotten soul, inside which, on the far room on the right of the long corridor, the man who smelled like milk just finished raping a forgotten thirteen year old girl who wore braces on her teeth.’
Forgotten, and the author’s insistence to not let us forget. Similarly, ‘insignificant’ on page two is repeated so many times you realize those things are anything but insignificant. Phrases like ‘as he did each morning’ reinstate the idea of a routine, only to be broken a line later. Anya harps on the word ‘underdeveloped brain’ to show how acutely aware of it this protagonist is. Not a speck of dust or a hue of colour evades Nikhil’s eyes, and scenes are created visually though without extra embellishments. The end of every chapter leaves a thread dangling or a reader reaction unattended.
There are a couple of episodes in ‘Anya’s Lyric’ which work well as back stories but in themselves are not very unique, and rather predictable. Thankfully, they are few and far between. But a graver problem appears when you are nearing the end of the book. Somewhere around there Anya appears to have gained clarity of thought, access to good vocabulary like ‘endorphins’, and sane responses to reality. It is too sudden to not ask – how come? Charitable feelings towards another girl in the book and a love angle with one of the boys also seem sudden in the last few pages. The book ends itself hastily, with an enigmatic scene in a shack on a beach, highly interpretative in all its vagueness and mystery but lost in effect if seen for just what it is.
Anya confesses how ‘people are strange and I don’t understand them’. Nikhil Kumar writes this book to understand those very people, to present their stories within stories, wrapped in an all-encompassing connectedness that none of the characters can escape. This book is like ‘that part of town where the social rejects make their home’. You see how everyone is significant, yet no one is. How depravity is universal yet misery individual. And also how while ugliness is a constant in this needy-greedy world sitting on a social fabric full of holes, special souls like Anya just ‘sang my song through it all’.
It is Anya’s Lyric, after all, and it must be heard.
'Anya's Lyric' by Nikhil Kumar is a self-published book, 2016
[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]