This subtle, playful, humourous and, at the same time slightly aloof, collection of bravura short stories would retain the credibility of announcing the arrival of a writer, who may very soon recreate the old world charm of surreal and fantastical writing. Something that we have so dearly missed in the past few years! More so, the surname of the author may have no role in defining the extent of the craft these stories are a product of.
What&’s in a surname indeed? Perhaps a little consciousness of keeping up with the family name and a lot of media galore, of course. But along with these boundations come the freedom to express the way Kanishk has in these stories. Narrating an interview with the last speaker of a language, a chronicle of the final seven days of a town that is about to be razed to the ground by an invading army, the lonely voyage of an elephant from Kerala to a princess’ palace in Morocco, a fabled cook who flavours his food with precious stones, a coterie of international diplomats trapped in near-earth orbit, so on and so forth. These stories exhibit the work of a master storyteller but, at the same time, reflect a sense of classical, surreal and fantastical writing, something that we recall as the “old-world charm”. But can one look at the commercial viability of these stories? Perhaps no!
“Any writer would love commercial success. When I was writing these stories I wasn’t thinking about commercial success. I was writing these stories for those who are curious about the world, (those) who prefer reading and I was actually fulfilling my own interest in fiction.This collection is an expression of that part of my imagination – I confess there wasn’t any kind of strategic decisions in thinking about what would be commercially successful,” Kanishk told The Statesman.
It indeed was gratifying to know that the publisher Aleph had announced a reprint of the book even before the actual release of the book. Those of us reflecting on the death of classical writing in India may think again. The problem is not with what the publishers put up but a little more with what the writers bring to the desk. Popular fiction brings commercial success, turning the author into a phenomenon almost instantly but it takes real courage, a lot of dedication and imagination at work to produce what Swimmer among the Stars is so abundantly full of. “That&’s something I can’t presume to be achieving but yes, that&’s something I would love to achieve through these stories,” he added.
Kanishk believes that there can be no good writing without a lot of reading. “I consumed literature all the time and this has come a long way in developing my instincts and frame of reference to write my own fiction. I did a creative writing programme in the US and the best thing I got out of it was not necessarily that it improved my writing but it taught me to be a better critical and attentive reader of fiction. I used to read fiction for the pleasure and wonder of it, which is all great but for my writing I think it has been incredibly important to become a more attentive and critical reader. And I think for all writers, you can’t produce good fiction without reading critically and attentively.”
Most of these stories have a sense of detachment running through its lines but “they don’t have anything to do with my biography”, said Kanishk.
“Yes I grew up outside India but I didn’t grow up in sort of an anxious way for my identity. I always grew up thinking of myself as an Indian who happened to be in New York. India was very much part of my life growing up and I never felt this tension of where I was and where I was from.” These stories, he added, are “rather from my imagination and the way I see what is around me”. “The intention of the author can be completely removed from the way a story is interpreted and the life it lives after the author and I love setting it out of my control. When somebody is engaging with these stories there is something pre-modern happening that reflects the fire-light of the ancient storyteller.”
So what does a writer get from his family? An ideal setting from where “the world of writing and literature does not seem opaque and unattainable”. For Kanishk, growing up in a household that was so full of books and writers made writing always seem “obvious and available” to pursue. “That is the advantage of having parents, who are involved in the world around them, who are engaged with these subjects and growing up in this setting always seemed a perfect place to find inspiration.”
Each of these stories in Swimmer among the Stars reflect much more than Kanishk&’s surname – a rare combination of surreal imagination matched with an extraordinary craft of a master storyteller.