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Prerna Kalbag
New Delhi, October 05, 2013
Vanity Bagh
Anees Salim
Picador India
Rs 499, PP238

Anees Salim's tale of Imran Jabbari and his friends - all named after Pakistani political figures - Zulfiqar, Zia, Navaz Sharif, Yahya and Jinnah from Vanity Bagh who play football and indulge in a little thieving on the side, is suffused with dark humour. When the gang is asked to leave two-wheelers carrying 'gold' at different places in the city, they faithfully follow instructions. The truth dawns when the TV channels flash news of bomb blasts.

Inevitably, tragedy in the form of suicide, murder and in the protagonist Imran's case, imprisonment, follows. Salim has created a world veiled with subtle emotion: "We dreamed the dream of the poor - to be rich and, circumstances permitting, famous - and we had an unlikely role model, who didn't come from film posters or sports pages but lived right amidst us, in the alley beside the Irani Café…" This is Abu Hathim whose malevolent shadow changes Imran's life.

The character of Imran, the 'terrorist', is layered: thoughtful, intense while also vague and commonplace. In his days in prison, wracked by loneliness and regret, he yearns for Vanity Bagh and in the book room, pounces on a history of the disharmony that disfigured his world. Halfway through the novel, pathos replaces humour and insouciance is crushed by the horror of unforeseen consequences.

Somberness descends like a curtain, the dead Jinnah appears and Imran rushes toward the solemn end of the tale with magnanimous acts committed with a schoolboy earnestness.

Vanity Bagh is studded with little descriptive gems amid the gloom: "Halfway down the bridge we were stopped by the designs the moon had fashioned with the century-old girders.

Across the asphalt the porous shadows lay in pale lattice patterns. Down on the Moosa River the moon was a huge silver coin bleeding luminous ripples downstream." Vanity Bagh plays on the edge of mediocrity but, in the end, falls just short of becoming a masterpiece.

Prerna Kalbag is an independent journalist