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Book review: Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars, a brilliant and bold debut

Kanishk Tharoor's debut collection of 12 stories sparkles with magic but also has a dark side.
Elephant at Sea is the finest story in Kanishk Tharoor’s debut – the tale of an elephant’s journey from India to a Moroccan palace, sprinkled with drama and humour. Fernando Bengoechea / Beateworks / Corbis
Elephant at Sea is the finest story in Kanishk Tharoor’s debut – the tale of an elephant’s journey from India to a Moroccan palace, sprinkled with drama and humour. Fernando Bengoechea / Beateworks / Corbis

Kanishk Tharoor’s debut comes with blurbed praise on the cover from Amitav Ghosh, while tucked away at the end of it the author acknowledges his gratitude to teachers who include Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith.

To be championed by such big names at the beginning of his career is remarkable. However, the short stories collected in Swimmer Among the Stars are so brilliantly bold and enchanting that it won’t be long before the main acclaim is from the common reader.

One of Tharoor’s tales, A Lesson in Objects, concerns an Indian student in the United States who grows closer to a girl through a shared love of cooking. There is a brief spark of romance but it is promptly snuffed out after a tiff over a food mixer.

The story is notable for two reasons: it may or may not be autobiographical (Indian-born Tharoor studied at Yale and Columbia and is now based in New York); and in its no-frills, matter-of-fact domesticity it is the most down-to-earth story in the collection. It is also the weakest. That groundedness feels like a dilution of Tharoor’s talent. His other 11 stories are tall tales that take us back in time, into orbit, or inside a glossier, more fantastic reality-realm to our own.

In the title story, an old woman who is the last speaker of a language learns valuable truths about herself and her vocabulary when interviewed by ethnographers.

Tale of the Teahouse charts the final seven days of a town that will be razed by an advancing army, and during the countdown to disaster the inhabitants swap stories about their enemy and deliberate over whether the hordes plan to conquer and stay or pillage and leave.

And A United Nations in Space is just that: a summit in a space station where world diplomats debate how best to return to a catastrophe-hit Earth.

The Fall of an Eyelash starts out as a familiar tale of culture shock. A young woman named Forough is sent away from her troubled homeland by her parents, smuggled across desert and many borders and into a country – ostensibly Sweden – that is “green and made from clean lines”.

She does well at college and marries a man called Jonas yet she misses her family. Tharoor then changes course and sprinkles in some magic by having Forough blow away a stray eyelash and make a wish that comes true.

Later, she thinks twice about pulling out an eyelash – “To force a wish would be to violate the natural order of wishes” – but in the end takes a pair of tweezers and plucks. The result is misfortune: her brother, who was on his way to visit, goes missing in transit.

What could have been a thin, whimsical little yarn becomes a dark fable with bite.

Many of Tharoor’s stories involve peripatetic characters who wash up adrift and displaced in strange lands.

A shipwrecked captain tries to make himself understood to hostile natives. A Russian icebreaker gets stranded in the Antarctic. Forough tells us that “while an exile can escape her country, she can never escape her exile”.

Tharoor’s most endearing exile is to be found in far and away his finest story. Elephant at Sea follows an elephant’s journey from India to the palace of a Moroccan princess.

At each stage, Tharoor impresses with a perfect lightness of touch. Onboard the ship, the mahout thinks the elephant is in distress when it is really just mimicking the sound of the engines; on the overland trip from Casablanca to Rabat in a diplomatic convoy, there is farce as the elephant wreaks havoc on a golf course, and drama when the mahout goes missing.

This delightful story is simple but effective. Elsewhere, two ambitious stories which unfold as a series of repurposed historical episodes – Phoenicians’ voyages, Odysseus’s adventures, Alexander the Great’s depredations – are too threadbare and disjointed to truly captivate. Weighty vignettes for a writer can feel like loose fragments for a reader.

Jorge Luis Borges claimed that every writer creates his own precursors. Tharoor creates Borges as one of his. Swimmer Among the Stars is a Borgesian patchwork of fact and fantasy, a remapping of ancient cultures and civilisations, a playful foray into parallel dimensions.

If Tharoor can achieve all this in miniature then roll on his first novel.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh and is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: February 15, 2016 04:00 AM