Prepare to enter a world where the norms of human behavior — even the rules governing time and gravity — are set on their heads. This dark and wry fable begins with the narrator waking up and discovering he is missing an arm. He has no idea how he lost it or how to find it — but as he searches the chaotic, often surreal streets of Bombay, he meets an absurd and marvelous cast of characters who offer him clues: a woman selling rainbows, a beggar living under an egg cart, a coffin maker who builds finger-sized caskets, a giant who lives underwater, a homeless boy riding the rails. They all lead him to Baba Rakhu, master of the underworld, who will reveal the story of his lost arm — for a price.
Funny and wise, violent and tender, The Cripple and His Talismans is an impressive debut for lovers of Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll, and Salman Rushdie.close this panel
The man’s look tells me that I have made a mistake. He moves closer to my face, but his eyes focus on the dim light bulb that hangs above me in the centre of his beedi shop. His skin is soot, dark but smooth. Mosquitoes are converging around the bulb. He listens to their murmur.
“Yes, I’m the In-charge,” he whispers.
He looks at the mosquitoes around the bulb. They stick to it and exchange places with each other, a small dance to pass time between transmissions of malaria.
I try to get his attention. “Gura has sent me,” I tell him. “He says you have information about my lost arm.”
He covers my mouth. His palm smells of tobacco and money. There is also the stink of genitals but I try to dismiss that. He releases his hand slowly.
“I will draw a map for you,” he says.
It is dim and dusty, and I am being hit and bitten by insects the size of stones. I realize that he waits for me to respond.
“A map will be helpful,” I say.
His dark hands are beautiful compared to the rest of him. His face is round as an earthen pot and his ears are long. Strands of hair with the dryness of straw stick out of his lobes. But his hands are thin as if crafted from black paper. Mine are lighter, more the colour of soil. I am one hand less now; in fact, a whole left arm less if one insists on staring at me under the mosquito bulb.
He plucks out a short pencil from behind his ear. Apart from Shivaji beedis, he also stocks packs of Marlboro, Gold Flake, Charminar, Dunhill, Four Square and 555 on thin wooden shelves. I look at his small shop and wonder how he stays in this hole all day. I look to the side, at the shop next to his. It is a flower shop, just as constricting. Most of the flowers are dead. White buckets hold the fragrant corpses.
He now has a small piece of paper on top of the glass jar that contains sweets. The paper already has numbers scribbled all over it so I do not know how he will draw a map.
“You are here,” he says, his eye on the paper.
He draws a spiral, keeps circling. In order to make him stop before he puts a hole through the paper, I respond. “I understand, In-charge.”
I use his title in the hope that he will reveal his name.
“You are here,” he repeats. The circling continues. “You must follow a few landmarks. They will direct you to the games. But I cannot tell you what the landmarks are.”
“Games? What games?”
He hands me the chit of paper. One spiral shows me where I am. Two inches from it, a darker spiral shows me where I must go.
Let me have my arm for just a second so I can teach him a lesson. I am not accustomed to being mocked. I am a novice cripple.
“At least tell me which direction I must take,” I ask the In-charge.
“You will know. I’m busy. Now go.”
No one is around. If there were customers, I could understand if he said he is busy. But not even the flower man is visible. We are in one of the city’s gullies, a by-lane that only the local residents use.
I take the map and walk out on the street. I hold it under the streetlight with my right hand. If I had both arms, I would have a better grip. I try not to think of my disability. At times it makes me so rabid that I want to rip my other arm off. I then realize that I do not have an arm to pull the other one off. This angers me even more.
A lost arm causes much more than physical disorientation. I question many more things. Why does so and so have an arm? Why is he happy? Why is she beautiful? Why is the orange that I eat sour?
I think of Gura the floating beggar. It was he who led me to the In-charge. The moment I lost my arm, two months ago, I felt like a pariah in the company of normal people. After I got out of the hospital, I sold my white-marbled apartment by the sea and moved to one with stone flooring, where flying cockroaches and mosquitoes sang at midnight. I did not speak a word for two whole months. It was as though my arm had done the talking before.
Gura was the first person I talked with, this very morning. It happened naturally. In my new physical state, I recognized Gura as my equal—a beggar I could speak to. Gura’s remark startled me.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it,” he said.
He sat at the entrance to my building. I had never noticed him before. Was it obvious that I had recently lost an arm? I looked at him and saw the face of darkness — a little hell, fallen trees.
“What will I get used to?” I asked. These were the first words I had uttered in two months. Instead of feeling better, I felt as though I were choking on my own vomit.
“Absence,” he said.
His body and face were more stained than the footpath he sat on.
“There is an absence,” he continued. “And you are not handling it well.”
Why should I? I thought. It is not as if I have lost my wallet. In fact, even when I lost my wallet I never handled things gracefully.
Then he leaned toward me. “Now listen,” he whispered.
Gura scratched a boil on his thigh. He picked out flakes from his scalp. He bared his teeth to the sun until they got hot. He licked his lips, tweaked his eyebrows and crossed his arms.
“Why are you staring at my face?” he asked.
“You said to listen.”
“Not to me.”
“To whom, then?”
“The street. All answers lie in its sounds. In the bicycle bell of a little boy also lies the wail of his mother, for she knows he will leave her soon when he is crushed by a speeding truck.”
“That’s quite dark.”
“He is dark.”
“You tell me.”
“Why are you talking in riddles?”
“How are riddles shaped?”
“I don’t know.”
“They coil round and round like gullies.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You’re sucking it out of me like a mosquito.”
“No, I’m not.”
“If there is a dispute then talk to the In-charge.”
Beggars do that, I thought. They feel God has abandoned them so they put someone else in charge. Poverty strips them of their brain. They start counting colours instead of money, and when colours run out they try and invent their own. That drives them to madness because it is impossible to think of a colour that does not exist.
So I walked past Gura and up the four steps that led to my flat. I was about to open the door when he said something that made my heart pound.
“The In-charge knows about your lost arm. That which you do not.”
Words like this come once in a lifetime, and you hear them even if your ears have been torn from your head and stamped into the earth.
“What does he know?”
“Where can I find him?”
“Your arm will show you. Point it.”
I raised the only arm I had toward the fire temple in the distance. Gura shook his head. I pointed to the post office and the three-star hotel. Then to the flyover and dancing bars below. The Central and State Banks, the old Parsi library, the gas cylinder shop, the nursing home known for selling babies when mothers were not looking. Soon all of these had been indicated.
“I’m lost,” I said.
“Then use your lost arm.”
“But it does not exist.”
“Nothing really does.”
I faced the old cinema that showed B-grade Hindi movies. I imagined I was using my absent arm to point. Since I had time, I turned toward the clock repair shop. Then I pointed at the toy shop whose sad moustachioed owner looked like he was selling sick puppies instead. I had spun a complete 360 so I looked at Gura, who urged me to carry on.
“But I’ll keep going round and round in circles,” I said.
“Like a Jalebee!” he laughed.
I felt very foolish. A beggar was mocking me. So I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out some money. It was the only way to save face. A rich man without an arm is still superior to a poor man with one.
“It’s a hint,” said Gura.
“You want to eat Jalebee?” The poor fellow suddenly had a craving for orange coiled sweets?
“You can’t eat this Jalebee. But can you go to it.”
There was only one area in the city where gullies wound like riddles, where the in-roads were black as death, messages from prophets were scribbled on the walls and babies walked like tiny gangsters, toting guns and milk bottles.
“Good work, my crippled genius.”
“Will you take me there?”
“I have begging to do! You think I can afford to waste time?”
“Then how will I find the In-charge?”
“Even the blind can find him.”
So when night fell, I walked to Jalebee Road. In the heart of Jalebee Road there is a tree. It is the oldest tree in the city, without leaves, and is considered holy, a refuge for all lost souls. It is said that a sage sits in its hollow, an addict who has run out of ganja, who heals the sick and poor by sucking the sadness out of their lungs. (No one has proved this, but people do feel better after circling the tree.)
So I went round and round the tree. After all, I was a lost soul, too—I did not know where to go. Even though there were a few people near the tree, they ignored me. Then an old woman, as bent as the tree itself, joined me. She walked as though it was a marriage ceremony and she was my ancient bride. Perhaps her husband had abandoned her on their wedding day many years ago. If it made her feel better, who was I to enlighten her? We both circled, but she soon wandered off toward the balloon factory in the distance. I must have circled the tree one hundred times.
I was so dizzy the residents of Jalebee Road flew toward me.
The street children came first. They flew sideways and they were all scratching their heads and laughing. In their laughter I could hear the shouts of their fathers, too: drunk, angry at the walls, washing the dirt off their lips with every sip. Suddenly Gura’s words made sense. All answers lie in the sounds of the streets.
So I closed my eyes and opened myself up to the sounds around me. The blaring horn of a truck said “move out of the way or I’ll kill you”; the wind blew through the old, bare tree and made a wailing sound as it yearned for leaves. But it was the bark of a stray dog that made me open my eyes. It sounded like the cough of a wise old man who had walked down from the hills, past the plains and into this winding pit.
There was a deep gash in the dog’s white skin. As it licked the flies off the wound, I saw its cold, silver eyes. The dog was blind. Yet it looked straight at me and smiled. Was it laughing at my deformity? Then it sniffed the earth, licked an ant-ridden packet of Glucose biscuits and walked past me toward a narrow lane. Just before it entered the lane, it turned around and spoke in garbled sounds, dog language, in which A’s are yells, B’s are cries, C’s are pleas and D’s are direct commands.
I heard a distinct D. Follow me, it said.
And then I understood Gura’s final words. Even the blind can find the In-charge. A blind animal would lead me, if I was humble enough to allow it. It went past the cheap tailors and roadside barbers, and stopped outside a small cigarette shop. It was very dark and all I could see at the counter was a light bulb. It was so dim it seemed to spread darkness around with confidence, as if it were a cure for light. Not a soul was around. The dog whimpered, raised its hind leg and watered the parched earth.
I leaned over the counter and saw a dark man, born of the night bulb itself, hiding in his own shop, speaking to his glass jars filled with sweets, whistling to his packets of supari and paan masala, counting money fast-fast. I asked him if he was the In-charge.
“Yes, I’m the In-charge,” he finally whispered.
So now here I stand, late at night, in one of the by-lanes of Jalebee Road, and stare at the map the In-charge has just given me. I hope it gives me some clue as to where I must go next. It can be north or south of the shop. You will know, the In-charge said.
I hear a sound, a cough.
A man is asleep on a handcart, a rag over his eyes to stop the streetlight from invading. Slowly he turns in his sleep. The rag of cloth is off his face. Maybe I should take my first bearings from him. His head is north, his feet south. One uses one’s head to think, so maybe that is where I should head. But one uses feet to walk. So perhaps south is where I should walk.
The logic of the armless.
The man coughs again. I see his face clearly and another thought strikes me. The man looks South Indian. I shall go south.
As I walk, I wonder what I am doing here. I am sensible, literate. I should handle my loss with dignity.
I question the In-charge’s actions. Why can’t he just tell me where I must go? As I look behind me, the beedi shop is now the size of a sugar cube. Maybe I have walked far enough. I look at the map again. The first spiral is light. The second spiral, my destination, darker.
The human mind is weak. Scribbles on a chit of paper taunt it. I think about the fried eggs I had in the morning. Did I put too much pepper on them? Whenever I am reminded of my arm, I try to think of mundane things. This tactic is as useful as the map I hold.
The street gets darker. This is strange since the streetlights are at an equal distance from each other and all of them work. With each step I take, darkness envelops me. I feel the tip of her fingers, the softness of her palm, the warmth of her hands against my face. I hear her hum—it is the sound of the universe and only I am meant to hear it, under a sky that is as black as the hands that touch me. Darkness prays for me, a prayer that will keep me in its womb for as long as I can remain. Even comfort gets hard to bear, she says. I believe her because a mother is to be believed. As she recedes, she glides down my arm and leaves. A mother has many children, she says. She must care for them all.
I have entered the darker spiral.
You will know, the In-charge said. The mosquitoes know. The man on the handcart knows. My feet know and they will take me there.
I take off my slippers and throw them to the side of the street. The soles of my feet are pleased to feel patches of dirt and soil. Open drains gush around me. Dirty water speaks underneath us all. I am certain the games are near.
I walk a little farther and I see three, maybe four bodies come toward me. Their walk is slow and deliberate. I try to remain calm. They can take nothing from a cripple. To my left, I see three forms about fifty feet away, slightly thinner, shapely. Where are all these people coming from?
Two armoured vehicles, the colour of rust, glide to the centre of the road and halt. I cannot see the drivers. Headlights burn the earth. On the ground, the outline of a large circle is drawn in white chalk. The human forms are closer and real. They converge on this centre, which is being built around me. I can see the people now, and I know I have found the place.
The games have found me.
Of course the In-charge knew I would find the games. It was never in my hands to begin with. Some sort of army has decided to meet here. There are women with acid burns, their faces the road map to ancient ruins. Women I cannot look at because I know that only man can inflict such impairment. Their saris wound around them with preciseness, the women take protection in any form, even a thin layer of cloth. There are beggars, some on wooden platforms with wheels. The stumps of their feet shine in the headlights as if they have been oiled meticulously. Even stumps look different. God is a genius: no two arms look alike. Cut them off, and no two stumps are identical. What more proof does one require of God’s creation?
I look at their faces and I am not surprised that I recognize some of them. It is not a mystery that all beggars look the same. They are the same, floating beggars. You see them at one traffic light, asking for money in God’s name. You see them at another traffic light, pleading that one of their relatives is dead and money is needed for the funeral. You think: this beggar has a resemblance to the one seen in another part of the city, or at the previous signal. Clouds float, and when you look up from taxis, you can swear they follow you. Beggars do the same.
The floaters come to the edge of the circle. Wheels scrape on concrete. Blue sari-clad eunuchs are present, too. Most of them are man-made; all that was man in them was removed.
The armoured trucks are still running. I am certain they contain valued goods.
Then, through the stream of acid women, I see the In-charge. He looks blacker here, in the face of headlights. There are at least fifty people now, representations of everything that is wrong with the world, everything that will remain unchanged because normal people are in charge. Here we all have one heartbeat, one drum that God beats, upon which he inflicts soulful migraines.
The In-charge raises his right arm. He wears a lungi and a white vest, and I notice that he is well fed. His hands might be thin and beautiful, but his stomach is a lewd protuberance.
The doors of the two armoured trucks open. From each armoured truck steps a human form that is hard to behold. I feel normal in their presence. These are not figments of an armless man’s delirium. These are lepers. I try to remember the hum of darkness, thinking it will soothe me, but I cannot.
The only thing that differentiates the lepers is the cloth that covers them from lower belly to knee. One is black, the other white. Perhaps this is why I have been sent here, to feel better about myself. In the presence of the diminished, greatness can be achieved. Arm or no arm, I am now a giant.
The armoured trucks make sense. If an ordinary vehicle were to transport these two, they might not make it here. They are so fragile, the wind might blow their fingers off. The engines shut off.
We could have heard a bird chirp in another universe.
A sound: the scraping of feet.
The leper in black holds one leg and walks, assisting the leg itself with a hand that is wrapped in bandages. The other has a stronger walk but his face has receded more, itching to kiss skull. They walk to the centre of the circle and face each other. I cannot see their eyes and I am glad. The In-charge positions himself between the two.
A little girl, no older than ten or eleven, with long black hair parted from the centre into two neat plaits, runs to the lepers with two garlands in her hands. Faces with the geography of hell are treated to the scent of heaven. The lepers bend low to accept their garlands. They are humble.
“Sisters and brothers,” shouts the In-charge. “To see so many good persons in one gathering warms me. Our custom will remain the same as always. We will start after our prayer.”
Something touches my feet. I look down, and it is a beggar seated on the ground. He has no legs. He extends his arm. I do not know what to do. He takes my hand. I feel someone’s palm on the stump of my left shoulder. It is a eunuch’s. I look around and everyone is holding hands—acid women connected to eunuchs, eunuchs to amputees, amputees to beggars.
What are they all praying for? Their limbs to grow back? I tell myself that destiny exists; if not, what can explain my body being touched by these people?
Then the In-charge raises his arms, looks to the sky and closes his eyes. He chants, and I have never heard anything like it. It is the song of a dying man sending his last words to heaven, asking the ones who are already there to come receive him. Everyone joins in. Slowly the chants fade, as if large birds are transporting these sounds on their backs and carrying them far away from us.
I open my eyes only when I hear the shuffling of feet. The In-charge stares at his watch. “It’s midnight,” he says. “Let the games beginff”
He then lifts the little girl in his arms and joins the crowd.
The lepers walk to opposite sides of the circle.
The one in black screams. It is a summons to all the lepers of the city; in every sewer, under every bridge, beside every beedi shop, there is a leper who hears it and feels the juice of life in his sores.
The one in white does not move, but his fingers are curled into a fist. He waits for the other to come to him.
Now the two are only feet apart.
They are illuminated by the headlights.
The one in white strikes first; a blow to the face.
The crowd roars. A eunuch shouts to the skies: “Forgive them!”
Forgive whom? For what?
The beggar beside me spits, whether in disgust or glee I cannot tell. He thumps his tin can to the floor repeatedly.
The one in white moves again. With great force he steps onto the other’s foot. There is a deep hole in it, near the ankle. The outer rim of the hole is black, the inner rim is yellow and the core is white as ivory. With his heel still dug in, the leper in white thrusts his hands onto his opponent’s chest, pushing him away. He lifts his foot and watches the leper in black fall to the floor. The sight is terrifying. Three toes lie on the concrete.
I look for the In-charge, for some signal to explain this horror, but he is not visible. I want to look away, but the only sound I hear is that of the beggar’s tin can beating the concrete.
In the glare of the headlights I see the whites of the lepers’ eyes. The vanquished one does not recover from the onslaught. He lies on the ground, as torn as the garland petals that lie by his feet. He looks to the sky. Is there a spirit world up there? Is there a separate one for lepers? Does the soul of a leper have leprosy?
At this moment I could donate the excess of blood in me to each hospital in the city, it pounds so hard, gushes so furiously. It could spurt from my mouth and make the city brighter.
I could make dying oxen dance.
The In-charge reappears. He raises both his arms. I wish I could raise mine. I have raised my arms in the past, but only to pull things down, curtains and people alike. It is sometimes more convenient to raze lives than raise them.
The In-charge walks to the centre of the circle and goes to the lepers. No, he walks past them and comes toward me.
Do not come here. I do not wish to be singled out, a sparrow among lions.
An endless row of eyes stares at me.
It is easy to stand on a pulpit and lecture about how the world sits on a dog’s tongue, that each time the dog licks excrement it coats the world with a layer. That we are all bad people, and that we must be punished. I ask all holy men to stand here today. Wisdom will escape them like worms from fruit. They will feel naked and shake, and hope that their eyes do not meet a leper’s.
“You must be part of the proceedings,” the In-charge says.
“Please, I’m okay,” I reply. I would give my other arm to be somewhere else.
“You must earn your right to be here.”
“I don’t understand.” I say that to buy time.
“Come with me,” orders the In-charge.
He holds my hand and takes me to where the leper in black is on the ground. The other leper looks on.
“Now help him up,” the In-charge tells me.
“But he’s a leper!”
“I’m aware of that.”
“But if I touch him …”
“You must earn the right to be here.”
“No one told me that.”
“Do it. Now.”
I look around.
I extend my arm.
For the leper on the ground, it is a shaft of light.
He holds it with both hands. His hands are hot.
I lift him.
The crowd disperses. They turn and go on their way, to their brothels, their begging spaces and their drinking cells.
“Why is everyone going?” I ask.
“They are mere spectators. This is your moment.”
“It is why you have met me. Help this man here. He is the victor.” He turns to the leper in black.
“But he lost,” I say. “The one in white tore off his toes!”
“The winner is he who loses his ugly parts. The loser is he who is left with them.”
The leper in black, the one who has been relieved of his rotting toes, looks surprised. The lepers must not have known the rules of the fight. They were tricked. And rightly so, or else they would have ripped off their own body parts.
“It’s his turn to be free,” says the In-charge.
“Free?” I ask.
“He has done his time. As his body slowly comes apart, he will be relieved of it. He will be cleansed soon.”
The leper in black bows his head. The one in white snarls and walks away.
“What about him?” I point to the one in white. I am conscious of the manner in which we speak, as though the lepers are not part of our world.
“He gathered the festering parts, so he lost tonight. He’s not ready. He must do more time.”
“What does all this have to do with me?”
The In-charge whispers into the leper’s ear. The leper then looks at me from the corners of his eyes. He turns slowly toward me. I hope he does not touch me.
The leper puts his hand in his mouth.
He bites hard onto his forefinger. He does so as though he is eating a dark biscuit.
A snap, like that of a dry twig.
The finger stays in his mouth, caught between his teeth. If I give him a matchstick, he might smoke it. He picks it out of his mouth.
“Take it,” says the In-charge.
And dip it in my tea? Offer it to others as a vintage cigar?
“It’s an offering,” urges the In-charge.
“I’m okay,” I say.
“The victor must relinquish his finger. One by one, he will renounce all his body parts until he ceases to exist. Only then will he be cleansed. You cannot let him down.”
“It’s crucial that you take it.”
“Can’t he give it in a bag?”
“Listen, friend, do it for your own sake.”
I extend my arm, a naughty child holding his hand out for the schoolmaster’s cane.
“Is this how you accept an offering?”
I cup my hand.
The finger feels scaly. A dry piece of dog shit.
The leper taps the stump of my arm.
He comes close to my ear. His breath captures the essence of an entire hospital.
“Baba Rakhu,” he whispers.
ANOSH IRANI is the author of the acclaimed novels The Song of Kahunsha, a finalist for Canada Reads and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2007, and his recently published novel, Dahanu Road. His play Bombay Black won four Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 2006 including for Outstanding New Play, and he was nominated for the 2007 Governor General's Award for The Bombay Plays: The Matka King and Bombay Black.close this panel
“The Cripple and His Talismans is an absurd, and absurdly eloquent tale of a man who wanders Bombay in search of his lost arm. The book is a toothy metaphor for modern India and the forces that cripple it. Canada-based Irani deftly weaves the coarse realities of Bombay with dystopian notions of giants and rainbow hawkers. Irani’s flair for wordplay and leering wit make The Cripple... an enthralling story that won’t leave you in a hurry.”
The Cripple and his Talismans is a surreal tale set within the folds of a breathing entity called Bombay. Irani’s prose is both imaginative and strikingly visual in its lucidity and style. How the author moves towards the denouement makes for a startling read in this tale of lost and found… replete with a sense of whimsicality….”
—BENGAL POST, INDIA
“The Cripple and his Talismans by Anosh Irani is a unique book.
The journey of the man in search of his missing arm is often hilarious, sad, and at the same time human and absurd.”
"A highly imaginative novel, full of humour, poetry, and insights, written in a beautiful, spare style. Throughout the narrative looms a great city, Bombay, crazily reflected in the life of one of its inhabitants who, by means baffling, heinous, desperate, and often very funny, seeks to embrace the divine with both arms."
— YANN MARTEL, author of Life of Pi
"[Irani's] brilliant debut novel, The Cripple and His Talismans, radiates with the energy of Bombay, albeit a dark energy... Irani commands attention from the first sentence."
— THE GLOBE AND MAIL
"[The Cripple and His Talismans] makes demands on the reader, but our effort is triply rewarded—first, by the lush imagery of the writing; second, because of its surprises and, finally, because of its deep moral gravity.... This debut novel marks a step in the evolution of Canadian literature."
— THE VANCOUVER SUN
"Darkly comic and brave, this novel has no fear when it comes to facing the lepers, beggars, and prostitutes of the city. Irani seeks out territory that would frighten away other writers.... The book's sheer audacity and humour elevate it well above the level of most first novels."
—QUILL & QUIRE
“Sly…Irani captures the cadence and inflections of his surreal Bombay perfectly.”
“An impressive debut, a beautifully written modern-day fable.”
“Anosh Irani has an eye for the absurdities of human existence and an ear for the comedy inherent in nearly everything we say. This is a marvelous debut.”
—BBC NEWS, The World Books
“…[A] lush debut novel…an undercurrent of dark humour as well as Irani’s atmospheric evocation of Bombay enliven this compelling story.”
— PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“Irani’s prose is audacious and spare. A challenging offering from a writer with a penchant for mixing the profane and divine.”