WKND Books: V.J. James’ Anti-Clock is a symbolic exploration of life and death in viral times

Joydeep Sen Gupta/Dubai
Filed on July 1, 2021

Indian novelist V. J. James' book is an allegorical exploration of protagonist coffin-maker Hendri’s bid to punish his nemesis Satan Loppo, as he seeks to travel back in time

Indian novelist V.J. James’ Anti-Clock, which has been translated from Malayalam into English by Ministhy S., an Indian bureaucrat, is a philosophical literary oeuvre, which discusses the mysterious problems of life and death. The theme has a poignant ring to it amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic. Excerpts from the interview with James:

How authentic is the translation by Ministhy S.?

Ministhy is erudite in both Malayalam and English. Her efforts in translating the book — without losing the original flavour — is brilliantly showcased in the English version. I am delighted that she was able to convey the way of life, dialects and atmosphere of a village without losing the authenticity.

Isn’t the theme anachronistic following an uptick in deaths due to Covid-19?

Covid-19 provoked the world to think about the insignificance of human life. Instead of living harmoniously with nature, mankind was exploiting her, and we saw how Covid-19 indirectly stalled that devastation. Anti-Clock, written much before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, had analysed the subject quite deeply. The villainous character, Satan Loppo, symbolises the avaricious and power-hungry man, who destroys nature. We see how nature steps in when humans fail to stop him. Anti-Clock discusses the most relevant topic amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The factors which strengthen the philosophical strand in the book consist of the two phenomena, death and time, which have never yielded to human understanding across ages.

How did the death knell from the nearby church become the protagonist Hendri’s tempo?

That is a part of the protagonist Hendri’s trials and tribulations of his past. The dire straits his family is in prompts them to await death and to sell coffins for appeasing their hunger. When the bell tolls death, the family would eagerly hope for the sale of a casket. Hendri bitterly incriminates himself for thinking on these lines and loathes the fact that he is dependent on another person’s death for earning his daily bread. He is not exulting when the church bells toll. Hendri is a simple villager, who tries to love even his enemy. He is a coffin-maker with all the failings and foibles of a normal human being. The novel attempts to explore life’s highest perspectives, as Hendri battles excruciating circumstances in his life.

Is coffin-maker a derided profession? If so, why?

No profession is despicable. Indeed, a coffin maker satisfies one of the greatest needs of the world. However, unless pushed by extreme need, nobody visits a coffin shop, casually, unlike other places. The immature villagers see Hendri’s coffin shop as an ominous place, where death lies in wait. However, in European countries, there are famous companies that specialise in crafting the latest style coffins. Contrary to that lifestyle trend, Hendri is an impoverished coffin maker, who is dependent on the sale of his hand-made caskets, for taking care of his children. The helplessness he feels, along with the disdain shown by others, pushes him into being a timid introvert.

What’s the significance of the title?

Anti-clock plays the central role in this novel and stands for a metaphor causing unexpected twists. A 112-year-old man called Pundit, an erstwhile soldier of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), builds an anti-clock and gives it to Hendri. The rhythm of our universe runs in an anti-clockwise direction. When a man moves in an opposite direction to the universe’s original tempo, anti-clock transforms into a corrective force: as if travelling back in time. The bewildering twists wrought in the narrative by the presence of the anti-clock makes it the obvious choice for the title.