Review: The Body by the Shore by Tabish Khair
"The Body by the Shore" by Tabish Khair is a complex sci-fi thriller with elements of Scandinavian noir that explores themes of climate change, racism, abuse of power and science. Set in a quasi-dystopian future, the narrative follows three seemingly unconnected plot lines that converge to examine humankind's place in the cosmos and its ability to wreak systemic havoc on the world and on fellow beings.
Eclectic in thematic scope and narrative style, and with elements of Scandinavian noir, The Body by the Shore is a complex sci-fi thriller. The author Tabish Khair, who is also a poet and academic, is a critical voice in contemporary Indian English writing whose works have been lauded for straddling genres. In his latest work, he explores the darker vagaries of human behaviour at a macro level, through the prism of science.
The scene is set in the quasi-dystopia that prevails in the aftermath of a pandemic, a few years from now: “By 2031, memories of the dread that the virus had evoked in many circles had faded… Many people were simply not interested in these dated ten-year-old stories of suffering. Neither were they interested in connecting pandemics to climate change or human lifestyle.” Power terrifyingly rests in the hands of a few: “the accelerating roller-coaster ride of economies, turning entire nations into kingdoms run by oligarchs and corporate robber barons, under the thin veneer of elected parliaments and free media”. Radicalised violence and upheavals persist on the geopolitical front, and greed dominates with the rise of giant corporations.
In this milieu, three seemingly unconnected plot lines emerge. Michelle, a beautiful young Caribbean woman finds herself on an old oil rig in the North Sea. Initially disconcerted by the strangeness of her environs and the suave man she has chosen to follow to a place that gets ever more sinister, her first-person ruminations lend the required impetus to the narrative.
In a parallel story, Jens Erik, a retired police officer in Aarhus, Denmark, living a solitary life spent gazing at birds and amidst plants, grapples with the contentious relationship he shares with his adult daughter. He yearns to be rid of the xenophobic tag she has given him. While Jens Erik works with people of varied ethnicities, he struggles to understand why they can’t live where they were born: “he felt that there was something to be said about staying in a place where you knew which berries to eat and which to avoid, where you could identify a bird hidden in a bush by its trill. It had nothing to do with hating immigrants. Though he did not understand immigrants. Refugees he understood, but he could not understand why anyone would move by choice.” A fragment of a memory leads him to ponder on the strange case of a black body that had washed up on the shore, some years before. Did he look the other way because the victim was of a different colour and country? Restless with the thought, he chooses to uncover the mystery. Khair uses this plot line to examine themes of immigration and racism, and how stereotypes shape thought.
In a third thread, Harris Malouf, a swan-keeping ex-assassin, whose erstwhile existence has been erased from all records, and is now a cognitive anthropologist, is called upon by a shadowy ex-colleague to investigate the aftermath of a 2012 closed-door seminar titled Mind, Body and Soul: The Cognitive Sciences and Religion that was held in Aarhus and was attended by academics with multidisciplinary backgrounds.
There are multiple microcosms in Khair’s world. The rapport that Jens Erik shares with his daughter, or Michelle’s divulgences as she converses with her mother in absentia, are the sensitive notes in the narrative. Other dispassionate accounts offer fantastic facts, research stories and personal stories of sundry characters. Liberally interspersed with the main narrative are case studies and anecdotal references feeding scientific theories that have microbes at their nucleus. There is the leitmotif of the symbiotic relationship between microorganisms, leading to an existential interrogation that goes as far back as the genesis of our planet. Khair attempts a provocative intellectual discourse while keeping with the momentum of a thriller. He succeeds in this though the early chapters are occasionally challenging to navigate with characters, situations and theories tumbling out fast and furious. A succinct passage is laid out on the fabled Macrobians, a tall, handsome people capable of leading unusually long lives. An intriguing side character, Kathy, Harris’ ex-colleague and close friend, survives on a wonder drug called Crobe and wrestles men in private sessions for a living. A Japanese nuclear physicist-astronomer is bizarrely transformed for the worse when he turns towards a fatal mix of religious mania and paranoia. And in a touch of the supernatural, a beautiful woman in a long flowy dress is seen shadowing certain characters at crucial junctures. The intense narrative packs in these and other myriad stories, some that feel like they are strands in the wind.
Khair effectively tackles themes of climate change, racism, abuse of power and science. It is evident that some lives are lesser, and those deemed inferior by dint of their skin colour or their economies, are mostly doomed to terrifying lives or fates. The pursuit of science does not presuppose a hallowed purpose. There are murkier reasons. Khair does not shy away from making a political statement either. The writer’s forte also lies in suitably adapting the writing according to the tenor of a passage. A darkness sits light or heavy, on each section of the narrative.
In the end, The Body by the Shore transcends the label of noir fiction set in the bleak near future. It is a study in anthropology that looks at humankind’s place in the cosmos and its ability to wreak systemic havoc on the world and on fellow beings.
Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.