Book review: Tales from a Vending Machine - going somewhere? Not so fast

Anees Salim’s Tales from a Vending Machine amuses, but could have been much more.

Zahrah Mazhar September 15, 2013
Anees Salim’s Tales from a Vending Machine amuses, but could have been much more.

When taking a flight, the journey begins long before you actually step on a plane. You arrive at the airport, go through immigration, wait in the departure lounge and finally, board. While Hasina Mansoor had never actually been a passenger, she covered the first half of the journey every day.

An attendant at the vending machine “for instant chai and coffee” in the airport’s departure lounge, Hasina has a front-row seat to all the drama involving passengers, airline crew and in her own words, “the big people — politicians, filmwallahs, businessmen, cricketers, singers and dancers.”

Not one to be ungrateful, she doesn’t mind selling a cup of tea for Rs40 for a living since it lets her peer into the lives of others. In awe of flight attendants, especially the Kingfisher girls, Hasina, from time to time, shows an inclination towards becoming a female pilot or stewardess but never actually goes through with it.

Her life outside the airport centres on her no-nonsense Abba, her easygoing twin sister Shamla, and her young brother, Ali — the only character for whom a seemingly detached Hasina’s affection appears genuine.

Inspired by the diary of Anne “French”, Hasina starts to jot down her days’ accounts, initially making up the entries in her journal to make them seem interesting. But as the story progresses, Hasina’s otherwise dull days start to become eventful, particularly the ones on which she goes off for a rendezvous with her cousin Eza.

And thus, author Anees Salim of Tales from a Vending Machine has attempted to build a strong protagonist — a resilient girl who doesn’t shy away from taking risks (keep your eyes peeled for the last chapter, cleverly titled ‘Emergency Exit’). She’s also prone to add mothballs (in the form of powder) to the chai if offended. Salim’s writing prowess, however, lacks the same zing which could have made Hasina’s story more engaging and less predictable. The chapters in the book touch upon a variety of themes, such as Hasina’s opinion of 9/11, “Juice” [Jews] and her star-struck encounter with Shahid Afridi, but most of the times, fail to tie in with each other.

Salim’s narrative in Tales from a Vending Machine resembles that of Moni Mohsin’s in The Diary of a Social Butterfly. The former, however, could use some tips from the latter on how even simple writing can be powerful and comical writing can be less obvious and more witty.

Have fiction, will travel

Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta

Rana Dasgupta’s debut novel, Tokyo Cancelled, tells the story of 13 passengers stranded at an airport when a snowstorm delays their flight to Tokyo. The passengers huddle together and with hints of magic realism, each tells their story chapter by chapter. From within the confinement of the airport terminal, Dasgupta takes the reader from Paris to Delhi to London and more.

A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary by Alain de Botton

Read about the one week Alain de Botton set up home in one of the world’s busiest airports, Terminal 5 of London’s Heathrow, by being the writer-in-residence. With 24/7 access to the airport, Botton’s book is an insider’s tale of what goes on in an airport when all the passengers have boarded their flight and a lull takes over the venue which almost always appears to be in motion.

Airport by Arthur Hailey

The bestseller, Airport, might have an age-old plot about a man struggling to balance his career and personal life but Arthur Hailey’s simple yet engaging storytelling makes it a great read. Mel Bakersfield, the airport general manager at the fictional Lincoln International in Chicago, finds himself in a bind when a massive snowstorm hits the city and he has to make sure the airport’s operations run smoothly — all the while trying to shelter his marriage from a looming disaster as well.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 15th, 2013.

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