Writing Matters: In conversation with Anees Salim
By Archana Pai Kulkarni
Acclaimed as one of our most gifted raconteurs, Anees Salim won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2018 for his novel, The Blind Lady’s Descendants. The book also won the Raymond Crossword Book Award for Best Fiction in 2015.
His other books include The Vicks Mango Tree (2012), Tales from a Vending Machine (2013), Vanity Bagh (Winner of the Hindu Prize for Best Fiction, 2013), and The Small-town Sea that won the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize for Best Fiction, 2017, and was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize as well as the Tata Literature Live! Award, the same year.
Salim is Creative Director, FCB Ulka, Kochi, and an avid traveller.
Archana: Anees, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Blind Lady’s Descendants.
You are known to be a literary hermit and have mentioned that these recognitions have made you unnecessarily wary and self-conscious. Do you worry that the baggage of expectations that comes with awards, coupled with a surge in readers’ interest in you, may be too invasive and affect your writing? What makes you shy away from social interaction and literary platforms, when being out there could mean better sales and a larger readership?
Anees: Thank you. Yes, recognitions have put extra load on me and I have started discarding more story ideas than I used to do in the past. I don’t know if readers’ interest in my books has affected my writing because I haven’t written a book since The Small-town Sea was published.
Coming to my lack of social interaction, it has always been like this. All my books were released without official launches or book tours. And most of them have done reasonably well. But you are right, a few public appearances could have helped the books do better. The truth is I find it extremely hard to change myself.
Archana: The characters in your novels are consummate storytellers, be it the unnamed protagonist of The Small-town Sea or Amar Hamsa in The Blind Lady’s Descendants. Stories are also told from the perspective of a fish or a bird, narrators buoyed up by the protagonist who presumes what they are witnessing. ‘What did they see?’ is a recurring adjunct, a narrative device you use to offer an unusual overview, which cannot be relied upon entirely. Could you elaborate upon the choice and use of this tool?
Anees: Well, I believe children are the most imaginative and fearless storytellers. They have a unique way of looking at mundane things and their points of view can sometimes make you feel liberated. As a child, I used to imagine how birds would see my home, how my school would appear to earthworms, how chickens would heave a sigh of relief when we demanded lamb biriyani. Since The Small-town Sea is narrated by a thirteen-year-old – my youngest ever protagonist – I thought of using my favourite childhood pastime as a tool.
Archana: Death arrives early in some of your books. Your characters seem accepting of it, including their own. While there is a sense of melancholy and foreboding that shadows their rumination upon death, the characters succumb to it willingly, as if this cessation of their lives, however premature, is elemental and not so unpleasant, an inspiration even. They seem to meet death halfway, walk towards it, so to say. You also juxtapose a death with a birth. Amar in The Bind Lady’s Descendants is born on the very day that Javi, his doppelganger, dies. Vappa in The Small-town Sea dies three days after the unnamed protagonist’s thirteenth birthday. Why this preoccupation with death, and the mention of birth and death days alongside? What does the subject do for you as a writer?
Anees: I wish I had a logical answer to that question. In fact, I don’t know if my books deal with the topic of death more passionately than those of many other contemporary writers. On a personal level, the reminders of mortality keep coming to me, touching me in many ways. The other day, I was waiting at the foot of a park slide, ready to catch my little daughter who was dashing down the slide. Suddenly I found myself wondering who would be there to catch her in my absence. I suppose such thoughts cross every parent’s mind. In the role of a storyteller, it’s only natural for me to voice my apprehensions and uncertainties through my characters. Then again, isn’t death such an integral part of our lives?
Archana: What lured you away from structured learning into the fray of writing, fraught as it is with struggle and insecurity? Could you perhaps describe a bit of the background, the time and space that shaped you?
Anees: My family moved to Varkala when I was about 8 and I grew up seeking an escape route out of the small town and its monotonous ways. The school I was put in was a bigger disappointment than the town. The classrooms and textbooks tired and depressed me. Fortunately, we had a big library at home and it was full of good books, both classics and contemporary. And I took to reading to compensate for my lack of friends and social skills. It was easy, almost inevitable for a teenager who hated his surroundings, to fall in love with books. I pored over books while my peers went to colleges and earned degrees. I grew up with the conviction that my only way of staying relevant was through writing.
Archana: Do you know at what point you determined that you would be a writer?
Anees: The dream to become a writer came rather early in life. I was about 16 when I decided that writing was my calling and I dropped out of college without a second thought. But when the going got tough, I considered stop writing and finding a job in the Middle East.
Archana: Did you read your first texts to anybody or is writing a private activity for you?
Anees: Writing has always been a completely private activity for me. I don’t share my manuscripts with anyone until the final draft is done. The first person to read my manuscripts is usually my literary agent, and then the editor. I don’t solicit advice from anyone until the book is with the editor.
Archana: What were you seeking then, and what sustained you in your self-confessed arduous journey?
Anees: Looking back, I realize I was seeking peace of mind. Writing represented hope for me. Even the rejection letters I used to get from literary scouts and publishers brought me the hope of getting published one day. Tenacity, fuelled by hope, made me go on.
Archana: In the current scenario, where divisions are becoming increasingly marked, do you see your role as a writer extending beyond writing novels, to a more representative voice of a collective angst?
Anees: No, I don’t. I don’t have a bigger role to play in the society than that of a storyteller. I write to make myself heard. I am just a raconteur, not a reformist.
Archana: How do you feel about the role of fiction in these times, and the responsibility of the novelist, in terms of their potential to change the readers’ mental landscape?
Anees: I think the role of fiction is to make readers become a part of the landscape the book is set in, to make them smile, laugh, weep and suffer with the characters. The best thing a work of fiction can do is to inspire readers to write.
Archana: You have talked about your run-in with suicidal thoughts like Amar Hamsa, the protagonist in The Blind Lady’s Descendants. Did taking refuge in books save you? Was writing a way of working through your depression?
Anees: Writing did help me wade through bad times. But now I am beginning to realize that too much dependency on writing is a bad thing. If writing is your most effective tranquiliser, what will happen when you lose your ability to write well? That’s not good.
Archana: What are your earliest memories of the kind of books you read and the influences you soaked up? What moored you during difficult times?
Anees: My father was an avid reader and he was very choosy about what he read and what he treasured for us. He never let thrillers or science fiction enter the library. So I when I started to read I had an amazing collection to choose from. I was instantly fascinated by Naipaul, Graham Greene and Orwell. Their books crushed my confidence and inspired me to write at the same time.
Archana: You have spoken about sketching most of your characters from real life. Mining the personal can be both challenging and painful. Is your process of interpreting experiences and events a distancing process? Are you surprised by what surfaces? Does memory ever play tricks on you?
Anees: Sketching characters from real life was a somewhat easy task for me. But I found it tough to put them in unpleasant situations and turn them into more self-centred entities than they were in real life. Yes, sometimes the way characters developed surprised me. For instance, the grandmother in The Blind Lady’s Descendants turned out much better than I had visualized her.
Archana: You have a set of memories constellated around Varkala, the small town in Kerala where you grew up and where you spent your vacations at your maternal grandmother’s house. The Blind Lady’s Descendants and The Small-Town Sea are set there. What kind of impulses drove you to choose this setting?
Anees: My childhood memories are mostly about the small town that I was forced to relocate to. I always wanted to live in a big city, where I assumed life was fast and full of stories. And here I was, stuck in a big house in a sleepy little town. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing exciting to look forward to. Not surprisingly, when I started to write I completely ignored the town I was living in and set my stories in big, buzzing metropolis I created in my head. And my first book was set in a fictitious city called Mangobagh. After completing the first draft of The Vicks Mango Tree I started to travel, and that changed everything. I began to realize that the town I had left behind was full of stories.
Archana: What did you want to explore in the rudderless, quirky and restless characters in Vanity Bagh? Why did you want to tell the stories of those living on the fringes, drifting aimlessly, attracted to a kind of recklessness and wanting to be counted?
Anees: I have always been attracted by the stories of marginalised people. But what made me really pursue the idea of Vanity Bagh was something that happened at the workplace when I was much younger. In the middle of a heated discussion, someone asked me to go to Pakistan. I was shocked and saddened by the fact that everyone took that as a mere joke. But the hurt stayed with me, and the growing distrust between two communities appealed to me as the theme for a book. A book that is serious and funny at the same time.
Archana: Inanimate things like trains, railway tracks and tunnels come to life in your novels, luring your characters sometimes to their death. Besides adding to the atmosphere, they are characters in their own right, reflecting the protagonists’ thoughts, making their appearances at critical points in their lives, guiding the course of their action even, being precursors to significant events, and sometimes, by their mere mention, posing as foretellers of death. What made you humanise these elements, especially the sea?
Anees: Trains have always been a part of my life. My ancestral home stood next to a railway station and in my childhood, trains were the only things that seemed to be moving. By the time I was out of my teens, trains had come to symbolise my escape route. In my wanderings around the country, I found myself staying very close to railway tracks. The sea, on the other hand, was just a buzz in my childhood. My hometown is famous for its beach, but I was forbidden to go to the beach as a child. Leaving the town made me fall in love with its most prominent attraction and when I decided to write books with my hometown as their settings, these elements naturally assumed important roles. The tunnel in The Blind Lady’s Descendants, however, was something I thought up because the book demanded the presence of a dark and mysterious spot.
Archana: The presence and power of books is a recurring theme in your novels. Imran Jabbari, the narrator in Vanity Bagh begins to see words in blank books in the Book Room in prison. Javi in The Blind Lady’s Descendants had read over two hundred books by age twenty-six, and Vappa in The Small-Town Sea is a prize-winning author. Why is it such an important thing?
Anees: Books played an important role in every stage of my life. They strengthened and comforted me. So it is only natural that I celebrate the power of books. In fact, a book is the central character of the manuscript I have been trying to write for the past six months without much success.
Archana: In your novels, bad luck enters through the back door, there are imaginary visitations by ghosts, the dead appear fleetingly and the line between the real and the illusory is thin. Where does this come from?
Anees: I don’t have a clue. These things happen in the natural course of writing.
Archana: Which authors and books have made an impression on you? What is your take on critics comparing your work to that of R K Narayan?
Anees: Naipaul, Graham Greene, John Updike, Marquez, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell, William Faulkner…It is a long list. And I don’t think it is fair to compare my work with R K Narayan’s.
Archana: Your observations are sharp and mildly satirical, your stories both scathingly funny and achingly sad. The imagery is arresting and no detail escapes your eye. With a demanding job in the advertising industry, how do you make time to write? Has the adman in you merged seamlessly with the author?
Anees: A day job in advertising is indeed challenging. But I think I have learnt to manage time over the years. But I try to keep the adman away from my writing.
Archana: What are your quirks as an author – paper and pen or the laptop? A designated place to write or anywhere and everywhere? Lark or owl?
Anees: When I started to write it was paper and pen because I could not afford a typewriter. Now it’s laptop. I prefer to write early in the morning.
Archana: Your resilience in the face of rejections could be a remarkable lesson for aspiring writers. Do you believe that writing can be self-taught? What can you tell aspiring writers about going through the grind?
Anees: I think every writer should be prepared for rejections. Every writer should find his own way of dealing with rejections. Rejections did shatter me but they also strengthen me and made me write more. And I strongly believe that writing is an art one should teach oneself. I will ask aspiring writers to read and write whenever they can.
Archana Pai-Kulkarni gave up her work as the Executive Editor of New Woman magazine to concentrate on writing. Her poems and short stories have been published in the Indian P.E.N. and elsewhere. An independent editor, voice-over professional, blogger and certified yoga teacher, she writes opinion pieces and articles for digital platforms. She is currently working on her first book.