By Archana Pai Kulkarni

Anees Salim

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?

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AneesSalimI started writing this book shortly after my first manuscript fetched me a few rejection mails. I had just landed my first job and I was living hand to mouth on the top floor of a rundown hotel. The floor had only three rooms besides mine but they were always uninhabited, so I practically had the whole floor to myself, complete with the luxury of a spacious terrace, a pretty view of the city and pin drop silence throughout the night.

AneesSalimHe is sure about one thing: if he had not dropped out of college, he would have become “a disaster”. He, however, had a hard time convincing his parents.

“They were shattered, especially my mother,” says writer Anees Salim, who hails from Varkala, a coastal town in Thiruvananthapuram. “My father, who worked in the Middle East, sent doleful letters to my mother and eldest sister. I stole and read them. They did not touch me then, but now they do.”

Novelist Jim Crace made the announcement at the valedictory session of The Hindu Lit for Life: The Hindu

AneesSalimKerala-based writer Anees Salim won The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2013 for his second novel, Vanity Bagh for consistent writing and humour and imagination. (Read our interview with Salim here)

“The book is a very comic account of a young man from a minority group from a place called Vanity Bagh, also called Little Pakistan. It is about physical cities, both real and imagined,” said writer Timeri N. Murari, one of the jury members.

Vanitybagh“Vanity Bagh” by Anees Salim and “Foreign” by Sonora Jha are representative of works of many new writers who do not mind taking the risks involved in portraying Indian rural reality in English, writes K. Satchidanandan in the Frontline.

It has been some time since the subcontinental English fiction came of age and began to grapple with Indian history and reality with a confidence and an artistry one seldom comes across in its early practitioners. This new confidence that one first found in writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh marks many of the new writers who do not mind taking the risks involved in portraying Indian rural reality in English: the risk of exoticisation, of the work looking like an inadequate translation, of the difficulty in expressing in English the nuances of rustic life and speech. And, looking at the result, one can well say it has not been a vain adventure: we now have a corpus of such fiction that can legitimately claim to be as much Indian as fiction written in the languages whose losses in texture are compensated to a great extent by the intimate insight into the lives and minds of the men and women who people their ably painted landscapes.