Once upon a time in Varkala, a quiet tourist town that is no more than a dot on the Kerala coast, a teenager found himself trapped inside a classroom at the local school. Anees Salim didn’t like being there, not one bit, and as the teacher droned on in Malayalam, he looked out of the classroom windows and imagined a tall African tribal picking his way across the empty playground. “It was the most recurring image that flashed across my mind those days. Perhaps, he was a symbol of freedom for me,” says Salim. He wasn’t doing well at school and decided to drop out at 16. “My family was devastated, especially my father. My relatives grew cynical when they learned about my aspirations to be a writer,” he says. Undeterred, he stood in front of a mirror and made himself a solemn promise: “To read a lot, and write big books”.
His decision made, Salim sought refuge in his father’s library, where the dust rose from books left untouched — his father worked abroad. “He held jobs in many countries in Asia and secretly cherished the idea of becoming a writer. He had a folder stuffed with stories he discarded halfway through and some translations he tried his hand at,” says Salim. “The first book I read from his collection was Miguel Street by VS Naipaul, followed by A House for Mr Biswas. These books crushed my confidence; I had to read lesser books to rebuild my confidence,” he says in an email interview. Soon enough, Salim began to write.
In the last three years, four of his novels have been published: The Vicks Mango Tree (HarperCollins), Tales From a Vending Machine (HarperCollins), Vanity Bagh (Picador) and The Blind Lady’s Descendants (Tranquebar). Last Tuesday, The Blind Lady’s Descendants won the prestigious Crossword Book Award 2014 for Best Fiction, beating Amit Chaudhuri (Odysseus Abroad), Shovon Chowdhury (The Competent Authority), Amitabha Bagchi (This Place) and Hansda S Shekhar (The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey). This comes a year after Vanity Bagh was awarded the Hindu Literary Prize. “I thought Shovon had the slight edge over the rest of us,” says Salim.
And yet, at both events, Salim, 45, wasn’t present to receive the prize. Neither has there ever been a book launch for any of his novels. As notoriously private as he is prolific, Salim stays far from the madding literary crowd in Delhi and Mumbai, working in Kochi as a creative director at FCB Ulka, a global advertising firm. “I don’t attend parties, weddings, get-togethers, workshops, reunions. I like my world to be small and thinly populated,” he says.
And so it is — Salim creates a detailed world for his protagonists, delving into their interior lives, looking back to look in. Memory is the leitmotif that runs through all his novels, a thread that binds the past and the future; the present is only as long as one inhabits it. The Blind Lady’s Descendants, a 300-page suicide letter by Amar Hamsa that chronicles his family history, shows Salim’s ability to string the tenuous filaments that hold a life together; it is a novel where the light at the end of the tunnel only proves to be the light that must be snuffed out.
“It is autobiographical in some ways. My maternal grandmother, too, was blind and poor, and like the protagonist, I have three siblings. I liked the way the character Javi (Amar’s maternal uncle) developed and continued to live through the book even after he took his life. I wrote this book years ago and little did I know then that my nephew, who was called Javi at home, would end his life in an almost similar fashion,” says Salim.
Salim’s success can be attributed to stock rejection mails that plagued him at the beginning of his writing career; the letters only compelled him to write more books. “I wrote The Vicks Mango Tree first, then I wrote The Blind Lady’s Descendants, then Tales from a Vending Machine. I started writing Vanity Bagh soon after my first book deal came through,” he says.
Juggling a day job and a literary career, Salim writes late at night, or early in the morning. “When I write, I reread my favourite writers slowly, a couple of pages a day. My favourite writers include Graham Greene, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Roddy Doyle, Julian Barnes. Among these, I reread Orwell’s less celebrated works often, like Down and Out in Paris and London, Coming Up For Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” he says.
While Salim is an atheist, some of his characters are practising Muslims. In a country where the Muslim community is a significant minority who have faced a history of persecution and mistrust, he says there is more scope for multiple narratives on Muslims in Indian literature.
He began with Rabia Sheikh in The Vicks Mango Tree. It is 1977, and the Emergency is still in place; Rabia, a housewife, resides in an apartment building in Mangobaag, behind a mango tree where the fruit smells like Vicks Vaporub. She learns recipes from the radio, writes unanswered letters to her mother and in an act of kindness, tears up a letter written by Nirad C Chaudhuri to her neighbour; the celebrated Anglophile refused to endorse the retired school teacher’s life’s work, The Autobiography of an English Teacher. In spite of its gently rambling prose and the self-effacing humour of its characters, the manuscript found no takers; until Salim decided to pitch his work differently.
In 2011, he sent out Tales From a Vending Machine to Kanishka Gupta, a Delhi-based literary agent who had just started his company. Except that it wasn’t Salim who made the pitch — it was his protagonist Hasina Mansoor who sent Gupta a manuscript about her life as a girl who managed a vending machine at an airport. “I read a few chapters and asked for the entire book. He also sent me The Vicks Mango Tree and within moments, I signed him on,” says Gupta.
“Anees’s was a blind submission from someone I had no clue about. Tales From a Vending Machine was funny, yet smart. I was quite floored by its cleverness. Then I read The Vicks Mango Tree. This was a special voice,” says Saugata Mukherjee, former managing editor, HarperCollins India, who moved to Picador India as publisher. During his stint there, he published Vanity Bagh.
Vanity Bagh, too, is located in Mangobaag. A fictional town, Salim gradually carved it out of many other cities. “It is Hyderabad in some places, Lucknow in some other places. You might even find traces of Delhi in it. This is the city I would have built, with lots of mango orchards, forts, ruins and colonnaded buildings,” he says.
Vanity Bagh, a Muslim mohalla in Mangobaag, is all Imran Jabbari can think of while doing time in prison for his role in a series of bomb blasts in the city. The story of his life leaps out from the empty pages he binds into books in the jail’s Book Room. “Years ago, someone told me that I should catch a train to Pakistan. Whenever there is an act of terror, I think every Muslim feels frowned upon. I don’t think an Indian Muslim will ever be able to correct the perception that he secretly supports and sympathises with Pakistan,” says Salim.
He’s moved away from Mangobaag, though, and is retracing his steps to Varkala, which makes a veiled appearance in The Blind Lady’s Descendants. Salim is now working on his fifth novel. “It is a story about two boys growing up in my hometown, which is famous for its beach and red cliffs. I used to hate Varkala earlier, but I have started to love it,” he says. Perhaps now, the symbol of freedom looks different from an African tribal standing in a playground, looking at him from a distance.
The story appeared in print with the headline A private eye