When vappa returns to his hometown by the sea, it is forever. The cancer has defeated him, almost as brutally as life did. As a writer, Vappa’s talent is under-appreciated, which only adds to his scorn of other people, but he worries about the size of his obituary in the local paper. Perhaps, his teenage son will become a writer.
Anees Salim’s fifth novel, The Small-town Sea, is a haunting portrait of a family caught in death’s long shadow, all the while going about the humdrum routines that nudge life from one day to the next. With vignettes from his own childhood years in Kerala’s Varkala, the novel is something of a homecoming for Salim. Excerpts from an email interview:
In our previous conversation, two years ago, you said you’d already started working on this book. How did the story come about?
The same story and its thread came to me in a nightmare, some two-and-a-half years ago, when I was trying to write another book. It was an extremely detailed nightmare — the only character in it was my son, and he was stranded in my hometown because of my death. I saw him watching the sunset from the cliff that overlooked the sea. From that point in the nightmare, I worked backwards to write this book.
So much of your work is autobiographical, and located in the past. Family, home, childhood, these seem to be the essential themes that run through all your novels. What draws you to them?
I mostly shape characters out of people I have grown up with, and I create backdrops from places I have been to. In that sense, most of my work is autobiographical. I had a quiet childhood and, probably, that made me look closely at familial complexities and anecdotal situations within the family.
But when I started writing, I tried to write about distant people and their incredible adventures. I wrote almost half a novel about a group of friends trying to scale the Himalayas and was very confident of its completion — and even of its resounding success — until an avalanche of despair swallowed me. When I started to write about my home and my childhood, I found writing much easier and enjoyable. But my first novel, The Vicks Mango Tree (2012), is set in a fictitious place called Mangobagh and it is about a period I have no clear memory of.
Your last novel, The Blind Lady’s Descendants (2014), dealt with death as well. What is it about the decay of the body, of a house, of relationships that becomes such a defining part of these two books, if not a lot of your work?
Yes, death is a recurring theme in almost all my books. Every time I attend a funeral, I try to imagine how fruitful or futile was the deceased’s life. I believe when a person dies, a story is born; the story of his world with him. Having said that, I use death only when the story demands it. Since I write mostly about many generations, death is a natural thing to happen in my stories.
Some of your novels have a wonderful mix of the rural and the urban. This one talks about the divide between modern, city life, and a place caught in a different time.
I think I owe it to my journeys. After leaving my hometown, I travelled across the country without maps and money, and lived in many places, sometimes for a few months, sometimes a few days. When I sit down to write, I like to glue in various places to make a city or town. For instance, the railway tunnel in The Blind Lady’s Descendants doesn’t exist in my hometown, but somewhere in north India. One enjoyable thing about writing is you can do a town planner’s job the way you like.
The Small-town Sea is also a legacy project — the narrator writes to a literary agent in the UK, to fulfill his father’s prophecy. You’ve said that you’re Vappa and the narrator is your son. Your father also wrote, didn’t he?
In many ways, this is the story of the two of us. I have a daughter who is turning three next month. But while writing this book, I never wondered how her life would be impacted if the storyline turned real. I was only concerned about how my 17-year-old son would be affected by my death.
Yes, my father cherished the dream of becoming a writer, but he never predicted, unlike the father in The Small-town Sea, my writing career. To the best of my knowledge, his contributions to literature were restricted to some essays and a few translations. But, I think I owe my literary career to the wonderful library he built with books he had amassed from different corners of the world.
As a writer, what do you think you or one can accomplish by turning so far back in time, to childhood, specifically?
I have this almost unnatural obsession with what the rearview mirror offers. I don’t really relish the moment when it happens, but will look at it wistfully once I can no longer experience it. I didn’t enjoy my childhood days in Varkala. In fact, I hated it so much that I wished my father would think of relocating us to a big city. But once I was out of it, I started to see its small wonders. And every time I pay a visit to Varkala, I want to write something more about it.
The sea is a full-bodied character in this novel. When you were growing up in Varkala, how did you feel about the sea then? And what changed when you returned to it a few years ago?
I have must lived in Varkala for about 15 years before I found a way out of it. I went there when I was six, and left the town in my early 20s to explore India. In all those years, I went to the beach less than 10 times, even though it was about five km from where I lived. I particularly remember one visit which left me feeling small. I was with my father’s friend and his family who paid us a visit from another country. I remember sitting on the beach between his children who were roughly my age and spoke in English so fast, I didn’t understand a word.
When I returned to Varkala many years later, I fell in love with the beach and the cliff, and found the town full of characters and tales. A couple of months ago, I went for a long walk to the beach from my ancestral home, taking the same road I did in my schooldays. I found many people from my childhood, older by some three decades, standing on doorways, sitting pensively in armchairs, strolling in gardens, supervising plucking of coconut trees. I was literally walking down memory lane.
So much of this novel talks about the writer’s life, his dreams and frustrations — the lack of recognition, grasping for the right words, the right point of view.
Yes, in a way, The Small-town Sea is also about a writer’s life, his fears, his sense of insecurity and moments of little joy. I copied many of them from my own life — like the hotel room in the city where I wrote many of my manuscripts. It was demolished a couple of years ago to make space for a mall; or people proudly claiming that they haven’t heard of my books. But the most important of all, is my fear of getting an insignificant place on the obituary page.
How would you describe the last few years of writing, publishing five novels, and being feted? In what ways would you say you have changed as a writer, and what has changed in the way you tell stories?
Each book makes writing tougher for me. I have consciously slowed down the pace of writing. I have become very choosy about the subjects I pick and I keep discarding manuscripts after a few chapters.
I am intimidated by expectations — it’s what recognition, small or big, can do to you. Since I got the first award in 2013, (The Hindu Lit Award) I must have discarded a dozen manuscripts after a few chapters. One of them was about an imam, the second one about my father and expat life, and the third one about a gigolo in my hometown, making a living out of tourists.
Do you think you’ll write a novel with a female protagonist again? You did it fantastically, with Hasina Mansoor, in Tales From a Vending Machine (2013).
I don’t think I will write from a female point of view anytime soon. The response to Tales from a Vending Machine was not really heartening. It is sad that many people saw it as just a fast and funny read. But, a very senior journalist and author recently said he rated the book as one of my best. It made me unaccountably happy.
Given how visual your prose is, have you ever been approached by a filmmaker to adapt your novels?
No filmmaker has ever shown interest in my novels and I was never keen on turning my novels into movies until I wrote this book. I would love to see The Small-town Sea as a movie. Sometimes, I imagine myself watching it in one of the cinemas in my hometown, the soundtrack spilling out of the theatre and drifting about.
You’re very prolific, even though you said you’ve slowed down. What are you working on now?
I have started to write another book. It has a historical background and it is set in a place miles away from my hometown.