Anees Salim is one of the most prominent and critically acclaimed novelists in India today. He has published four novels, namely The Vicks Mango Tree, Tales From A Vending Machine, Vanity Bagh, and The Blind Lady’s Descendants. Of these, Vanity Bagh won the The Hindu Literary Prize in 2013 and The Blind Lady’s Descendants won the Crossword Book Award for English Fiction 2014.
Salim’s narrators retain a straight-faced sense of humour in the face of great personal tragedy and sometimes perform the function of social commentary, the latter never out of any sense of solutionism or false idealism. Salim’s towns, though located in India, do not provide their geography that easily. Places and objects are given striking names that are purposefully in-congruent with the socio-economic milieu described. Take the example of a Muslim mohalla named Vanity Bagh, in which a tree has been named Franklin. An excellent take on Salim’s work may be read here.
The short interview was conducted over email, and the interviewer had only read the two prize-winning novels mentioned above. Any deficiencies here are totally due to the interviewer, who also takes responsibility for any silly mistakes.
I feel that there is something like Rushdie in your language. Rushdie had an advertising background, and so do you. Do you think your line of work has an impact on your style, like it surely did for Rushdie? For example, the pai by pai bit in the line below is the kind of stuff copywriters do, don’t they?
Jasira boasted to her friends that Akmal was being trained as an electronic engineer, and later in life she would pay the price, pai by pai, for such heartless lies.
I am surprised by this observation. I don’t think there is anything Rushdie-like in my writing. I have read only one book by him, Midnight’s Children. I have been influenced by writers like V.S. Naipaul, George Orwell, William Faulkner, Graham Greene and many others. But Rushdie is not one among them.
It is not easy writing advertisements during the day and a book at night. But I have learned to switch off my profession at night and become an author. I think I succeeded in keeping my manuscripts away from advertising.
Much has been said and written about how difficult it was for you to get published. I heard that you got your first book out at the age of 41 (that gave me a lot to think about my own writing and its failures). I want you to talk about the years of rejection and neglect. How dented was your pride? How could you sustain conviction in yourself? Did the possibility that you might not be published ever surface in all its bleakness? I am hoping for a lengthy answer to this 🙂
When I started writing my biggest fear was dying without getting published. I did not want to be buried in a quiet corner of a sleepy town without having achieved anything substantial, without qualifying myself for a fair-sized obituary.
So each rejection left me devastated, and there was no one to share my suffering, because my aspiration to be a writer was a well-kept secret. But I think I fought rejections admirably well. Tenacity was my defense mechanism, and I kept on writing, almost unmindful of rejections, one book after another. Then one day I realized I had at least three readable manuscripts along with many unreadable ones. I knew at least one of them, if not all three, would be picked up by a publisher, maybe a small publisher, someone who would print a few hundred copies and offer no advance and very little royalty. That would have been fine with me. In moments of desperation, I would have settled for any kind of publishing deal, except self-publishing. Strangely enough, when I landed my first book deal after earning many rejections, all I felt was a sense of relief, as if I was getting a big load off my back.
And now, what has publication and prizes changed? Do you feel that you can experiment more, have more liberty?
Awards have indeed changed my life; they made writing a harder task for me. Since I won my first award, which was the Hindu Prize in 2014, I have become very self-conscious about my writing. I feel being watched, which sometimes results in losing my rhythm. On the other hand, these recognitions have given me the space and energy to experiment with form and craft.
Sales and (local) prizes aren’t exactly correlated for literary fiction in India. There is always the risk that a stellar novel might face general apathy despite what it achieves in the critic’s eye. What would you rather have – big sales or big prizes?
I would certainly prefer critical acclamation to sales.
Is there any other language that you had the option to write in? Do you write in English out of a conscious choice? Why or why not?
I attended schools where the medium of instruction was Malayalam. So I can write in Malayalam, but I don’t know if I am good at it. Writing novels in Malayalam never appealed to me. Maybe the decision to write in English was influenced by my home library which had a tremendous collection of English literature.
There is a paragraph in The Blind Lady’s Descendants in which the narrator thinks of a letter from his uncle Kasim, who lives in London. In the image in the narrator’s mind, the letter is seen to be traveling like a paper plane, along a dotted line between continents. The narrator, born in 1968, imagines this sometime in the 80s. It felt anachronistic to me, for I can only place such graphical representations of intercontinental in movies and ads that came after that time. Just something that I can’t think of as having been available in the 80s (correct me if I’m wrong). How could the narrator have this image in his mind?
Continuing with anachronisms, there is a mention of Osama Bin Laden among the characters in The Blind Lady’s Descendants 9in the 80s, again). Now we all know that Bin Laden grew infamous, or even famous, only in the mid-nineties. Did you commit an error here? Or are these conscious decisions? If yes, then for what aesthetic effect?
No, they were not conscious decisions. The one about Laden didn’t occur to me until you pointed it out. But letters travelling as paper planes is definitely not an anachronism. I used to imagine letters as flying machines in my childhood.
Talking of anachronisms and other errors, there are a couple of them in my first novel which went unnoticed by everyone until the author Kiran Khalap brought them to my notice through a mail. One of them was about people drinking tea from plastic cups in 1976 – plastic cups were not used in India back then; the second one was about the presence of humming birds in the story – there are no humming birds in India.
‘Inside every big Indian city, there is a little Pakistan’ – this line from Vanity Bagh is perhaps the most explicit articulation of the political strain in that novel. Are we going to have an out-and-out political novel from Anees Salim?
No, not in the near future. The book I am currently working on has nothing to do with politics. And the one after that will probably be a historical novel.
What writing routine do you follow? Do you write everyday – mornings? – evenings?
Yes, I write every day, and I prefer to write when my home is quiet, which is late at night or early in the morning. I can’t write when people are up and about. I envy people who sit at cafes and write bestsellers.
One of the best moments in Vanity Bagh for me was when a character played with Mahatma Gandhi’s statement ‘My life is my message’, represented it verbatim as a possible advertisement by a telco. I laughed out loud, and can’t stop smiling whenever I think of it. What role does humour play in your writing?
I use humour to make the act of writing simpler and more entertaining. Using a serious tone makes me want to stop writing and shut down the computer. But when I read I choose serious stuff.