The storyteller of Kochi

Interview with Anees Salim, whose “The Small-Town Sea” has just been published.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST

Anees Salim.

Anees Salim.

WHEN one thinks of Anees Salim, an image of a quiet man happy to read endless books and who is, when done with reading, content throwing pebbles into the sea, flashes across one’s mind. He is alone, never lonely. Yet, the reality can be different. And, truth be told, Anees Salim, often self-effacing, almost always quiet, is a wonderful man, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. He has a finger on the pulse on contemporary politics and does not shy away from expressing himself frankly. He is not seen at literary festivals, and does not always turn up to receive the awards that come his way. But give him a pen and he is like a river in the plains: gentle, quiet, but profound.

When you read Anees Salim, the sense of time takes leave of you as the author sets about using his pen like a brush to etch out characters who are often at peace with the world but at war with themselves. Some mistake their disappointments for sorrow. Angst is indeed an abiding emotion in his works. Yet, it is seldom depressing. Melancholy is what stays with you as you cover hisliterary landscape. In fact, his pen transmits the joy of being sad.

It all started with Vanity Bagh , a book publishers did not take to initially— his first few books were rejected over 25 times. But once the book made it to print, it made waves. Vanity Bagh won The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction in 2013 and Salim was gliding from one book to another. After Vanity Bagh came The Blind Lady’s Descendants . And now, on to The Small-Town Sea . The autobiographical stamp remains unmistakable. The anguish too is there. The detailing, which would do a mathematician proud, is very much intact. For instance, in the latest book, he does not write of water as dripping or dropping. Rather, he expresses it as “water beaded along”. Yet, it is a feeling of melancholy that seeps in through words not spoken but not unexpressed either.

Though he is receptive to questions on his latest book, it is difficult to draw Salim out of his shell. Despite the prodding of his son and his publishers, he still does not grace the literary circuit. He is not seen at book launches. He does not do “Meet the Author” kind of television shows either. He is a throwback to days gone by, when an author let his pen do the talking. Welcome to the multi-layered world of Anees Salim, whose world centres around his home, his home town, and the sea around which he grew up in Kerala. It is a time and place that has spun many a story. Excerpts from an interview:

After a prolonged drought, here is a deluge. After your novels were rejected by publishers and literary agents, it seems the publishing world cannot have enough of Anees Salim. Aren’t you reaping the fruits of that drought now? What exactly helped you turn the corner?

Yes, it was such a long drought with no sign of the monsoon. But I refused to give up because there was nothing to fall back on. I had no friends, no role models, no mentors. And my educational qualification could not have earned me a well-paying job (I didn’t know back then that advertising accepted people like me), and finding a job in West Asia was the last thing I wanted to do. So, in spite of the setbacks, I decided to write book after book. Then, in 2010, I found Kanishka Gupta, a literary agent who had just set up shop and was dreaming of landing his first book deal. The combination of two literary novices worked. He got me multiple deals for one of my manuscripts and within a month three of my manuscripts were sold. I am glad that I stuck to writing and joined advertising. I would have been a certain failure in any other profession.

“The Blind Lady’s Descendants” had autobiographical elements, set as it was in your home town. Is that true of “The Small-Town Sea” as well?

The setting of The Small-Town Sea is the town I grew up in, and the structure of the family portrayed in the book is strikingly similar to mine. Plus, there is a writer in the book who has had similar difficulties in getting his books published and whose small literary achievements bear a resemblance to mine. That way The Small-town Sea is autobiographical. But I think the fate of the protagonist is something that can befall anyone, anywhere.

In “The Small-town Sea, you write about an author who is under-appreciated. Can I say the character stems from your experience in the early years of your literary journey?

Not really. I wanted the character to be slightly embittered chiefly because of his illness.

In most literary works as also in the arts, death is the destination. In your works, death is the beginning.

True, death plays a very important role in my books, especially in my last two books. And in both The Blind Lady’s Descendants and The Small-Town Sea , deaths don’t happen unexpectedly (with some exceptions, of course), they come after proper warnings, and those deaths are what keep these stories moving.

I believe every death hands you an evaluation sheet. At least it does to me. Every time I hear about someone’s death I subconsciously start summing up the deceased’s life. While I attend a funeral, I try to imagine how the deceased must have evaluated his or her life. Deaths give you storylines.

You invest your work with minute detailing. For instance, while talking of Vappa’s death, you write: “When the men lifted the santhok on to their shoulders I found myself a good head shorter than the rest of the pall bearers....” Does such detailing stem from hours, days, maybe years of loneliness? There is that silent anguish....

One thing I never fail to notice in funerals is how almost every child wants to carry the bier. Probably that makes them feel grown-up and important. But they are normally elbowed away and it’s the lost opportunity that pains them more than the death. Such detailing comes straight from life. My job is reduced to finding the right situations and plugging them in.

You treat the sea almost as a human element. It brings to mind some of the words of Derek Walcott. Even here in The Small-Town Sea , with expressions such as “I stood rooted in the sea”, the story does not happen without the sea.

The sea was a strong presence right through my childhood, both in its calm and tumultuous avatars. My school was about a mile from the beach, and when the sea turned violent, the sound of the waves filtered in through coconut plantations and reached the classrooms, and I would instantly grow jealous of the children from the fishing communities who roamed the beach all day, swam in the sea and made friends with foreign tourists.

I had toyed with the idea of staying on a cliff that overlooked the sea and working on the final draft of The Small-Town Sea , but finally decided against it, fearing that the vicinity of the sea might revive memories of my schooldays and take the story somewhere else. Incidentally, it was rivers, not the sea, that I stayed close to while writing many parts of this book: the Danube in Budapest, the Ganga in Benares, the Chao Phraya in Bangkok…

You once said, “The voice of angst comes easily when writing about Muslim characters.” Has the angst become more profound over the past three years or so? And have you faced the charge of writing about too many characters from a community that is now considered a political outcast?

Yes, the angst has become acute. It has deepened because the divide between communities has widened over the years. You keep hearing about atrocities committed in the name of what you eat, what you wear, or how you pray. You are no longer sure how freely you can discuss faith with a friend or a colleague who hails from another religion. See how quickly lynching has stopped shocking the nation. You tend to be cautious, even in a causal conversation.

I am yet to be accused of pitching almost all my stories in Muslim neighbourhoods or families. But I won’t be surprised if that happens. And when you write chiefly about one community, accusations can come from within the community or outside of it. You can be accused of being bitter or biased.

You are pretty reclusive, preferring to let your pen do the talking. Is it fair to label you a literary hermit?

Yes, it is. Maybe coming out in the open, meeting people, doing book tours, attending literary fests…all these will help sell a few more copies. But I want my books to do all that.

As a teenager you made yourself a promise to “read a lot and write big books”. So, what is the next big thing coming from your pen?

I am writing about a historical character I have always found funny and intelligent at once. And for that I am using the backdrop of a big city. But it’s too early to say if it will mature into a book or I will have to discard it after a few chapters.

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