23 July 2017 13:57:00 IST

Outside the walls religions build

Anees Salim prefers to stay away from the limelight and let his books do the talking

Anees Salim is a writer based in Kochi, Kerala. When he’s not writing (most of his writing happens in the quiet hours of the night), he works as an advertising professional.

A few years ago, Salim’s manuscripts were noticed by a few publishers and subsequently published in quick succession. His earliest novels include The Vicks Mango Tree, The Blind Lady’s Descendants and Vanity Bagh , which won the The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction in 2013. A recluse, Salim isn’t inclined to attend literary festivals, and skips award functions, including the ones where he has won.

His recently released novel, The Small-Town Sea , is set in an unnamed small town. The novel is about a 13-year-old boy’s bond with his father, whom he calls ‘Vappa’. The boy is uprooted from a bustling city and “replanted in his father’s hometown where he struggles to cope with his new life.”

The following is an edited excerpt from BLink ’s interview with Salim.

Your novels are set in quiet, small towns where people dream of making it big. In The Small-Town Sea, the central character moves from a city to a small town, living a quietly dramatic life by the sea. Are these towns and characters in your novels autobiographical, people and places you grew up with since your childhood?

Only two of my books, The Blind Lady’s Descendants and The Small-Town Sea, are set in small towns, and these two books have the same backdrop — my hometown.

I don’t think it is wrong to call these books semi-autobiographical. I modelled many of their characters after people I grew up with, or watched from a distance. And talking about places, yes, I sketched them mostly from the town I spent almost half of my life in, but I also wove some landmarks into the landscape of my hometown.

You’ve written novels that are at opposite ends of a spectrum. For example, Tales from A Vending Machine is very funny and The Blind Lady’s Descendants is profoundly sad. How did these different narratives emerge? Do you work on several novels at the same time, allowing them to grow simultaneously?

After having earned a handful of rejections for my other novels, Tales from a Vending Machine was my last attempt at getting published. And I wanted to make it as racy and funny as possible. Naturally, it is different from all my other books. The Blind Lady’s Descendants, on the other hand, was an attempt at revisiting my childhood while The Small-Town Sea is a nervous peek into the future.

No, I don’t work on several books simultaneously. I don’t know if anyone ever does that. For me, writing one book at a time is a hard enough task

The Muslim characters in your novels have complex lives; tragic yet funny too, as opposed to the stereotypical images of the community in the popular Indian imagination. And these characters are opinionated, funny, and not afraid to express their thoughts. Does your own Muslim identity inform your fiction and the characters you flesh out in your novels and stories?

I grew up in a family which had its share of staunch believers and hardcore atheists. And it was interesting to watch them debate and try to outwit each other. So by the time I was ready to write my first story I had quite a big collection of characters to choose from. And one thing I noticed about religious conversations is that people express themselves more freely when they are surrounded only by people of their community. Many of my characters fearlessly express their views under the impression that other communities are not eavesdropping on them.

In the current political environment where minorities, especially Muslims, feel vulnerable, what do you see your role as? Do you sometimes feel the burden of being a representative?

I write about a particular community, but I don’t necessarily write for them. I use Muslim settings and write Muslim stories because it is easier for me to write about people and places I am familiar with. I think the loudest voices against the right-wing politics come from writers and scholars who are atheists. Writers live outside the walls religions build.

How hard was it to continue writing during years of rejection?

Rejections were indeed painful. But I survived the shock and pain they gave me. I was convinced I had a few stories worth telling, and that conviction steeled me. More than talent it was tenacity that worked for me.

Till now you’ve been staying away from book launches and literary festivals, things that other authors eagerly participate in, for promotional purposes. Was it a conscious decision to let your novels do all the talking?

I don’t know if my books can do all the talking. Maybe critics and readers can talk for me, or they can talk my books down.

When the confetti settle down and the arc lights are turned off and the reader is alone, it’s the book that matters, only the book. It’s the moment when the writer actually begins to talk.

(Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)