A college dropout, an ace advertising professional and a novelist, Anees Salim is the new literary star with four of his novels accepted in a month and published in quick succession. Recently his second novel, Vanity Bagh has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2013. Described as a comic tale, the story is about “how innocence gets punished in a world growing more and more absurd, and what ails the systems of justice we have created.”
After 20 years of rejection slips from various publishers, Anees’s novels were finally noticed by literary agent, Kanishka Gupta. Soon Picador published Vanity Bagh, The Blind Lady’s Descendants went to Amaryllis, and Harper Collins picked up two of his books, including Tales From a Vending Machine. The Vicks Mango Tree, his first novel to be published, is set in ‘Mangobaag’.
Anees, who currently heads the creative department of Draft FCB Ulka, Kochi, in an interview with Majid Maqbool, talks about his struggles to become a writer and how the divide and mistrust between two faiths has always fascinated him and fueled his stories.
Your second novel, Vanity Bagh has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2013. The main character in this novel is named Imran Jabbari, the son of a local Imam. How did this book come about? Did this story grow out of your own experiences, or of someone you knew from your childhood?
This book happened without warnings. I was trying to write another book and had even sketched a few characters for it. The setting was my hometown and the story was about a gang of young men who aspired to be dons. Half way through the novel, I realized that the setting was wrong; my hometown was small and sleepy, and didn’t have any potential for organized crimes. So I discarded the story, but kept the characters, and when I started writing the next book I gave them a bigger city and bigger things to accomplish.
Did you think such characters inhabiting small towns and Muhallas, especially from the Muslim community, are missing from the novels written in India, or at best portrayed as victims written as margins of a larger story…?
I don’t know if we have enough pieces of fiction on the Muslim community. But in all my books Muslims characters play important roles. I write about them because I have a decent understanding of their apprehensions, crises and misunderstandings. In fact, one of my editors thinks I write quite convincingly about Islam and she encourages me to mine deeper.
You have said, “Inside every big Indian city, there is a tiny Pakistan”. That is a telling line. As a writer, who is also a Muslim, do you feel Indian Muslims—and their stories—have struggled to find acceptance and readership in the Indian mainstream?
Let’s face it. We live in a country where two faiths coexist in mutual distrust. They hate and mock each other behind closed doors. As a writer this divide has always fascinated me; its fallouts are sometimes shocking, sometimes funny. For instance, many Muslim neighbourhoods in India are secretly referred to as Little Pakistan. And every time a terrorist act takes place in India, Muslims think they are frowned upon, stared at, secretly held responsible for. And to answer your question, religion can neither improve a writer’s chances nor ruin them.
Before your books came out, you were consistently rejected by publishers for two decades. How difficult was it to continue writing during those years? Did you ever think of not sending your manuscripts to the publishers given the rejection letters? Or did you enjoy writing during that long period of solitude?
In my opinion, if a rejection letter can end your writing career, it should be the first one. If you survive that one, you can very well survive hundreds of them that might follow. The rejection mails did shatter me, but they strengthened me as well, and inspired me to write better.
Your author brief still says “Anees loves being invisible.” Are you invisible, so to speak, in your novels as well? How much of you, or your experiences, are part of the novels you have written so far?
I suspect there is a bit of me in almost every character of mine. It could be a trait, an experience, amindset…I believe every work of art is autobiographical in one way or other.
You have spoken and written about the influence of your father’s rich library while growing up. Was that your school of learning since childhood, attracting you towards stories and books even when you dropped out of school?
In my small hometown, a home library was not a common thing. I grew up defending our library from people who claimed to be voracious readers and wanted to borrow books with no intention of returning them. Had it not been for my father’s library, I would not have started reading. In a way, the library inspired me to drop out and start reading and, later, writing. I now live in a bigger city and I have a bigger library, and my biggest fear is my son looking at the shelves the way I had once done and deciding to take the path I had so recklessly chosen.
How did your travels and reading influence your writing when you were in your 20s and 30s? Did you travel to the small towns?
I travelled without maps and money. I travelled mostly to big cities, and Mangobaag, the setting for my first two novels, was born out of these wanderings.
Four of your books are out in the market now. Tell us about your writing process – from the initial idea of the story and time taken to finish writing a novel?
I am a restless writer. More restless when I don’t have a story to write. I don’t mind discarding drafts, but as long as I can spin yarns I am happy. I write late at night or early in the morning. To reach the final draft, it can take any amount of time. I worked on my debut novel for years on end. The other books I could finish in less than a year. It depends on the subject and the professional commitments you have.
For a young writer who thinks he has stories to tell, who even writes them well but without any publishing success, what advice will you give?
Write until you succeed.