A writer speaks

Crossword Prize and most rejections: Anees Salim on his novel ‘The Blind Lady’s Descendants’

‘My nephew had taken his life a while ago, but he had not left a suicide note, much unlike his namesake in the book.’

I started writing this book shortly after my first manuscript fetched me a few rejection mails. I had just landed my first job and I was living hand to mouth on the top floor of a rundown hotel. The floor had only three rooms besides mine but they were always uninhabited, so I practically had the whole floor to myself, complete with the luxury of a spacious terrace, a pretty view of the city and pin drop silence throughout the night.

Halfway through the manuscript I learned why the rent was ridiculously low: the previous tenant had ended his life in the room by hanging himself from the ceiling fan. Talk about coincidences: I wrote the first draft of The Blind Lady’s Descendants, which is actually a long suicide note of a twenty-six-year-old, in a room where someone had killed himself. I wrote most of the early version of this book with an eye on the ceiling, shuddering at the lightest sound.

The Setting

The book is set in my hometown, which is small and fringed with a beautiful beach and a row of red cliffs. In my childhood I ranked this place the worst neighbourhood to grow up in. It was eternally sleepy and quiet, except for the occasional blare of passing trains. Right through my childhood and adolescence, I wanted to board a fast train and escape from the boredom it imposed. But once I left the town I began to miss it. From a distance I found its smallness pleasing, its silence poetic and its streets full of stories.

The setting of The Blind Lady’s Descendants, mind you, is not the town I started to love and miss from a distance. It is the town I vehemently hated as a child and wanted to run away from. I made slight alterations to the topography and layout, and added a few fictitious structures to its unimpressive architecture, like the long railway tunnel.

The characters

This book is full of people I grew up with. Anyone who knows my family well can easily recognise a few of the characters. Looking back, I think I was a bit harsh on some of the people I fictionalised, especially one of my siblings.

Like the blind lady in the story, my maternal grandmother was visually impaired. But unlike the character, she regained her sight after twenty years of groping her way around. As a child I was immensely pained by the fact that she could not afford the surgery that would have restored her vision, and it angered me that those who could have helped her turned a blind eye to her plight.

Not many of my relatives have read the book. And I am quite pleased with that. Because those who have read it keep asking me which person in real life inspired which character in the book. They are especially curious about a character called Aunt Suhuda, who keeps cropping up in the young protagonist’s sexual fantasies.

Though I suffered mild pangs of guilt, I really enjoyed writing these fantasies. I particularly liked the one in the woods where Aunt Suhuda and Amar make love on a bed of fallen leaves, under a quilt of creepers, watched by an antelope.

The struggle and pain

I worked on this book for years on end and rewrote it more times than I have rewritten any of my other manuscripts. And, ironically, it earned me the largest number of rejection mails. I had lost hope in the book, forcing myself to believe that it was a bit too old-fashioned for the changing tastes of readers and publishers, until I found an agent and he showed it to a renowned editor who called it “luminous”.

There is something darkly ominous about this book, particularly about a character called Javi. Javi is a young man who takes his life at the age of twenty-six, the same day Amar, the protagonist of the novel, is born, but he makes his presence felt in many chapters through other people’s recollections, the suicide notes he left behind and his striking resemblance to Amar. I chose this name for him because it was the shorter version of Javed, the name of my favourite nephew. One early morning seven months ago, my writing was interrupted by a telephone call. Nothing made sense for a while, then the news sank slowly in. My nephew had taken his life a while ago, but he had not left a suicide note, much unlike his namesake.

Favourite lines

“Nothing makes more sense than a suicide note. Such correctness, such lack of uncertainties, such disciplined coldness – where else would you find all that than in a suicide note. It is an art you perfect only when you have decided to bid the final goodbye. That, if you ask me, is its only shortcoming.”

Anees Salim is the author of four novels, and the winner of The Hindu Literary Prize 2013 for Vanity Bagh, and of the Crossword Book Award in Indian fiction 2014 for The Blind Lady’s Descendants.

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