Anees Salim rarely appears at literary events, sometimes not even to accept an award conferred on his work. After five books and four national awards, Salim’s preference for letting his writing speak for him remains unusual proof that there is more than one way to be a writer in a time that asks for unprecedented access.
Recently, his fourth book, The Blind Lady’s Descendants (2014), won the 2018 Sahitya Akademi Award for English. The family saga takes place in a crumbling house, set in his hometown. Salim spoke to Scroll.in about the role travelling plays in his writing, his father’s library, the importance of the Sahitya Akademi Award, safeguarding his privacy, a writer’s relationship with doubt, and how writing as an adult allowed him to revisit a difficult childhood through a different lens.
You’ve spoken in the past about reading from your father’s library. I wonder if you could describe that space for us a little? What does your present-day collection consist of? Is it informed, in some part, by the books you encountered as a child?
Since my father’s death about a decade ago, the library has become a skeleton of what it used to be. His collections have considerably thinned, thanks to friends and relatives who borrowed books and never returned them.
In its prime, the library had a series of shelves which were crammed with books in English and Malayalam – mostly English. There were huge collections of classics and contemporary works, and it was hard to find thrillers or science fiction there. The library was on the first floor of my ancestral home, and there was an armchair by a window which offered a view of the garden below and the railway tracks beyond a dirt track.
The house now belongs to a close relative, and I live in another city, about 200 miles from my hometown. I can pay a visit to the library anytime I wish, but I no longer do. Whenever I happen to be in my hometown I stand outside the house and look at the windows of the library and think wistfully about the books my father had amassed from different corners of the world and brought home in many steel trunks when his long expat life came to an end. The last time I entered the library I found most of the shelves empty. There were only a few moth-eaten books, carrying my father’s signature on the last page, complete with date and time.
I have a fair-sized library of my own, but it is not even half the size of what we had at our ancestral home. On some mornings when I sit down to write I think of my father’s library and the smell of books that pounced on you when a shelf was opened.
You’ve remained (largely) removed from literary events of various kinds. Aside from enabling your books to speak for themselves, does that distance offer other benefits for your writing?
I am an extremely private person and I try to stay away from any place that has the potential to attract a crowd. It is not limited to literary events alone. I don’t attend get-togethers, parties, reunions and, if possible, weddings. I don’t know if my reluctance to be seen in literary circles and book promotion events affects my writing career adversely. But I prefer to be as little seen as possible.
What non-writing related activity would you say most informs your writing?
I love travelling and it helps me a great deal when I work on a book. Once I have the first draft of a manuscript ready, I usually visit a country where I spend a fortnight or so working on the second draft. I spend the first couple of days roaming around the city, then I will shut myself up in the hotel room and write and rewrite until I can no longer work. In these strange places, I usually fall in love with a spot that is not on a tourist map. It could be a park, a garden, an old railway station, an ancient bridge, a bench by a statue, a tree-lined avenue...I visit this particular place every day of my stay in the city, and I go and bid an almost emotional farewell to the place on the day of my departure. I keep wondering about those comfort zones long after I have come home.
Would you name some writers who explore small-town India whose work you enjoy?
Ruskin Bond and RK Narayan.
The Sahitya Akademi Award is the latest in a long line of accolades. Would you tell us a little about what this one in particular means to you? It’s been noted that you are the fourth Malayali writer to have received the honour. Does that mean something to you?
It means a lot. I am told that I am the only Malayali writer to have won the Sahitya Akademi Award for fiction in English. Kamala Das and Jeet Thayil won it for poetry and Arundhati Roy for essays. So, this is very special for me.
What is your relationship as a writer with doubt? Are there still days after having written several well-received and award-winning books that you’re confronted with uncertainty about the strength of what you happen to be working on at that moment?
For me, uncertainty is an inevitable part of writing. The fact that I have written five books doesn’t make the process any easier. I still turn desperate when the story refuses to move. And I must have discarded about a dozen manuscripts halfway through.
I’ve been thinking about how the narrators in your two most recent novels are young boys. I wonder if you would tell us a little about what you find particularly interesting about the stages of childhood and adolescence as a writer.
I had a difficult childhood. I grew up in a big house in a small town that went to bed rather early. The darkness that enveloped our house after the last train had passed through the town used to leave me sad and terrified. The beach was the best thing about the town, but we were forbidden to go there unaccompanied. I didn’t have many friends and I hated school. Teenage was not any different either. But when I started writing I wanted to relive the past the way I could not live as a child or a teenager, with a bit of courage and lots of adventure.
You’ve mentioned that your writing involves some town and city planning where you combine real landscapes with some fictional additions. How do you go about this? Is it quite as literal as town planning with the drawing up of maps as you construct the backdrop for your story?
I love to create new places by stitching together different parts of different cities or towns. For instance, I created the city of Mangobagh by juxtaposing a big chunk of Hyderabad, a small bit of Lucknow and many fragments of several other cities. I used this fictitious city as the backdrop for two of my novels, The Vicks Mango Tree and Vanity Bagh. The Blind Lady’s Descendants is set in my hometown, but I glued in a railway tunnel to the setting because its presence was critical to the story. This kind of town planning doesn’t require blueprints or diagrams. The locations and dimensions happen subconsciously.