Friday, May 05, 2017

Small-town storyteller: on Anees Salim, his people and their seas

[Did this piece – about one of my favourite contemporary writers and his new novel – for Open magazine]

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
 it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

Much like the four children in E E Cummings’s enigmatic little poem “maggie and milly and molly and may”, the adolescent narrator of Anees Salim’s new novel The Small-Town Sea loses things, finds things – and learns something about himself – after he moves with his family to the small coastal town where his Vappa, or father, had grown up. These are unhappy circumstances: the father, a middle-aged writer, is dying and wants to spend his last days listening to the sound of his childhood sea. For the nameless narrator, a city-bred boy, time passes slowly in this new setting – there isn’t very much to do, he can’t even locate his favourite cartoon show on TV.

What does he find in the small town and its sea?

He finds a secret beach, curtained off from the rest of the shore by a row of black rocks, where he and his reticent Vappa get to share a few quiet moments, and where the latter tells him, as they head back to the mainland, “You should learn to walk alone.” He goes on his first boat ride, and decides that the sea is like a forest – once you’re in it, you want to be out of it. He finds a new friendship, with an orphaned boy named Bilal, and they live the life of the imagination together. He also discovers that in the real world, adults often speak in coded language, especially when they are making big, life-changing decisions for other people.

What does he lose? His father, of course – that’s what the family is here for – but not long after this he also loses something more unexpected, something he isn’t prepared for.

Through all this, his rich inner life sustains him, as it has sustained other characters in Anees Salim’s novels. But for how long?


“Being prone to wild stretches of imagination is the malady that haunts anyone with a penchant for storytelling. What say you, Mr Unwin?”

From Imran in Vanity Bagh – a young mohalla-dweller who becomes a patsy in a terrorist act – to the delightful Hasina Mansoor in Tales from a Vending Machine, working at an airport kiosk and dreaming about a more exciting life, to the melancholy Amar Hamsa in The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Salim’s narrator-protagonists have this penchant for storytelling. First, in the obvious sense that they are telling us their stories; but also in the sense that they often make things up for themselves. Most of their flights of fancy are explicitly presented as such: for instance, when Hasina imagines being the pilot-heroine who rescues her “kidnapped” plane from a terrorist; or when the boy in The Small-Town Sea uses playful storytelling devices such as a bird’s-eye or fish-eye perspective (he is writing to a London-based literary agent, so why not try to impress). But at other times the reader might wonder how reliable these narrators are. Without giving much away, near the end of the new book, when something is (literally) lost in the sea, it is possible to wonder if one of the characters was a real person or a projection of the narrator’s fears and insecurities.

Throughout these books, there is a suggestion that fantasy may not be enough, that the real world will take over in cruel ways. In the bittersweet ending of Tales from a Vending Machine, Hasina has landed herself in a sticky situation, and one is unsure whether to worry for her or to feel assured that her natural pluck will see her through. The Small-Town Sea has passages where life throws a cold bucket of water in imagination’s face: such as a scene involving a pigeon that the narrator has kept tethered in a cowshed, or a story he constructs around a wall-photo of his dead father that apparently goes missing.

Salim spent most of his own small-town childhood and adolescence daydreaming, he tells me over the course of an email interview. “I was an overambitious child and an introvert, a fatal combination. I lived under the impression that I was cut out for big things, even when I was bad at studies and even worse at socializing.”

Dusty little Varkala offered a licence to fantasize. “My hometown has a famous beach which attracts foreign tourists, and one of my early fantasies revolved around a French or English lady falling in love with me, taking me out of India, and me living the rest of my life – with or without her – with a view of the Thames or the Eiffel Tower. But I was too shy even to smile at those bikini-clad beachcombers.”

And so, writing as a form of escape – “it works like a tranquilizer for me” – began at age sixteen.


The cliché has it that a novelist begins with an autobiographical work – it’s the easiest way to get started, to build your confidence – and then moves further afield. Salim’s arc is more complicated: his first published book, The Vicks Mango Tree, is still his longest, most sprawling, moving between a large cast of characters, and the only one without a first-person narrative. The subsequent novels are more intimate, filtered through the distinct perspectives of characters like Imran, Hasina and Amar.

One reason for this could be that he was writing for decades before he became a published author; when he got his first book deal in 2011, aged forty-two, there were seven novels in various stages of completion. It is a story of patience, of writing for passion and self-expression, even while building a career in another profession (advertising) – and it is a story strikingly different from that of many of today’s aspiring writers, who seem to expect a book deal before they have a first draft ready.

When publication did happen, it happened in a rush that saw four books come out in under three years. Which brings me to a personal aside. During the judging of the 2013-2014 Crossword Fiction Prize, which I participated in, an unusual situation arose. Having just finished reading the dozens of books submitted for the longlist, and being fans of both Vanity Bagh and The Blind Lady’s Descendants, we had to ask the organisers if it was okay to have more than one novel by the same author on the shortlist. Eventually, deciding this wouldn’t be fair to the many other contenders, we opted to leave out Vanity Bagh in favour of the more recent Salim novel. (Personally I would also have considered including Tales from a Vending Machine, a book that seems relatively lightweight on the surface, more in the Young Adult subgenre than Salim’s other novels – but which is still perhaps my favourite among his work.)

During the judging process, there was a constant sense of been stirred and excited by the discovery of an unexpected new voice. (The other judges were Anjum Hasan, herself one of our finest contemporary novelists and critics, and J Devika, whose ear for the rhythms of language can be seen in her excellent translations.) Even our casual email exchanges included blurb-like observations like “He breaks down the barrier between the high-brow and the popular spectacularly” and “His writing communicates at different registers to different people” and “Malayalam colloquialisms are deftly translated into English, and they don't jar at all, but suit the characters perfectly.”

“He is able to create an intimate sense of place and community without binding himself to locality in a narrow sense,” read part of the award citation written by Hasan. “At all times, he remains scathingly funny and achingly sad.”

Scathingly funny, achingly sad. That descriptor applies especially well to Salim’s last two novels, which draw most explicitly on his own life. “Autobiographical” may be an inadequate word to describe them, though. “Alternate Personal History” or “Dark Fantasy-Memoir” might work better.

In his emails, Salim comes across as someone who is aware of the coin-flip that can separate a hopeless, wasted life from a (somewhat) fulfilled one. “I started writing to fight unhappiness,” he says, “Maybe I was fighting depression without knowing it. The home library became an asylum for me and books worked like antidepressants.”

He freely admits that many elements in The Blind Lady’s Descendants – the large house, the blind grandmother, the beach with foreign tourists milling about – were taken from his own childhood. And yet, that book is presented as a lengthy suicide note by a young man who – having told us on the very first page that he regards bad luck as a family member, that his parents should never have met and he should never have existed – is about to walk into the tunnel that had claimed his doppelganger uncle decades earlier.

Or is he? I mentioned unreliable narrators earlier. Might it be possible to see this book as a sly joke by a protagonist who is really quite determined to stay alive and to keep boredom and ill-luck away through the act of relentless writing? What happens if a literary agent happens to read his manuscript and make encouraging noises? Could one novel lead to another, and another, and another? Could Amar Hamsa become someone like Anees Salim?

The Small-Town Sea had an even more morbid genesis: it came out of a nightmare Salim had about his own death, and his thirteen-year-old son being consequently left stranded. “I saw him living the life I had lived in my hometown, lonely and crestfallen. It was both an easy and difficult book to write. Easy because I was writing about people I live with. Difficult because I feared I was writing not just a novel, but the collective horoscope of my family.”

Private memories worked their way into this book, such as a phase in his twenties when he was madly in love with a girl who lived on the other side of the town. “Every night I hovered around her house, pretending to wait for a friend, and watched her making appearances at her window, until the day I found the house empty. That wound took a long time to heal, and I willingly reopened it while writing The Small-town Sea.” In the book, this memory is used in a deathbed scene: Vappa, talking incoherently in his final moments, alludes to this girl from his youth, to the embarrassment of his gathered family.

With Salim having imagined two deaths for himself in The Small-Town Sea and The Blind Lady’s Descendants, these books are in some ways darker than his earlier work. But they are just as funny too, built on his strengths as an observer of the small moment and how it fits into a larger pattern. Information about a world, the people inhabiting it and the many sides to their personalities is revealed in layers, so that you might not realise the import of a little detail until later in the narrative.

Here is a world where one brother might be an atheist while another is so full of religion-fuelled mythmaking that he believes a story about Neil Armstrong converting to Islam after hearing the call of the muezzin on the Moon. There are moments that might discomfit the secular-progressive (Hasina’s Abba matter-of-factly telling her it’s okay to love Pakistan and Osama bin Laden, “but never let anyone, especially the Hindus, know your true feelings”) and there are other moments that reaffirm the many ways in which the minority community has been judged and isolated over time. (“I don’t consider myself as a spokesperson of the Muslim community, but I would like to records its fears, misgivings and hopes.”) Here is human complexity in all its shades, presented with such a combination of throwaway casualness and attention to detail that after a while you stop pondering matters of morality and political correctness and instead see the people only as truthful creations.


While growing up, Salim tells me, he dreamt “about writing big books, bagging big awards, living in big cities, running into V S Naipaul during my morning walks, being chased by beautiful girls”.

An intriguing admission, seeing that after having achieved at least the first two of those dreams, he still stays away from the limelight. His Facebook page is active with droll one-liners and observations, but he is among a very small tribe of well-regarded writers who are not part of the social literary scene. (When we decided on The Blind Lady’s Descendants for the Crossword prize, we were almost certain we wouldn’t get to meet its author at the ceremony, and so it proved.)

Is this a deliberate attempt to save himself from distractions? “When my first book deal came through, I tried to polish my social skills, but it didn't work,” he says. “Even though I have been published by four publishers, I have met only two persons from the publishing world. It isn’t just literary events that I stay away from – I find excuses to skip parties, reunions and weddings.”

“But I attend funerals. They somehow inspire me to write more.”

Little wonder then that his “suicide notes” are so alive and vibrant even as they deal with sad subjects: the fear of obscurity or irrelevance, the temporary comforts that reading and writing can bring to people who otherwise have trouble finding themselves in the sea.

[Here is an earlier piece, “A tree named Franklin”, on other aspects of Anees Salim’s work. And here’s something more about the Crossword award judging process]

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