When I saw the pictures of Anees Salim, which were to go with this piece, I pulled out an old family photo album, risking a bout of sneezes. In these digital days, old sepia-tinted and smudged family photos are mostly a disconnect. But when I found what I was looking for, there was a moment of magic — when the past merges with the present.
The same sad eyes. The same curious look. Of course, the grey wasn’t there. Did I hear the clanking of rails and the hissing of steam engines? Did I hear the swish of a mid-morning breeze from a deserted railway station?
I am not sure. But I heard, once again, those words packed with passion — passion for writing and for telling stories.
More than two decades ago, a nervous and anxious Anees had spoken to me about writing with the same intensity with which he speaks to me now. One day, he had pulled out, from somewhere in his room, a stack of notebooks in which he had written his many stories. One title, I still remember, was ‘The Autobiography of an Apple’. I don’t know if he remembers it, or what has come of it.
I also remember an opening line in one of his manuscripts: “Every autumn, he was reminded of an inner growth.” We were in our early 20s, and the line had touched a raw nerve in my heart.
Reading what he had written in those notebooks, I sat there looking out of the window, imagining Mughal princes and princesses and people who walked in the dark alleys of dilapidating buildings and forts.
I met Teacher Bhatt years ago, before the retired English teacher in The Vicks Mango Tree endeared the readers with his often comical determination to see his ‘Autobiography of an English Teacher’ published.
But then, the fictional Mangobagh, the place Anees created, was never Varkala, our hometown, a sleepy town by the Arabian Sea in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. To me, Mangobagh was somewhere ‘up in the north’. “Mangobagh is where I want to live,” says Anees. “I have created everything in Mangobagh that I would love to have in my hometown — ruins, forts, alleys, mango orchards, buffaloes and some peculiar people.”
But don’t most writers first write about their hometown? “I didn’t have a hometown then — or more precisely, I didn’t know my hometown had features and stories I could write about,” he says. For Anees, Mangobagh gave him what Varkala couldn’t. “With only a few friends and practically no social connect, I had nothing to do in Varkala. On the contrary, when I was struggling to write, I used to go for evening walks in my imaginary Mangobagh,” he says. “In a way, I had lived in Mangobagh with all those characters you find in The Vicks Mango Tree.”
One day in late 1980s, while standing on the overhead bridge at Varkala railway station, Anees showed me the blisters on his forefinger from continuous punching of keys in a cumbersome typewriter. He was typing all night. Right in those days, he knew his passion and vocation: writing.
And, one of those days, he introduced me to a writer he admired: VS Naipaul. He had asked me to read him to “learn the craft of good writing”.
“Naipaul never went to any writing workshop,” says Anees. “In fact, no good writers that we now admire have gone to any creative workshop nor are they products of any systematic training.”
The good writers who have attended writing workshops would have anyhow become good writers. “One has to have some kind of pain or unhappiness to go about writing,” says Anees. Once, his father had given him a photocopy of a 400-page foreign book on how to write a novel. “It (the book) was not available in India then, but I couldn’t go beyond 50 pages of how to structure your writing. Textbooks would have killed my writing,” he says.
After dropping out of college, he left home and travelled around north Indian cities, seeing life and people at close quarters. It was his training. “I travelled without any aim, stayed in cheap rooms and experienced hunger and struggle,” he says.
If travelling in north Indian cities has given him a perspective, his reading has helped him cut his writer’s teeth. I remember the days when we still had the British Council Library in Thiruvananthapuram and Anees had almost finished reading all the fiction collection. “If you want to be a good writer, you have to read and write. That’s the university for writing,” he says.
But Anees has not been to a bookstore since the publication of his first novel, The Vicks Mango Tree, in 2012. “I love going to bookstores and book fairs, but I don’t go now because I don’t want to be recognised,” he says.
Many call him a recluse — who famously didn’t turn up to receive the Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2013 for Vanity Bagh. Anees watched the webcast of the prize announcement and award function from his cubicle at the ad agency FCB Ulka in Kochi, where he is Head of Creative.
“I prefer to be this way,” he says. “The only time I may be seen is when I die, and I expect a good turnout for my funeral, perhaps in a quiet corner in the backyard of a mosque.”
In a society where writers project themselves as the saviours of socio-cultural ethos and values, Anees stands alone. “Writing is a self-satisfying exercise. Nobody writes to change the society — rather no writer can change a society. I write to change myself,” he says.
Anees says his characters define themselves. “I am not an intellectual, and I don’t create my characters. They create themselves, and perhaps each of them could be a reflection of myself,” he says.
The 55-year-old retired Teacher Bhatt carries some autobiographical anxieties of the writer. “Like me, Teacher Bhatt too has apprehensions of dying before publishing his book,” he says.
Anees threw all he had at The Vicks Mango Tree because he thought he might never publish another book. “I was nervous when I wrote Vicks because I wasn’t sure of anything, so I experimented with many things, even though apprehensively,” he says.
The hugely popular Hasina Mansour of Tales from a Vending Machine, the humorous novel that Anees first sold, could have been ‘designed’ but he says he had just let her shape herself. “Sometimes, even I am surprised at the characters and settings. When I sit down to write, I don’t listen even to myself,” he adds. “I just let it flow — characters, incidents, situations… all happen without my conscious effort.”
Sexual fantasies are a recurring feature in the first two novels — Vicks and The Blind Lady’s Descendants. “In your teens and even after it, you have your favourite women. I too had my list of women to fantasise about. Now, why shouldn’t I write about it? It’s not lies — it is part of the reality of life,” he says. But in his latest books, Tales from a Vending Machine and Vanity Bagh, he seems to have outgrown the anxieties of sexual fantasies.
Forty-five-year-old Anees looks at old people, especially men in their afternoons of life, with an uncanny observation. “I am afraid of old age, so wherever I travel, I observe old men and women with some degree of apprehension. I am afraid of dying without achieving anything in life. When I see old men sitting on the steps in front of their house, clipping nails or reading a newspaper, I dread dying without anything significant under my belt,” says Anees, who loves to write about rain, old people and the play of light and shadow.
Humour, his reviewers say, is his forte. Knowing Anees from childhood, I have never seen him cracking jokes and laughing aloud. But he seldom misses the funny side to almost everything in life — even funerals.
“Humour happens naturally in my writing. I believe I write the best when I write humour,” he says. Anees’ latest novel Vanity Bagh tells, according to the jury of the Hindu Prize, a “dark comic tale”. His humour is not slapstick but it cuts through the skin and often leaves a slight pain in the heart.
Anees has portrayed Muslim characters quite differently from the stereotyped Muslims — wounded and victimised — that most publishers love to lap up. Most of his Muslim characters celebrate life in their own ways. “Maybe because they don’t live in a constant war zone or in a state of siege or under terror like those in Pakistan or Iran or Iraq do,” he explains.
But Anees doesn’t miss the nuances of Muslim life either — be it the day-to-day family life or the ritualistic circumcision. His humour doesn’t fail to slice those lives and show us the fallacies and foibles inside the community.
Vanity Bagh is so far his ‘arrived writing’. “Yes, it is true because when I was writing Vanity Bagh, which was sold even before it had been finished, I had already sold three books and was confident as a writer,” he says. “When I was writing The Vicks Mango Tree, I was walking down a street full of uncertainties and tried to experiment and entertain. And The Blind Lady’s Descendants was a bit autobiographical.”
Anees is writing his fifth novel, which is set in his hometown, Varkala. “After publishing four novels, I have now come back to my hometown, Varkala, and found, to my own surprise, that it is a place full of stories,” he says.
Set in contemporary Varkala, a tourist town, the new novel revolves around the lives of two children. “It is about what happens to the town after something happens to 13-year-old Gazel,” Anees says, without giving away much. “In a way, I am discovering my own hometown.”
Finally, the prodigal has come back to the hometown to write a testimony to its silent contributions to a brilliant literary career that has so much to offer in the coming years.