I don’t make my books dark or funny on purpose, it happens naturally: Anees Salim

Anees Salim, won the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Blind Lady’s Descendants in December 2018, becoming only the fourth Malayali in history to win the award for work in English. Salim, the Creative Director for a multi-national advertising firm, lives in Kochi presently and is known for his books like Vanity Bagh, Tales from a Vending Machine, and more recently The Small-town Sea.

One might be surprised to know that his initial two books were repeatedly rejected by publishers, but thankfully for us, the author’s determination and willpower kept him going until his third attempt Tales from a Vending Machine got published. Following this, four more of his books were lapped up by publishers within a short span of time.

In most of his novels, death plays a very important role; but it does not jump in suddenly. He rather takes his reader through a thorough journey full of hints and suggestions of an approaching end. And, strangely enough, experiencing this sweet melancholy wrapped in his stories will make you want to read more. He is the author who lets his pen do the talking… 

The Blind Lady’s Descendants is the narrative tale of a young man Amar, who is caught up between the crumbling relationship of his parents in their house named ‘Bungalow’. According to him, their youngest child, his parents should have met, shook hands and gone their way. Despite the persisting gloom throughout the tale, there is a lot to chuckle over.

The author who is currently “trying to write another novel,” speaks of his joy winning of the Sahitya Akademi award, the importance of humour in literature, and how he’d love his books to be transformed into movies. Excerpts from an interview:

You are the fourth Malayali author to win the Sahitya Akademi award in the English category. How does that feel?

A: It is indeed a very special honour. 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. I feel incredibly happy about it.   

What aspects did you change about the characters in your story from the original persons, to make them more interesting in the book? 
A: Yes, I sketch most of my characters from real life. But I make them funnier or more brutal than they are in real life. Sometimes I feel guilty about making some of them extremely self-centered or ugly. I think I have treated many of my family members rather unkindly in The Blind Lady’s Descendants. And people who know my immediate family are very curious to know which person inspired which character.

The story of The Blind Lady’s Descendants seems to have a strong autobiographical connect. If you’ve ever felt suicidal like Amar, how did you overcome it? 

A: To be candid, in my early twenties I went through every stage that Amar did in The Blind Lady’s Descendants. I don’t know how I survived that phase. I don’t know if there is any permanent cure for the scars life leaves you with.

People who grow up in small towns often dislike it and want to explore or stay in a more happening place. Do you think this hope and longing when fulfilled, more than often gives them a slight culture shock?

A: I grew up in a small town thinking that living in a big city is essential for happiness. In my childhood, I wanted to escape the small-town life and live in one of those cities with skyscrapers, busy streets, neon boards and sidewalk cafes. In fact, I used to think that living in a slum in a big city was far better than living in a nice house in a quiet town. But my first encounter with a big city disillusioned me. It also frightened and saddened me. All of a sudden I realised my hometown was actually a nice place to grow up in.

What, according to you, is the role of humour in one’s life, and in literature?

A: Most readers and critics find my books dark and funny. But I don’t make my books dark or funny on purpose. I suppose it happens naturally, and that is probably why humour works rather well in my stories. I envy writers who can handle humour well. I loved VS Naipaul’s early books for the way they made me sad and smile at the same time. I doubt if I have a sense of humour in real life, and I admire those who have it.

How would you say have reading changed over the decades? Are there any particular genre or style of writing that readers prefer today?

A: The way I look at books, they have not changed over the years. My favourite writers are still the ones from my young days. But when I look around, I see reading patterns are changing with the time. New genres are cropping up, and there are new ways of reading a book. I think commercial fiction will always have a huge following. But I would love to see literary fiction getting more attention from readers and more visibility at stores.

Would you like them to make a film based on your book?

Yes, I would love to have my books turned into movies, especially The Small-town Sea. I sometimes imagine the voice of my characters seeping out through the poorly insulated walls of the theatres in my hometown, where the book is set. But I don’t see myself writing a story or screenplay for a movie.

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