After consistent rejection by publishers for 20 years, writer Anees Salim’s four books were accepted within a month. He tells Esther Elias about his literary adventure

As a Class XI student, Anees Salim dropped out of school and ran away from his hometown, Varkala. He travelled India, from Hyderabad to Delhi and to the Northern borders, fell ill and returned home. At 22, he finished his first book Vicks Mango Tree, timed during the Emergency and set in fictitious Mangobaag — a patchwork place woven from pieces of the towns and cities he had visited. He then sent his book to publishers and literary agents both national and international, only to be flooded by rejection slips. Over the next two decades, he wrote three more books, all of which met the same fate.

One morning in February 2011, he sent an e-mail to Delhi-based literary agent Kanishka Gupta, disguised as Hasina Mansoor, the protagonist of his third book Tales From A Vending Machine. Kanishka replied within minutes asking for the first chapter, followed by the entire book, and eventually signed Anees on. Within a week, HarperCollins bought Tales, and decided to launch him with Vicks Mango Tree. Within another fortnight, his second book Vanity Bagh was sold to Picador and his fourth book, The Blind Lady’s Descendants to Tranquebar.

At 42, Anees has four books accepted by publishers, with three already in retail and receiving commendable reviews. Tales From A Vending Machine hit bookstores just this month. Forhow prolific a writer he is, his author brief still reads: “Anees loves being invisible.” Anees’ world stretches from a home with his wife and son, to his advertising job as Creative Director of Draft FCB Ulka, Kochi. At the start too, his world revolved around the people and places in Varkala. As a child, he disliked his Malayalam-medium school but read through his father’s extensive English library, and the British Council Library in Thiruvananthapuram. “Even so, my windows opened to very small doors. So I left home, to see the world outside,” says Anees.

Drawing from life

His travels fed into the setting of his first book Vicks Mango Tree. But his characters are drawn from the people he knows. “I steal gems from people’s lives, and I had heard many people talk about the Emergency. Some were deeply affected by it, others barely touched by it. This book is an exploration of that disparity.” Incredibly detailed and carefully crafted, the book centres around Raj, a journalist from Mangobaad who disappears during the Emergency. Its story, which captures the quotidian lives of Mangobaad’s residents, is interspersed by Raj’s own feature stories used as a literary device to break the narrative.

Anees’ second work Vanity Bagh, too was inspired by a personal conversation with someone who said, “Maybe all Muslims should move to Pakistan”. The comment awoke within Anees the realisation that some places within India behave as a nation within a nation. “Across this country, there are pockets of Muslims-only colonies, streets nicknamed ‘Chhota Pakistan’, and a common sense of mistrust between Hindus and Muslims,” says Anees. Vanity Bagh, is therefore, the Muslim mohalla beside the Hindu neighbourhood Mehendi, and the book tells the story of a gang of Muslim men against the backdrop of a bomb blast.

Muslim characters

“Many of my characters are Muslim,” says Anees, “Because it’s a community I know the nuances of, despite being an atheist myself.” His most character-driven novel so far has been Tales From A Vending Machine —a tongue-in-cheek account of how circumstance bridles a young Muslim girl unapologetic about her opinions, political and otherwise. Anees wrote Tales... when he’d given up writing, disheartened by rejections. “I was at the airport when I saw this girl at the coffee machine and the title of the book came to me. It took just six months to write as opposed to the years the others took. And it’s special to me because it was finally Tales…, that took the rest of my writing to the world,” says Anees.

As a writer, Anees says he labours over his words. “I believe craft is extremely important. And while it’s easy to churn out complicated English, simple sentences that convey the most with a few words take effort. Vicks Mango Tree, for instance, went through seven drafts of addition and omission, revision and correction. It could take me days to get a sentence right,” he says.

Among the writers Anees respects are Gabriel Marquez, Saul Bellow, John Updike, William Faulkner and above all V.S. Naipaul as his “prose is like sparse poetry. That’s a personal standard”. After three books, Anees says he’s now gained the ability to discard. “When I began, I felt like I had to put everything I knew into a work. I can afford to fine focus now.”

Anees writes in the early hours of each day, before his family awakens, and steals moments in-between his 17 years as a copywriter. While the advertising world has never featured in his books, and Anees insists the two spheres would never meet, he has drawn extensively from his personal life in his fourth book — the to-be released Blind Lady’s Descendants. Set in Varkala, the book is a 300-page suicide note where the writer traces his ancestry. It’s the book where we’ll probably see something of Anees before his writer days. For now, he says, “I didn’t want my life to change because I’m published. My idea of luxury is solitude.”