The serious recluse who writes with a deft touch of humour. That’s Anees Salim, the winner of The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2013.
He lives like a recluse and writes in solitude; he is uncomfortable even reading his book in public. Meet Anees Salim, the winner of The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2013 for his novel Vanity Bagh.
The author delivered a winner’s speech but it was through his publishers. Pan Macmillan’s editorial director Pranav Kumar Singh accepted the award on Salim’s behalf and also read out his speech. “The book is not about hope. It is about hopelessness. It is about distress and religious intolerance that can divide humanity and win elections,” said the speech.
In a telephonic conversation a few minutes later, Salim said, “I hate limelight. I cannot read my book in public. I cannot give speeches. I have not actually met many of my editors. Our communication has been through mail or phone.”
Salim’s award-winning story is about Little Pakistan, the kind of Muslim-dominated place in our cities that our media often highlights at the time of cricket matches between India and Pakistan. “There is an element of ingrained discrimination there. A minority of the majority community feels that Muslims should go to Pakistan. They ask ‘if India and Pakistan were to go to war, who would you support?’ I tell them (through the characters in the book) that I don’t know what Pakistan is like. The reality is we are coloured by our politicians.”
Salim says the situation is exacerbated by the silence of those in a position of responsibility. “I know people, even writers, who refuse to say anything about Pakistan for the fear of being branded in a certain way.”
Considering the book handles such a sensitive subject, it is remarkably laced with humour throughout. You point this out to Salim and he says, “I am decent with humour. I took the humorous route to make things light. I did not want the novel to be gloomy. I feel I write my best when I do humour.” It’s a little window into the writer’s personality, who also says, “I am a very serious person. I am an introvert but I do crack jokes once in a while.”
For a ‘serious person’ who opted out of the education system to carve out his own path, was the constant rejection by publishers unnerving? “The period of rejection was distressing. I tried to understand where I could have possibly gone wrong. But I did not give up. I knew I could write better. I did join the advertising industry though. It is both creative and challenging. Plus it’s the only industry that would accept me.”
How will life change after award? “It is not as if the publishers have started queuing up. I have a book coming up soon, planned before the award; then I am working on another novel. What the award has done is it has instilled in me a sense of fear. I owe it to The Hindu to write better, write tighter. It has set a benchmark for me, created some pressure, some responsibility. I have to achieve a certain quality in my writing before it reaches the public domain. When my name was announced by Jim Crace (I was watching on video) I could not believe it… I have very high regard for all the others on that list.”
Vanity Bagh was written across 16 months, day and night. “When there is constant humour, it is not possible to maintain it if you either take too long to write or have too many drafts,” he says. At one time, Salim wrote with a pencil before technology won him over and he started using a computer. “I like to combat the forces of resistance,” he says. “I work best when there is some opposition, some denial. For instance, if today somebody else had won, I would have gone back to my writing desk and continued to write.”
Well, he will still be going back to his desk. But to write his next novel called The Blind Lady’s Descendants, to be published this spring.