Monday, May 20, 2013

Tales from a Writing Machine

After years of struggle, Anees Salim, a Kochi-based advertising professional, has published two novels by top publishers. Two more are in the pipeline

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Anees Salim was 16 years old he did the unthinkable for a middle-class boy in India : he dropped out of college. “My parents were shattered, especially my Abu Dhabi-based father,” he says.

Thereafter, Anees shut himself in a room in his home at the beach town of Varkala in southern Kerala and began non-stop reading. He also wanted to be a writer. So he bought a 'Brother' typewriter and began writing. “Later, my relatives told me that the only sound that came out of my room was the tap-tap of the typewriter keys,” he says. “They wondered what I was typing all day.”

This period lasted for three years. Not surprisingly, his family thought that Anees had lost his mind. Then he decided to travel. “I thought that what was standing between me and good writing was a lack of experience,” he says. So, at 19, Anees embarked on an All-India tour which lasted for several months.

When I returned, I started writing again and my family became very cautious with me,” says Anees, at his third-floor apartment in Kochi. “They were scared I would disappear again.”

Soon, Anees realised that he needed a job. “I joined advertising, because it is the only industry that will accept a college dropout,” he says. And it has worked out fine. Today Anees is the Kochi-based Creative Head of Draft FCB Ulka Advertising.

In his spare time and in the early mornings, Anees was busy writing novels. “My first readable book was 'Vicks Mango Tree',” he says. “The first draft was completed when I was 28, but I did not have the courage to send it out. I knew that a rejection letter was on the way. So I parked the book for some time in my drawer. Then, one day, I sent a query to an American agent and got a rejection letter.”

Anees wrote 'The Blind Lady's Descendants', which took two years to complete. He sent a query letter to 50 American and English agents and got rejections. Then the tenacious Anees wrote a third novel, 'Tales from the Vending Machine', in 2009. This time he decided to send it to an Indian agent and selected Kanishka Gupta. “I tried a trick,” says Anees. “I sent the query letter in the name of Hasina Mansoor, the 21-year-old Muslim heroine of my novel. She is a fan of Osama Bin Laden, hates Americans and Jews, and is a Muslim fundamentalist.”

Kanishka liked what he read and accepted the novel immediately.

Anees is a literary ventriloquist,” says Kanishka. “He gets under the skin of his characters, which makes them very real. He also has a wry sense of humour and unusual settings. In fact, it is hard to believe that a man could capture the voice of a young Muslim girl so effortlessly.”

Meanwhile, the tireless Anees banged out his fourth novel, 'Vanity Bagh'. “It is about the Hindu-Muslim divide,” he says. “I have seen people supporting Pakistan during cricket matches. I believe that there is a small Pakistan in every big Indian city. Essentially, a minority of the minority may support Pakistan, while a minority of the majority thinks that all Muslims are refugees.”

Today, all four novels have been accepted by reputed publishers. The 'Vicks Mango Tree' and 'Tales from a Vending Machine' have been taken up by HarperCollins, the 'The Blind Lady's Descendants' by Tranquebar, while 'Vanity Bagh' is by Picador. 'Vicks Mango Tree' and 'Vanity Bagh' have been published, the latter, in the last week of April. In ‘Vanity Bagh’, the writing is simple, lucid, bright and imaginative. So, it is no surprise that the published books are selling steadily.

More importantly, they have been well received by the media and discerning readers,” says Kanishka. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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