Sahitya Akademi winner Anees Salim on staying away from public eye, value of awards and solitude
Author Anees Salim’s book The Blind Lady’s Descendants recently won the Sahitya Akademi award for fiction in English.
Author Anees Salim’s book The Blind Lady’s Descendants recently won the Sahitya Akademi award for fiction in English. Salim spoke to Firstpost about why he continues to stay away from the public eye, why he values awards and what life is like, outside the many stories he is now known for.
A number of your protagonists are loners, the kind who live a lot in the head. You are seen as a recluse yourself, but that is in relation to literary festivals, ceremonies alone. What is Anees Salim in his own circle of friends and family like? Does he step out, ‘catch-up’ with friends as they say? What is a slow day for you?
I think I am a lot like my own protagonists. And that is indeed a difficult thing as most of them live in the head and suffer within. Irrespective of their age and social standing, my protagonists represent my angst and uncertainties, and sometimes I wonder if their misfortunes will befall me as well.
I have only a few friends and most of them are from my school days, but I hardly confide in them or catch up with them. In fact, my protagonists have more friends than I have. My world is mostly quiet, and I share my time between the office and home.
If I fail to read a page or write at least one hundred words, it is a slow day for me.
You appear on social media in fits and starts, often with crisp one-liners about things in the news. How have you tackled this animal of social media in your life? You appear and then disappear, why? Does/has it affected your way of thinking, or writing at any level? Do you forward WhatsApp texts?
I use social media for two reasons. Firstly, to express myself when I am irked, pained, or angered. Secondly, I use it as a platform to showcase my books and the news around them. I don’t have a website and I don’t blog. So Facebook and Twitter come handy when I want to talk about my books. I disappear from social media when it gets on my nerves, and it often does. But being somewhat active on social media has made my writing neither better nor worse. And no, I don’t forward WhatsApp messages.
You don’t appear to receive awards, but you keep winning them anyway. For a majority of authors licking their lips at the sight of an award, it would be counter-intuitive. Surely, they mean something to you – what is that something? What do awards do for an author and what do they absolutely don’t?
I value awards as much as most writers do. Awards are important for me, especially since I don’t promote my work through book tours or attend literary festivals. I stay away from award ceremonies just because the mere thought of being among people unsettles me, and I always request my publisher to receive the award on my behalf. I know it is not the best way to respond to a recognition. But I feel powerless to change myself.
As someone who touches both tragedy and comedy in equal measure, how hard is it to not let your novels become political (given it has enough to feed both)? You do follow the news closely (clear from your one-liners on Facebook) and then there was that line about Pakistan in Vanity Bagh. Have you felt the need to address the present? If not, why?
Keeping my books away from the political space comes naturally to me, though I am a keen follower of current affairs. But you will still find a trace of politics in many of my books. The Vicks Mango Tree, for instance, has the Emergency as its backdrop, though it talks more about people than politics. Even in Vanity Bagh, which talks about the presence of a little Pakistan in every big Indian city, I have tried to focus on human angst and insecurities rather than the political issues because I enjoy writing about inner turmoil rather than political ones.
Every writer I have ever spoken to tells me writing is the loneliest task in the world. Do you feel the same - why? You’ve now had several books published within the space of six-seven years. Do you plan to slow down? What is the endgame for an author according to you, that point where you feel spent?
Yes, writing is indeed a lonely act. For me, that is the best part of writing. You can completely shut the world out, if only for a few hours, and lose yourself in a domain where you are the town planner, gardener, cook, sculptor and executioner, everything you want to be. I dream of doing it for 10-12 hours a day, but I have a day job and my writing hours are restricted to three or less. The moment I finish writing and shut the manuscript I miss the solitude. I hope I will be able to afford longer writing hours one day.
My pace of writing has considerably slowed down over the years. I don’t see myself publishing another book before 2020.
There are two schools of opinion on the ‘write what you know’ paradigm – one for and the other that says it limits imagination. Which side are you on? You’ve set multiple novels in places you can relate to — do you feel like writing something that you feel intimidated by? What is that thing – genre, style?
I subscribe to both theories, and actively practice them. I think writing should be a blend of both. Some of my books are about people and places I know rather well while others are purely based on imagination. The Blind Lady’s Descendants and The Small-Town Sea are set in my hometown and they are about people I have grown up with. The Vicks Mango Tree and Vanity Bagh are set in a fictitious city called Mangobagh and they are not even remotely connected to anybody I know, though you will find shades of myself in all my books.
Is there a guilty pleasure you enjoy — read or watch something that you feel embarrassed to share? Writers are often cast in rigid image of themselves – dark, serious types. Do people in your personal circle treat you as such?
No, there is not any kind of guilty pleasure I enjoy.
People complain about me being an introvert. Not that it matters to them, but they still complain. They fiercely criticise my reluctance to receive awards in person. Ironically, these are the same people who used to mock my academic background and crack jokes about my aspirations to be an author.
I don’t see myself as either dark or humorous, but my works are generally referred to as dark and humourous, even when they are not.
From rejection to publishing to winning awards with each publication is there now a little pressure of expectation? You may not be visible but more and more people are looking for you – does that or will that affect you in the future?
Every recognition makes me wary of what I write. On top of that, people keep telling me that I am still to write my best book. That puts a little pressure on me.
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