When Anees Salim was 16, 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.
Next, Anees shut himself in a room at his home in the beach town, Varkala, in southern Kerala and began reading non-stop. He also wanted to be a writer. So he bought a “Brother” typewriter and started to write. “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 for several months.
“When I returned, I started writing again and my family became very cautious,” 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 is 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 but was rejected. Then he wrote 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 at once.
“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 penned 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 the four novels have been accepted by reputable publishers. Vicks Mango Tree and Tales from a Vending Machine have been taken up by HarperCollins, The Blind Lady’s Descendants by Tranquebar and Vanity Bagh by Picador. Vicks Mango Tree and Vanity Bagh have been published, the latter in April. In Vanity Bagh, the writing is lucid and imaginative.
“More importantly, the books have been well received by the media and discerning readers,” says Kanishka.