Anees Salim opens up to Kunzum about his Facebook alter-ego, his obsession with waterbodies, the recurring themes of death and hopelessness in his novels, and, of course, The Bellboy. By Paridhi Badgotri
Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author Anees Salim is as famous for his reclusive nature as his tragicomic novels. Salim never attends award functions or literature festivals. He also has a Facebook alter-ego modelled on one of his characters, Hasina Mansoor. I couldn’t resist reaching out to him for a conversation. Especially after his latest novel, The Bellboy, enamoured so many of Kunzum’s staffers and patrons.
The Bellboy takes us to Paradise Lodge, a death dungeon on a sinking island. It’s a hotel where people come to die. The protagonist, Latif, works as a bellboy in this surreal hotel, navigating the travails of teenage even when surrounded by such overwhelming melancholy. His religious identity and its repercussions on his life are also explored, albeit as a backdrop to the events that unravel at Paradise Lodge. For example, when Latif comes across a newspaper that triumphantly states, “Saffron Sweeps Nation,” he fails to decipher its meaning with his limited grasp on English. Salim’s writing cascades with deliberate ambiguity, from the neurodivergence of his protagonist to the setting of the novel, and refrains from making grand statements.
A Conversation with Anees Salim
Kunzum: An early novel of yours, Vanity Bagh, explored religious divide and polarisation in 2013, and in your latest, The Bellboy, there are subtle references to it. In what ways has this communal gulf changed over the time between these two novels—and do you approach it any differently as a novelist now?
Anees Salim: I think the communal divide has deepened since I wrote Vanity Bagh. The nation has long stopped pretending to be secular. The transition from a pluralist society to a polarised one has been pretty smooth. Mutual distrust between religions has become a way of life, and it reflects on everything around you. So, you don’t have to write explicitly about it anymore. You can push it to the background and still bring it alive with a few allusions. The Bellboy didn’t warrant the type of manifestations that Vanity Bagh could not do without.
Kunzum: Your stories tackle a sense of loss and hopelessness. What drives your worldview and makes these themes a recurring feature in your work?
Anees Salim: Yes, loss and hopelessness are leitmotifs in my stories. Maybe these are the two things that shaped the writer in me, and even if I try to write a book filled with happiness and sunshine I will end up creating the opposite. I tend to believe that a good book leaves you inexplicably sad and broken. And all my favourite books end on a tragic note.
Kunzum: What do you make of contemporary Indian writing in English? What would be your top five picks?
Anees Salim: English literature from the subcontinent is getting better by the day. Writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are creating magic. And I would restrain from making a list of five. It’s unfair.
Kunzum: In an interview you said that you see death as a beginning. Can you elaborate on how death becomes a starting point of your characters’ stories?
Anees Salim: Every time I attend a funeral, I think of the stories the departed one is leaving behind. Don’t we all come back from burials and revisit the times we have had with the buried? I remember walking back to my home after my father’s burial, listening to an old man talking in detail about his days with my father in a Malayan village I didn’t even know existed. I could see an orange sun coming up behind a line of trees and a bunch of farmers walking down a path that divided paddy fields. I saw my father and his friend leaning against a truck and smoking. When I heard about the old man’s passing a few years later, I imagined someone in that faraway village opening a treasure trove of memories. For me, every obituary is a hurried piece of literature.
Kunzum: The Bellboy is set on a sinking island. What made you choose this setting?
Anees Salim: In Kerala, there is an island that faces the threat of extinction. When I started writing The Bellboy, I wanted to place the protagonist in a setting that had an equally uncertain future. So, a sinking island was the best backdrop I could find for this book.
Kunzum: The sea plays an important role in the novel. What did you want to convey through this all-consuming figure?
Anees Salim: It’s backwaters that surround the archipelago in The Bellboy, not the sea. I have this obsession with waterbodies, and I let them flow freely through my stories with all their power and eloquence. I hail from a seaside town, and I love to use any kind of waterbodies as a character in my stories.
Kunzum: You famously do not attend literary festivals and award ceremonies. What makes you refrain from these appearances? (And do you ever get a feeling of missing out?)
Anees Salim: I have been repeatedly asked by my publishers and agents to attend literary events. I am an extremely private person, and in a crowd I lose myself. Maybe attending festivals and ceremonies will help sell my books faster. But I am still not convinced about the importance of being seen.
Kunzum: Tell us something about your Facebook alter-ego Hasina Mansoor and how you ended up creating a character out of her.
Anees Salim: I modelled Hasina Mansoor after a girl I ran into at an airport cafe. She looked irritated, irreverent, and out of place; the perfect material for a funny protagonist. I created a Facebook account in her name to promote the book, and she earned lots of admirers and lovers. In fact, she got more love letters and virtual kisses than her author.
If you enjoyed this interview, we highly recommend picking up a copy of The Bellboy, or any of Salim’s other books, from a Kunzum bookstore. You can even order books with us on WhatsApp by sending a message to +91-8800200268.