Living with Words : Anees Salim, An Interview

Anees Salim - Author
Pix Rights : The Hindu

This is the stuff that dreams are made of. A college dropout turns ace advertising professional, and publishes not one but four novels in quick succession – and that too, all four in the span of a single year with publishing houses of reputations that make you sit up and take notice. Anees Salim, newly minted author and Creative Director, FCB Ulka, Kochi, though, is one who shies away from the limelight.

He has made it clear that he’s not available for the traditional tour of cities following the release of a book. ‘No book releases for me’ – Anees has posted on his Facebook page, which has loads of followers thanks to his crisp wit. Anees’ pseudonym Hasina Mansoor had quite the following on Facebook too. She later became the protagonist of the novel Tales From A Vending Machine . In fact, it is in the guise of Hasina Mansoor itself that Anees sent out his first manuscript “as the opening pages of her autobiography” to agents and publishers. The book was picked up by a literary agent and sold to a publisher in no time.

The Vicks Mango Tree by Anees SalimBut when it came to getting published, another of Anees’ books jumped the queue. The Vicks Mango Tree , Anees’s debut novel, which is already in stores, is set in the Emergency, a period that has an infinite appeal on the Malayali mind. “It’s the story of India as she limps through 21 months of suspended civil liberties, half-hearted revolts and stern censorship. It is also the tale of common people who pursue their middle class Indian dreams,” he says. With four titles and three publishers in his pocket, Anees claims that he has no other muse but writing. Excerpts from an interview.

About the ‘fantastic four’

The Vicks Mango Tree and Tales From A Vending Machine have been published by Harper Collins; The Blind Lady’s Descendents by Amaryllis, and Vanity Bagh by Picador. The Blind Lady’s Descendents tells the story of a Muslim family living in a little known town. I’ve used Varkala, my home town, as the backdrop of this family saga. A young man named Amar Hamsa, who has witnessed the slow decadence of his family, sits down to chronicle his family history and ends up writing a long suicide note. Tales from A Vending Machine is the story of Hasina Mansoor, a young Muslim girl employed at an airport vending machine, and her string of adventures. A huge Bin Laden-fan and a fierce critic of the United States, Hasina is a keen observer of the sweeping changes in the Indian aviation industry. Vanity Bagh , meanwhile, sketches the picture of a tiny Pakistan inside a big Indian city, against the backdrop of a serial bomb blast.

Where it all began

I belong to the beach town of Varkala, but I live in Kochi. I work in advertising, the only profession I would choose other than writing. Being someone who could never excel in studies, I have always been driven by the conviction that my career options are limited. It could either be writing advertisements or writing books. Or both. I quit studies when I was barely 16, after spending six months in a college that bored and terrified me at once. It was not easy being a dropout, especially when you wanted to be a writer. But reading helped. So did travelling.

The writing pedigree

In my family, I am the first published author. Which is quite sad, because I believe my father harboured a secret desire to be writer. He used to read a lot and in fact he wrote a bit too, but nothing to the extent of a novel or a book of non-fiction. I really don’t know how passionately he pursued the idea of becoming a writer. He spent most of his life in West Asia. Even when he came back home and we lived under the same roof, he remained an expatriate for me. But I believe I inherited my love of words from him.

First words

It’s ironic, but the end of education kindled in me an acute love for books. My comfort zone was the library at home, which had a great collection of books amassed by my father during his three-decade-long expatriate life. And, fortunately, I grew up in an era of minimal distractions: no 24-hour television, no computer games, no Internet, no Facebook… The home library’s collection has been much depleted over the years. But, thankfully, it’s still there. The British Council library in Thiruvananthapuram was another favourite escape. My first piece of writing was a short story called Jaywalkers . I don’t remember much about its storyline now, only that it revolved around an unidentified dead body near a zebra-crossing or something similar to that. But at the time of writing it, I was so impressed with the story and the craft that I sent it to the Illustrated Weekly of India . Every week I turned up at a local bookstall to browse through the magazine with no intention of buying it, unless it carried my story. In the fifth week, the magazine sent me a stock rejection letter.

The writing routine

It is difficult fitting in writing into an adman’s busy schedule. But working in a place like Kochi has its own advantages. The work pressure is comparatively less when compared to Mumbai and Delhi and that is one of the reasons I refuse to relocate even in the interest of my profession. I believe advertising is probably the best day job for an aspiring writer; I would even recommend it. Anyway, the advertising industry is full of people who chase bigger dreams. I have no specified time for writing. I write whenever I can; sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning.

Social networking and writing

I am quite active on Facebook. In fact, I went to the extent of promoting a character from one of my novels through Facebook. This character earned a huge following in a matter of months. And it feels good when people in your network, some of whom you don’t even personally know, take serious efforts to promote your book. They obviously don’t expect anything in return, and that makes their involvement invaluable.

The fifth book

Not yet.


I like Graham Greene, Naipaul, Saul Bellow, Gabriel García Márquez, Julian Barnes, Jhumpa Lahiri, Roddy Doyle, J.M. Coetzee… there are many more.

Originally published in The Hindu.


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