The Last Laugh

Anees Salim finds big-city success with his satirical small-town stories

KK Mustafah / the hindu archives
01 May, 2014

SOMEWHERE DEEP IN MANGOBAAG, a fictional small Indian town, in an apartment in Bava House behind the Vicks mango tree, lives Teacher Bhatt, a retired schoolmaster and an aspiring writer, and one of the main characters in Anees Salim’s novel The Vicks Mango Tree (2012). Bhatt has become well acquainted with the boilerplate jargon of stock rejection letters from publishers. Throughout the novel he waits for fame incarnate to visit and acknowledge the genius of his “Autobiography of an English Teacher,” a manuscript he’s sent out for years with no success, whose dusty pages he now keeps locked in a trunk. “In his mental picture Fame was a tall man,” Salim writes, “as prim as a salesman, dressed in freshly ironed clothes, and accosting the morning walkers for directions to Bava house. Yes, his name is Mr Bhatt. I don’t know how he looks. Judging by the way he writes, he should look like a genius.” We never get to read from Bhatt’s manuscript, nor do we receive any indication of whether it’s any good, but Bhatt’s banal demeanour leads us to believe his writing would likely be nothing out of the ordinary. Like Mangobaag, a principality which is incorporated into the Indian Union over the course of the novel, Bhatt’s writing is destined to dissolve into history.

Teacher Bhatt’s struggle to see his work in print foreshadowed Salim’s own: Vicks Mango was written twenty years before it found a publisher. To be sure, Salim’s delayed success is superior to the alternative—going unpublished—that is the fate of many writers from small-town India. No one knows how many oral and written masterpieces have decomposed unpublished. Writing in the 1990s—before authors could self-publish online, and without large publishers or literary agents anywhere near his hometown of Varkala, Kerala—Salim’s literary voice could also have gone unheard if not for his dogged persistence, unique talent, and, of course, a bit of luck. Even while unpublished, he was fortunate to enjoy a successful advertising career in Kochi that spared him enough leisure to maintain his addiction to the written word.

Unlike Teacher Bhatt, though, as the hurt of repeated rejection sank in, Salim submitted to the Faustian grip of the publishing industry and decided to write what he describes as more marketable, less literary fiction. Perhaps there exists a writer stubborn and confident enough to let his self-proclaimed masterpieces grow fungus at the bottom of a trunk—though this could be interpreted as an act of hubris rather than integrity—but Salim could not be deterred from his dream of publishing his work.

Salim’s third manuscript, and the first he managed to sell, toed the line between commercial appeal and literary merit just enough to pique the interest of publishers. Tales from a Vending Machine (2013) was light-hearted and playful, but beneath the surface, Salim delved into some of the larger themes that occupy his entire oeuvre: the significance of the literary act, Islam’s often fraught relationship with contemporary India, and the humour that trickles, largely unnoticed, through daily life. And unlike many commercial fiction writers before him, Salim harnessed the impetus from the sale of Tales from the Vending Machine to return to his high-minded literary roots. Between finding an agent in 2010 and winning the 2013 Hindu Prize for Literature, Salim sold and published two older manuscripts, wrote a new novel, and inserted himself into the upper-echelon of contemporary Indian letters.

ANEES SALIM AND HIS SIBLINGS were raised largely by their mother, Arifa Salim, in Varkala, a small beachside town in Kerala popular among tourists, whose population is mostly Hindu but also includes large numbers of Muslims and Christians. Salim’s father, Muhammad, was an avid reader of international literature. A former soldier, the elder Salim worked odd jobs abroad and always returned to his family with a book in hand—an inadvertent gift for his young son. After Muhammad Salim’s sojourns with the family he’d leave the novels he’d brought in the family library. Salim devoured these, falling in love with foreign English-language literature, from VS Naipaul to George Orwell, Grahame Greene to William Faulkner, and later Julian Barnes and Evelyn Waugh.

“I began to think that reading and writing could be my only way out of the small town, which I thought was horribly sleepy,” Salim told me during a chat forced online due to a nasty bout of laryngitis. His distance from major cosmopolitan centres led to a longing for the world he had glimpsed only through literature. “I used to wonder why tourists loved Varkala,” Salim said. “I thought it was my sheer misfortune that I was not born in Paris or London.”

When Salim was sixteen years old, he dropped out of school, much to his parents’ dismay, largely because, he said, he felt unable to connect with classmates and learn in a classroom setting. Knowing that he wanted to become a writer, Salim took up the diligent working and reading schedule that defines his life to this day. At age seventeen he submitted his first short story for publication, and promptly received his first rejection letters. He concluded that he wasn’t cut out for short fiction and turned to writing novels, an ambitious shift for such a young writer. As he began larger projects, he decided that in order to write serious work he needed to venture out from Varkala. So, when he was twenty, he spent a few months traversing India “without maps and money.” Five years later, after completing his first manuscript, Salim set out on another year-long trek, supporting himself through freelance advertising work and other odd jobs. Eventually, hunger and illness overtook him, and he returned home penniless. Begrudgingly, Salim took a job in advertising as a trainee copywriter at Draftfcb Ulka in Kochi, though he continued to write literary fiction tenaciously. Even today, with his newfound literary success, he serves as the head of that same firm’s creative department.

Salim toiled over preliminary drafts of Vicks Mango through his mid twenties, before sending it out to numerous literary agents and publishing houses. A novel about an aspiring young journalist, Raj, who flees Mangobaag after publishing a satirical obituary for the nation, mocking Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, Vicks Mango wrestles with the burden of literary ambition and the pain of anonymity. Contrasting with the young Raj’s success is the torpor of the aforementioned Teacher Bhatt, Raj’s former neighbour on “the bachelors’ floor.” Salim’s manuscript met only with rejection, which made him all the more bitter this time around because of the years of dedication it ignored.

Salim went back to work on another novel, a far more straightforward personal narrative with a protagonist based loosely on himself. This novel is set in what he refers to in the acknowledgements as another “small and sleepy town” like Varkala, the place where he “started reading and writing to escape the boredom.” After two years labouring over this manuscript, which would eventually become The Blind Lady’s Descendants, its rejection proved a near-fatal blow to the writer’s self-esteem. The novel, which will finally be published this month by Tranquebar Press, remains in many ways the most complex and heartfelt of Salim’s works. Yet, for years, it couldn’t find even an inkling of support from an agent or publisher. Salim told me that, as a result, he “started believing that I had no future as a writer and thought of discarding the desire.”

IN HIS LATE THIRTIES, Salim began another book, which would eventually be published as Tales from a Vending Machine in 2013. Writing it took only six months, and the story had a well-aged, sardonic edge. The novel’s protagonist, Hasina Mansoor, a dim-witted vending machine operator at an international airport, rants incessantly about her love for Saddam Hussein, hatred of Israel, and disgust with “the gun-wielding Juice [Jews] … armed to the teeth like Jim Carey in that funny film,” who attack “unarmed Muslims, who only have nice little stones to throw about them.” Yet, despite her hatred of “the Juice,” she dreams of becoming her day’s “Anne French” (Anne Frank) and having her diary published to international acclaim. She spends the majority of the novel’s 223 pages plotting and enacting disproportionate revenge on those she envies.

Compared to Salim’s earlier work, Vending Machine takes his subtle satire and inflates it into something verging on brash ridicule. Reading like a perversion of his delicate wit, the book employs the literary equivalent of slapstick humour, albeit with frequently laugh-out-loud results. But beneath the whimsical wordplay lies a satirical eye sharply critical of the small-town religious zealotry Salim told me he witnessed throughout his travels in India. Mansoor’s ignorance and callousness are only exaggerations of the more realistic, yet equally selective, interpretation of world events favoured by her father, boss, boyfriend, and even her educated twin sister.

Hasina Mansoor may serve as the novel’s comic foil, but through his narration of the other, more subtly prejudiced characters’ responses to her foibles, Salim reveals the unapologetically secular paradigm that frames all of his novels. And he is able to do so successfully, avoiding major controversy, because of the humanity with which he imbues his characters. He may not sympathise with their ideas, but he told me he recognises that these people “are insecure, they feel threatened and laughed at.” Kavery Nambisan, a novelist and member of the 2013 Hindu Prize jury that selected Salim’s third published novel, Vanity Bagh, for the prize, noted the absence of a similar compassion in the work of many Indian satirists. “Compassion is not a craft,” Nambisan told me. “Anees Salim is evocative and can move the reader with his characters and development,” all while retaining his “sly wit.” This empathy seeps into the narrative and keeps even his most odious characters from transforming into caricaturised hatemongers.

In keeping with his comic instincts, in 2010 Salim emailed a query letter and a few chapters of Vending Machine to publishers and agents under the name of Hasina Mansoor, pretending the manuscript was the diary of an uninformed, yet somehow hyper-literate, young clerk at a major international airport. Almost immediately, Salim received a reply from Kanishka Gupta, the second Indian agent he contacted, who was then in the process of founding his agency, Writer’s Side.

Salim had earlier focused on sending his work to foreign publishers. “I thought getting a foreign deal first was the way to go about it,” Salim told me. He’d read about how the British literary agent David Godwin secured Arundhati Roy’s book deal for The God of Small Things, and assumed that a similar arrangement would find him both Indian and international publishers. During the 1990s and early 2000s, when, Gupta claims, foreign houses expressed a “preference [for] loud noisy books revealing the underbelly of India to the West,” foreign agents were possibly turned off by Salim’s stories, with their often understated, yet profound, social and religious satire. Additionally, Salim’s novels—even the more commercially appealing Vending Machine—are strongly localised, resisting larger generalisations about India. Now, Gupta told me, the market for Indian fiction abroad is improving, and he believes a foreign book deal for Salim should be forthcoming.

Ultimately, Gupta proved receptive to Vending Machine regardless of the deception during the courtship. “The writing was so competent. I thought it was self-effacing … very tongue-in-cheek,” Gupta said. In the two weeks after Gupta sold Vending Machine to HarperCollins, he sold Salim’s two other dormant manuscripts too: Vicks Mango, also to HarperCollins, and The Blind Lady’s Descendants, to Tranquebar. Salim asked that Vicks Mango be released before Vending Machine, since, he said, “I didn’t want to be branded as a writer of commercial fiction.”

VANITY BAGH, published last year and thus far the apex of Salim’s imaginative abilities, was written after Salim sold his first three novels. It represents a union between the complex and nuanced character development of Vicks Mango and the more piercing social satire of Vending Machine. Within a few months of its publication, Vanity Bagh received widespread critical acclaim for what Pranav Kumar Singh, the editorial director of the book’s publisher Pan Macmillan, called its “fantastic … voice and tone.” This January, the book was awarded the 2013 Hindu Prize for Literature, prevailing over a short-listed work by the writer and journalist Manu Joseph, whom Salim considers among the best of Indian satirists.

Set in the fictional town of Vanity Bagh, which is referred to throughout the novel as “Little Pakistan,” the story is narrated by Imran Jabbari, an imam’s son who, along with five uneducated compatriots, aspires to become a gangster in the mould of the town’s notorious, aging, one-legged patron Abu Hathim. They form a gang called “5 ½ Men,” and find a rare job opportunity in reclaiming a car from a neighbouring Hindu area for a loan shark. After the first rupees from their criminal work trickle in—a trifle relative to the fortunes amassed by Abu Hathim—the “Men” are seduced. In their next job, they end up transporting scooter-bombs around the city, serving as unwitting accomplices to a large-scale terrorist attack.

In Vanity Bagh, as in each of Salim’s novels, the act of writing appears in the narrative as a device for humanising his characters. Its effect is especially potent when the satire becomes too cruel. That’s not to say Salim’s writing seems philosophically preoccupied with the literary act, in the manner of Milan Kundera or Roberto Bolaño; nor that all his characters come off as incarnations of the author himself. In fact, Salim’s narratives are remarkable for the diverse lives they explore within small communities.

Teacher Bhatt, the aspiring memoirist of Vicks Mango, is envious of his younger journalist neighbour Raj, of course, but his literary ambitions, no matter the quality of his writing, remind the reader that he is not some elderly curmudgeon rooting against those around him, but rather a jealous competitor. Similarly, in Vending Machine, Hasina Mansoor’s diary entries reveal that she has a conscience, that the inner workings of her mind are less rabid diatribes and more the confused and insecure ramblings of a girl exaggerating the prejudices already present in her community. Even as Hasina enacts her most vicious revenge towards the end of the novel, her diary is peppered with apologies and words of thanks.

The literary act in Vanity Bagh takes a more peculiar form. The book is written as a first-person account from prison, where its narrator, Imran, is assigned to work binding notebooks filled with blank pages. When he stares into these pages, he finds his beloved Vanity Bagh illuminated in prose, his mind transposing its longing for freedom onto the pages through the medium of literature. The novel’s initial pathos stems purely from the characters’ ignorance. We see young Imran and his friends grow up uneducated, subject to the duelling influences of orthodox religion, anonymity and poverty. But, in an ironic twist, the physical security of prison frees Imran’s imagination from the pressures exerted on him by his religious father, traditional community, and the inescapable need for money. His imaginative abilities transform Imran into a worthy lens through which to examine his community.

THE FACT THAT SALIM SUCCEEDED as a writer of intensely local Indian satire is almost paradoxical considering that his literary diet, including all of the work he considers most influential to his style, is foreign. Salim said that interviewers regularly ask him if he has also been affected by Indian writers in English, in particular RK Narayan. “I’m surprised, because I haven’t read enough books by Mr Narayan to be influenced by his style,” Salim told me. He has never felt particularly drawn to Indian fiction, which he said he considers “overloaded with romance and techie novels,” though he did mention Ved Mehta and GV Desani among his favourite writers. As far as other Indian writers of satire and literary fiction are concerned, he said, their “humour is either understated or overdone.”

But while Indian literature has not been a major influence on Salim, his Indian life has. Salim writes mostly about Muslim characters in small towns, and seems far more comfortable delving intimately into the psyches of his male characters than into, for instance, that of the comic Hasina Mansoor. In The Blind Lady’s Descendants—Salim’s most autobiographical work to date—Amar, the protagonist, claims the narrative is his memoir. Both Salim and Amar grew up in Muslim families in sparsely populated beachside communities in Kerala. Both have three siblings, devout mothers, distant relationships with traveling fathers, and blind, impoverished grandmothers. When asked about his religious convictions, Salim told me, “Like Amar, I am an atheist.” Early in the novel, after Amar declares his atheism, he states that he only returns to mosques when there’s a funeral to attend. When we spoke, Salim used the same words to describe himself. Like Salim, Amar flees his home at a young age, albeit for a considerably shorter period than his creator, only to return penniless. And, perhaps most tellingly, Amar, like Salim, is a gifted writer.

Amar’s family life is rife with contradictions. A frequent target of Salim’s satire is the incompatibility of religious traditionalism and modern vices; he seems to jump at every opportunity to blur the line between these vices and expressions of human desire. His older sister Jasira, in many ways a quintessential teenager, “secretly used Father’s razor to shave her armpits.” She revels in her family’s plans to arrange a marriage for her, and in their going to great lengths to raise a dowry, but she ends up with a professor who, as his career blossoms, appears on television saying things the family deems critical of Islam. Sophiya, Amar’s other sister, grew up by the beach and yet is unable to swim—she drowns early in the novel. Akmal, Amar’s older brother, becomes a religious radical but is still the family’s breadwinner, while his father can’t seem to earn a paisa. Akmal fixes radios, ironically repairing the very devices that beam in the modernity towards which he is so hostile. And Amar’s mother, who claims to go to such extremes to protect her family, is ultimately responsible for its slow and steady dissolution.

Looming over the text is Javi, Amar’s late uncle, who committed suicide on the day Amar was born and whose story Amar’s mother attempted to keep hidden from him. After numerous family friends comment on his resemblance to Javi in both look and demeanour, Amar prods his mother into a confession. He then begins cramming relics from Javi’s life between the pages of a diary. These include the two lucid suicide notes he wrote after his apparent mental collapse, which each prove seeds for Amar’s imagination. Ultimately, the question becomes whether Amar’s resemblance to his uncle is coincidence or prophecy. The novel raises the question of what importance family holds for a youth who wishes to break free from the world he grew up in, yet can’t help but be defined by it and the contrast it provides to his newly formed vision of self.

IN ONE OF THE VERY FEW NEGATIVE REVIEWS of Salim’s work I have read, Chanpreet Khurana, reviewing Vanity Bagh in Mint Lounge, accused the author of engaging in too many literary “gimmicks,” as in the names he gives the 5 ½ men, which are all inspired by those of Pakistani politicians. To be sure, Salim proves himself susceptible to easy punchlines. But there’s also a humility in unifying cheap jokes with high-minded literary aesthetics, and this infuses Salim’s work with joy despite the gravity of its larger satirical intentions. In The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Amar remarks on a character, Dr Rose, who lives in a house with rose walls, with a garden full of rosebushes:

Sometimes, life gives you puns in tonnes. I like that phrase: puns in tonnes. Long ago, I fancied becoming an advertising professional, a copywriter, and making a living by writing advertisements and those crazy little jingles people hum in lavatories or in long queues.

Knowing that Salim actually has a successful career in advertising, one can’t help but chuckle. But, in a novel whose playful coincidences are anything but, this passage is also a veiled comment on the burden, both metaphoric and literal, that ancestors impose on a family. Amar’s grandmother doesn’t simply move back home and become a dependant once again; she also serves as a link to an uncle in London (who influences the family tremendously despite limited interaction), as well as to Javi, the mysterious late uncle whose ominous date of death and resemblance to Amar shape the novel. Perhaps this coy line about life producing puns, comic devices that exploit repetition and coincidence, is Salim’s version of Mark Twain’s: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

To promote Tales from a Vending Machine, Salim has created a Facebook account for Hasina Mansoor, where he posts witty status updates and information about her “biographer” Anees Salim. In the process of researching this piece I became friends with both Salim and the fictional Mansoor of the account. I devoured her old posts in search of the same gems peppered throughout Salim’s work. She, or rather he, did not disappoint. “If you can think up some nice little passwords for my facebook account, let me know,” one post says. Another reads: “All great people start off in a small way. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was just a baby when he was born.”

To some of Salim’s detractors, perhaps these quips seem unbefitting of a writer who dives headfirst into controversial social satire. Salim’s entire career, however, is based on a flippant disregard for literary norms. If he’s unafraid of confronting the religious establishment, why not the literary establishment while he’s at it? Salim seems intent on creating the world’s greatest literature peppered with epigrams fit to be hummed in lavatories. For instance, in Vanity Bagh: “On the day of the blast, Imran Jabbari was with me the whole day. Where? Wherever he claimed to be. – Haji Masood (1929– ).”

In a nation whose literature bears the inordinate burden of a colonial legacy, many of whose established English-language writers were educated in the West and maintain a privileged distance from their subjects, Salim is a rarity. A successful satirist like him, whose main education came from the library and the road, challenges the world of Indian English-language literature to break from the turgid formulas of its own ancestry. Salim, in only four novels, has shown that he’s willing to blend the prosaic and poetic, is unafraid of taboos, unsentimental about his hometown, and ready to embrace his community’s contradictions. And now, as he embarks on another novel set in Varkala and considers leaving advertising to dedicate himself to writing full-time, we can only assume that his success will continue.