The Last Laugh

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

01 May 2014
KK Mustafah / the hindu archives
KK Mustafah / the hindu archives

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 To be sure, Salim’s delayed success is superior to the alternative—going unpublished—that is the fate of many writers from small-town India. No one knows how many oral and written masterpieces have decomposed unpublished.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 Even while unpublished, he was fortunate to enjoy a successful advertising career in Kochi that spared him enough leisure to maintain his addiction to the written word.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.

Adam B Lerner  is a former Henry Luce Scholar at The Caravan.

Keywords: fiction Indian English writing satire Islam Kerala Manu Joseph publishing Anees Salim literary prizes