Latif, the protagonist of Anees Salim’s latest novel, works as a bellboy at Paradise Lodge, where people check in to die. “As they would go to a holy city to die, people came to Paradise Lodge to end their lives,” says Salim, who worked as a bellboy for a while. It was as if the lodge was “the closest point to the afterlife”.
The Bellboy, a coming-of-age story, follows how witnessing a crime changes the course of a 17-year-old boy’s life. Death is a dominant theme in the book, as in most of Salim’s books. Salim says of his obsession with death, “There are times when I felt like life wasn’t worth living. I wanted a book or at least a short story to be published before I die. For me, writing is part of the effort to get rid of fear.”
The recent death of one of his classmates left Salim concerned and at a loss. She was always ahead of him. Even when she went to school, she ran ahead of him. She was one of the brightest students in his class, while Salim barely made double figures. The girl who seemed to have it all took her own life a few weeks ago.
Life is unpredictable. Likewise writing. For some reason Salim couldn’t write for a while after he finished his book The Small-Town Sea in 2017. “It took me many months to get back into my rhythm,” he says. However, he began writing The Bellboy the day he finished The Odd Book of Baby Names, which was on the long list for the 2022 JCB Prize.
Looking back, Salim reflects on the irony of dropping out of school at 16 to become a writer. “I think it’s the smartest decision I’ve made in my life,” he says. If he hadn’t become a writer, he probably would have moved to the Middle East and worked in a supermarket. Or he might have opened a business in his hometown of Kerala and failed.
Nevertheless, the success was no coincidence. He started devouring books since he got out. He would read a book a week. As a teenager, he became completely invisible. He never bothered to confront gossiping neighbors and family members who wondered what he was reading. “I’m sure they made fun of me behind my back. But I was cut off from the outside world. I wouldn’t attend a family celebration,” he says.
Salim won the 2018 Kendra Sahitya Academy Award for his novel The Blind Lady’s Descendants. Now he is becoming more and more willing to experiment. In The Odd Book of Baby Names he brings in the voices of nine different types of characters. An ambitious and complicated work that has won him critical acclaim. “I’ve written five decent books,” he says. “Now I can afford to be a bit experimental.”
Through Anees Salim
Published by Penguin Random House India
pages 232 Price Rs599