The specter of death looms over every page of Anees Salim’s seventh and latest novel. The bellboy, from the beginning. “As they would go to a holy city to die, the people came to Paradise Lodge to end their lives,” begins the novel, set in this seedy suicide hotspot “that hasn’t seen a coat of paint in years and wore a somber brown, like the sepia of holy cities”.
Latif, the novel’s protagonist, is a neurodivergent teenager from the nearby slowly sinking island of Manto who works as a bellhop at the lodge. The job, which begins with him witnessing a suicide scene on his first day, sees him being exploited and abused by the lodge’s manager, “who never stopped reminding Latif of a fierce-looking Mexican footballer.” But it brings him a girlfriend, Stella, and his family much-needed financial stability, so he stays.
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The tale is essentially a familiar one: of impoverished, faceless millions struggling for bare necessities, armed with stoic hope, forced optimism, or quiet desperation, depending on one’s temperament. What sets it apart from others, however, are the frequent incursions into Latif’s mind, a highly original if slightly convoluted one. The sense of foreboding that never leaves the novel is enlivened by Salim’s wit, wry and perceptive observations and writing that lets you see, smell and become one with the place Latif inhabits. “I wanted to be an ambassador for marginalized groups and tell their story,” says Salim of his protagonist, a boy who struggles with a world that has never been kind to him. “Latif is neurodivergent. He’s the easiest victim and talks himself into trouble, invites it,” he adds.
In conversation with salon, Salim talks about the origins of the character, the novel’s political subtext, and how The Bellboy is the most realistic novel he has written to date. Edited excerpts:
Can you talk a little about the genesis of the novel: the origin of its protagonist, Latif, and the setting of the story?
I modeled this character after a few people I grew up with. One of them was a boy named Latif. He used to work in a house next to ours. He was neurodivergent, like this character. He was my age – I was about 16 at the time – and he didn’t understand what was going on around him. Another person I know was involved in a neighborhood theft. He showed the thief the house, I think. I don’t remember the details. But he became the scapegoat and couldn’t defend himself. These two people came together to form Latif.
The writing process was different. I never had this character in mind. I was trying to write a book about a lodge in Kollam (Quilon) where people used to check in to die (by suicide). That stuck with me and I started writing it. It was all about this place, the house of death. This character was never there.
The Bellhop: By Anees Salim, Penguin Random House India, 232 pages, €599
Slowly the lodge faded into the background and he (Latif) became the center of a kind of dilemma. Everything happened around him. There is an island near Kollam called Munroe Island; it has been falling for some time. Everyone is talking about his slow disappearance. The lodge is in the heart of Kollam and very close to a body of water called Ashtamudi Kayal (lake) and this island is somewhere on the shore of this river.
The book came about in bits and pieces. I have a place and then a character. Things started falling in place and it got out of hand. After a few chapters I knew where I was going; the story got me. I was just a medium. Something made me want to write this book. I started somewhere and ended up somewhere else.
Unlike your previous novels, like The Small Town Sea, Vanity Bagh or even your last one, The Odd Book Of Baby Names, there is a very grim reality in this novel. Indeed, some of this could have been gleaned straight from the headlines of a newspaper.
This is the only (such) book… I wanted to keep it very close to reality. Normally my books are created in the mind of the (characters). If you look at The small city sea (2017) everything takes place in the boy’s head. and vanity bagh (2013) has an air of magical realism. However, this novel is very down to earth. We all see this (the events described in it) on a daily basis. I know people like Latif’s mother whose hands were so worn they couldn’t work and instead had to send an underage child to work.
Can you say something about the religious politics of the book? There is a focus on religious polarization – at one point, for example, you refer to a thread of saffron around the manager’s wrist. But it’s done very subtly and lies very lightly on the text.
Religion is one of my favorite areas. I always want to talk about the divide it creates, the hatred and lack of trust between religions. And yes, I always write about Muslim characters. Someone asked why Latif couldn’t be a Hindu boy and the manager a Muslim. I was accused of giving all virtues to Muslims and all bad qualities to Hindus. That wasn’t really the intention. The boy I saw was a Muslim and I couldn’t change his religion. If I had changed his religion, this book would have been different. I don’t know if (this story) would have happened if he had been Hindu or Christian.
Can you tell us something about the research that went into this novel?
Not much research. I’m afraid of too much research material. There are times when you want to be honest with the material and then you’re screwed. It can destroy the way you tell the story. I try to find the place, the background and the setting and then create it in my own way. That gives me a lot of freedom.
In this book, the setting is unmistakably Kerala. I haven’t been to Munroe Island, the sinking island that Manto Island is based on, but I’ve been to parts of South Kerala and seen similar places. I have also visited many islands in Thailand. Each island is similar; only people change. And yes, I love creating new places.
For example, I’m currently working on something new that’s set 500 years ago. When I start researching a book, I write no more than a few pages. I’m not even trying to figure out what clothes they wore in 1540. That’s something a writer can do, I think. It’s up to you to create or destroy things.
Also read: Why Manto’s stories ring true in India and Pakistan today