The spectre of death looms over every page of Anees Salim’s seventh and latest novel, The Bellboy, right from the start. “As they would go to a holy city to die, people came to Paradise Lodge to end their lives,” begins the novel, set in this derelict suicide hot spot “that had not seen a lick of paint in years and wore a sombre brown, akin to the sepia of holy cities”.
Latif, the novel’s protagonist, is a neurodivergent teenager from the slowly sinking Manto Island nearby who works as a bellboy 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 ceased to remind Latif of a savage-looking Mexican footballer”. But it brings him a friend, Stella, and his family some much needed financial stability, so he stays on.
The story is essentially a familiar one: of the immiserated, faceless millions toiling for basic necessities, armed with stoic hope, enforced optimism or quiet desperation, depending on their temperament. What sets it apart, however, is the frequent incursions into Latif’s mind, a highly original if slightly muddled one. The sense of foreboding that never leaves the novel is enlivened by Salim’s wit, wry and astute observations, and writing that has you seeing, smelling and becoming one with the place Latif inhabits. “I wanted to be an ambassador of marginalised people and tell their story,” says Salim of his protagonist, a boy who could not find his way in the world, a world that has never been kind to him. “Latif is neurodivergent. He is the easiest victim and talks himself into trouble, invites it,” he adds.
In an interview with Lounge, Salim talks about the character’s genesis, 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 novel’s genesis: the origin of its protagonist, Latif, and the story’s setting?
I modelled this character after a couple of people I grew up with. One of them was a boy called Latif. He used to work in a house next to ours. He was neurodivergent, like this character. He was my age—I was around 16 then—and he didn’t understand what was happening around him. Another person I know was a part of some theft that occurred in the neighbourhood. 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 create Latif.
The process of writing 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 only about that place, the house of death. This character was never there.
Slowly, the lodge took a back seat and he (Latif) became the centre of some kind of dilemma. Everything happened around him. There is an island near Kollam called Munroe Island; it has been sinking for a while. Everyone is talking about its slow disappearance. The lodge sits at the heart of Kollam and it is very close to a water body called the Ashtamudi kayal (lake), and this island is somewhere along the coast of this river.
The book happened in bits and pieces. I got a place and then a character. Things started falling in place, and it went out of control. After a couple of chapters, I knew where it was going; the story took me along. I was just a medium. Something drove me to write this book. I started somewhere and ended up in another place.
Unlike your earlier novels, like ‘The Small Town Sea’, ‘Vanity Bagh’ or even your last one, ‘The Odd Book Of Baby Names’, there is a very gritty reality about this novel. Some of it could have, in fact, been lifted directly from the headlines of a newspaper.
This is the only (such) book…I wanted to keep it very close to reality. Normally, my books happen in the (character’s) head. If you look at The Small Town Sea (2017), everything happens inside the boy’s head. And Vanity Bagh (2013) has a touch of magic realism to it. This novel, however, is very close to the ground. This (the events described in it) is something we all see daily. I know people like Latif’s mother, whose hands were so worn that they couldn’t work and had to send an underage child to work instead.
Can you talk about the religious politics of the book? There is a focus on religious polarisation—at one point, for instance, you refer to a saffron thread around the manager’s wrist. But it is done very subtly, lying very lightly on the text.
Religion is one of my favourite areas. I always want to talk about the divide it creates, the hatred and the lack of trust between religions. And yes, I always write about Muslim characters. Someone was asking why Latif couldn’t have been a Hindu boy and the manager a Muslim. I was accused of giving all the virtues to the Muslims and all the bad qualities to the Hindus. That wasn’t really the intention. The boy I saw was 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 talk about the research that went into this novel?
Not much research. I am afraid of too much research material. You can end up wanting to be truthful to the material and then you are s***ed. It can destroy the way you tell the story. I try to get the place, background and setting in place and then shape it in my own way. This gives me a lot of freedom.
In this book, the setting is unmistakably Kerala. I haven’t been to Munroe Island, the sinking island on which Manto Island is based, but I have been to parts of southern Kerala and have seen similar places. I have also visited many islands in Thailand. Every island is similar; only people change. And yes, I love creating new places.
For instance, I am currently working on something new that is set 500 years ago. If I start researching for a book, I will not write more than a few pages. I don’t even try to find out what clothes they were wearing in 1540. That is something a writer can create, I think. It is for you to create or destroy things.