In Sarvat Hasin’s latest collection of interlinked short stories, one of her characters, Rehan, describes marriage as a “third person in the room with them”. Reading You Can’t Go Home Again is a similar experience; one gets the sense that the author and the reader are not alone, that the pages house a third, penetrating presence. Spectres saturate the seven tales, shadow the lives of the six characters, and often unsettle the ground on which they stand. When Hasin closes the collection with the question “What are you afraid of?” the reader remains haunted long after the last page.
A lurking darkness
Sarvat Hasin, arrived on the literary landscape with her novel This Wide Night, published in 2016 and long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. If her debut merited comparisons with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, her most recent work invokes another canonical American author: Arthur Miller. The narrative unfolds with a set of high school children in Karachi preparing to perform a stage adaptation of Miller’s The Crucible. This first story, Dark Room, compresses time, taking place over one school year. It is, on the surface, a light-hearted story about high school crushes and long drives but already, the title foreshadows the darkness that will invariably pierce the pages to follow. Over the course of the collection, then, as these teenagers grow older, shed their innocence and inhibitions, and gravitate towards postcodes in other parts of the world, they also learn to grapple both with life’s ordinariness and the obstacles along its way.
The reader too grows to expect sudden deaths and disappearances, enigmatic story endings, and characters who collectively embody a series of contradictions – Shireen “learns to shed people the way snakes slough off old skin” while Maliha believes “there will be other parts, other skins to slip into”; Rehan would “rather be home”, but Kareem expresses a sigh of relief ‘‘on the plane out of Karachi”. And if these characters, slipping, as they do, in and out of skins and cities, can sometimes be read as companions, so can some of Hasin’s stories.
The first and the final stories, for example, melt into each other – character are confronted with churayls in mirrors. Rehan’s initial disappearance in Dark Room and the incessant djinns in The Walled City bookend the collection. Rehan only features in these two stories, but the ones in-between are suffocated with his absent presence. In some ways, then, Rehan enters the each story even as he does not – and lives between the lines – in other, quieter ways, he exemplifies all characters’ anxieties alongside aching ellipsis that ground the book. Irrespective, with his reappearance in the final story, there emerges a sense of coming full circle, a homecoming. Similarly, the stories You Can’t Go Home Again and The World Isn’t Over Yet can also be read side by side. The specific set of stylistic techniques Hasin uses in this pair of stories confirms her talent as a writer – and the two stories can be seen as a synecdoche of the collection.
Although the seven stories trace the characters’ lives, this is not chronologically done. Instead, their lives are narrated in fragments, flashbacks, and focalisations. This back-and-forth storytelling bears down especially heavily on the relationship between You Can’t Go Home Again and The World Isn’t Over Yet and the plot revelations in the former. Read in order, the title story appears first, but it is only after reading the latter that one finds a belated sense of closure in the former. This double-reading and double-backing is particularly telling in context of the title of Hasin’s book but perhaps there’s also no one way of going – and locating – home.
Experimental and disorienting
You Can’t Go Home Again is the third story in the volume, and commands a presence purely by virtue of being the title story. It is not unusual, then, for a reader to single it out and hold it to high standards. Curiously, no other story in the book is told in the second person and Hasin, in self-consciously singling it out in terms of point-of-view, plays with the reader’s expectations even further. Yet another visible marker of her craft lies in the decision to write dialogues without quotation marks throughout the collection. The effect this has on the reader is one of slippage – of sentences, character silhouettes, and spaces – into a dream-like, if dizzying state. One moment, the reader is in the close-knitted class circles of Karachi – sprinkled with Urdu words, showbiz, and the sea – and the next, on a honeymoon in Rome, in a boxing studio in London, or a heavy-traffic street in Bangkok. This criss-crossing of the characters’ roots and routes serves the stories’ strengths, and it’s not long before this slippage into disorientation becomes almost desirable. Hasin’s originality lies in the subtlety of her experimental style – her ability to compel the reader into the innermost worlds of her characters, even if they themselves feel on the fringes.
Virginia Woolf’s experimental work, The Waves, comprises of soliloquies spoken by the book’s characters, following six friends from childhood to adulthood through their individual and collective consciousness. Similarly, Hasin seamlessly carries the reader through cities, tragedies, and mysteries; she shocks and soothes as her characters too move from adolescence to old age. More pertinently, perhaps, she blurs the real and fictional boundaries between the East and the West, Pakistan and the world, home and away. You can’t go home again, but it can come to you in waves.
You Can’t Go Home Again, Sarvat Hasin, Penguin Random House India.
Sana Goyal is a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London.
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