A sudden breeze shook down the lilac blossoms of the jacaranda tree nearby and brought with it the smell of new paint and raw concrete. People, thought Murthy, and there followed that mix of anticipation and worry.

The characters in Anjum Hasan’s collection of short stories, A Day In The Life, range dizzyingly from a cantankerous, retired accountant to a young Muslim domestic worker. But they all share a dissonance, a familiar discomfort with their surroundings – outliers at odds with the spaces they inhabit or the lives they are living. In Hasan’s more than capable hands, it’s a trait that quietly invokes questions of identity, belonging and most starkly, of purpose and motivation.

Inward but not isolated

Most of the stories from the collection – it joins a previous short story collection, three novels and a book of poetry – offer a window into the interiority of its characters through a day in their lives, while a few keep us in their company for a longer period. Given her skill, it would have been easy to leave us with just the minutiae of these carefully constructed, displaced lives, but Hasan avoids this easy route. Even as they look inward, her characters are all strongly located in the social, familial and geographical environments they find themselves in, spurred along unfailingly only through interactions with others. Some of the strongest stories in the collection, in fact, are pivoted around complex and powerful female friendships.

The nature of these interactions often transcend class, age and political opinion, but Hasan masterfully sidesteps implausible resolutions and mawkish relationships just as she does prosaic conflict. In “Sisters”, a statistical analyst suffering from an undiagnosable disease finds herself emerging from her hazy indolence as she forges a close bond with her new no-nonsense maid. Yet even as she grows inexorably closer to her new “sister”, she knows certain structures are set, if not in stone, then tricky quicksand: “But it’s just a game – the bossy servant and the timid boss. If she wanted to, she could fire Jamini without notice.” Later, when the kinship seems unbreakable, only to be almost casually taken away, she’s left to wonder about the reciprocity of this sisterhood.

In “Godsend”, two neighbouring women raising children of the same age are inevitably forced to compare their forms of parenting as they live their “exhausting, parallel, matching lives on these facing balconies.” As the practical, rational protagonist grows increasingly impatient with her pious and superstitious neighbour waiting for the spirit of her grandfather to show up, resolution arrives not in the form of reconciliation or compromise, but a recognition that it is possible to break out of the claustrophobia of their mirroring lives.

A fine balance

The characters in this collection are united by a listlessness, a despondent lack of direction as time passes them by and they struggle to find a purpose, yet they rarely sink into the indulgence of self-pity. That Hasan is able to weave well-rounded characters in the matter of just a few pages is enabled largely by a taut balance of rich detail and remarkable restraint – aggressively cutting at any creeping tendrils of stereotype.

When it comes to prose, however, Hasan is able to cast aside this leash, revelling in lush, verdant descriptions. In “Bird Love”:

“The two walk into mist, the road before them all but a fiction. Women in waterproof cloaks appear out of the rain, their arms hidden, waddling like penguins. They pass the corner grocery shop and espy, lit garishly by a hanging battery-powered lantern, the uncle who runs it. The standard evening greeting – Had your coffee? – is, in this season, replaced with the observation: What rain! Or, The electricity’s gone – to which the usual, placid response is: It will come.”

Or in “The Lady With The Dog”, the only story set outside India, which uncannily captures the final tedious stage of grief – boredom.

The phrase that comes to mind is – bursting into life. But spring is a gradual unfolding: day by day colour seeps back into the land, expressed in crocuses of lilac and gold. The oaks will fatten with leaves by slow degrees. Will they burst into life?

“In the mid-winter season the light is the colour of water running off the top of boiling rice,” begins “The Legend of Lutfan Mian”, a mesmerising story of two friends set in a bustling 19th century Benares, thrillingly alien to one, familiar to the other. It’s a standout story, not just for its step back in time but its closing: “By the time Anjum hears it, her great-great-grandfather, Lutfan Mian, is known as the man who could walk to Benares and back in a single day.”

It’s the only outright concession in the book to what anyone with a fleeting awareness of the Bangalore-based Hasan suspects all along – these stories very often occupy a glorious middle ground between memoir and fiction.

The face of changing India

In the more contemporary stories and despite the intimacy of the microcosmic narratives, A Day In The Life achieves that oft-repeated promise of modern fiction – through the lives of its protagonists it presents slivers of a country in flux. In the most overtly political story, a retiree in Bengaluru grows agitated at the constantly-bickering family that moves in next door. It’s set against a backdrop woven with throwaway mentions of senseless crimes and murders in the city – over a parking spot or a Facebook greeting – that Murthy laments while continuing to support the right-wing government he’s voted into power. Why all this rage, he wonders, even as he struggles to control his own anger by the end. In “The Stranger”, mentions of simmering communal violence casually pepper the idyllic village life of another retiree until it inevitably crosses his path.

In another story, however, a casual encounter in a bar underpinned by the murder of a rationalist, Hasan’s carefully controlled narrative slips just a little, her protagonist pigeonholed a degree too strongly into an excessively articulated nihilism, even if it redeems itself by the end. It’s a problem that repeats itself with greater intensity in the weakest story in the collection, “Yellow Rose”, about a misanthropic young woman who would rather be a cyborg than engage with others, exasperated with a mother who is exactly the opposite – a clunky story that could have been removed entirely from an otherwise immaculate collection. But it’s a discordant note that stands out only because of the deftness of Hasan’s touch through the rest of the book.

To read A Day In the Life is to experience the distinctive contentment that the form of the short story provides – requiring a deep breath and a long pause before being able to transition from one to the next. Yes, these moving, subtly devastating and somehow impossibly humorous stories are meticulously crafted, but they succeed as they do only because they are shot throughout with an astounding degree of empathy. Hasan handles her characters with a dignity and affection that is infectious, as they try, with whatever tools they have at their disposal, simply to make sense of it all.

A Day In The Life, Anjum Hasan, Penguin Random House India.