MEET THE WRITER

‘I’m channelling what I catch on the wind, not necessarily what I know first-hand’: Anjum Hasan

An interview with the Bengaluru- and Coorg-based writer who says her new book of short stories are an attempt to catch the passing moment in fiction.

With her book A Day in the Life, author Anjum Hasan returns to short story terrain. Her new collection is a disarmingly meditative body of work that in its own quiet way is a stinging commentary on the way we live now. She calls it her “fictional report on the contemporary moment”.

In the 14 stories that make up the book, you meet characters who feel familiar. And yet, each of their perspectives, at odds with the new world order, is unusual, astonishingly refreshing, and ultimately cathartic. Their deep internal struggle to make sense of everyday chaos and cruelties swims to the surface.

A woman who finds herself repulsed by her husband’s love for non-vegetarian food, a young technology worker who wishes she could live in the future, an elderly man who finds the city he once knew so well becoming violent and angry, a fragile middle-class woman who comes to depend on her compassionate maid, a young mother struck by a fellow mother and neighbour’s penchant for superstition…Hasan renders ordinary lives poetic.

Speaking to Scroll.in, the author, who spends part of her time in Coorg, talks about why she needs space from Bengaluru to be able to write about the city, how she is responding to life as well as literature through A Day in the Life’, and the books she finds herself rereading at the moment. Excerpts from the interview:

What led to A Day in The Life? Is it, in a sense, a continuation of your earlier collection of stories, Difficult Pleasures?
Perhaps it is – certainly in the obvious sense of my wanting to do more stories. In the last few years I’ve felt a sense of urgency about writing the short story – as a kind of fictional report on the contemporary moment. I think of the Impressionist painters in late 19th century Paris, setting up their easels outdoors and painting from life, their frenzied brush-strokes often mimicking the new urban flurry. I feel the same way ––write quickly, life is passing!

The characters in A Day in The Life are on some sort of quest. They are looking for someone, or for themselves, often finding out that they are the odd ones out, that they do not belong in the new world order. Did you have this running theme in mind as you were writing the stories? Where did it come from?
I’m not sure I had that general theme in mind but I did want to write about the individual rather than any abstractions to do with society, even as these characters very much belong to their time and place. And this sort of person, slightly at an angle, slightly out of sorts, slightly estranged, is at the very foundation of modern literature, from, say, Virginia Woolf to UR Ananthamurthy. It’s fascinating to me how just the possibility of self-awareness, of thinking through things for oneself rather than responding to a social imperative, can come to seem so remote in a functional culture such as ours. But anyway, that’s where it comes from. I am responding to life but, just as importantly, I am responding to literature.

You write about unusual friendships. A connection between an elderly man and a college student, between two mothers raising toddlers, the sisterhood of a Muslim and a Christian – both working class women, a middle-class ailing woman and her domestic help. The relationships you write about are so intimately observed they are almost heartbreaking. Are they based on real stories you came across, heard, observed?
These stories are larger than my experience and the world is larger than my experience. I’m just channelling what I catch on the wind, not necessarily what I know first-hand at all. I can’t help feeling that we’re surrounded by stories, a kind of electricity that could be harnessed if we just attuned our imaginations that way. So that’s all I do – try to be a windmill.

Your connection with Bengaluru, a connection you have called sensual, informs most of these stories, especially the changing, often ugly nature of the city. Tell us about your relationship with Bengaluru and how it has evolved over the years. Does writing about it help you make sense of the place?
I do feel a great affection for Bengaluru – for its energy, its hidden pockets of quiet, its trees, its many new and surprising cultural spaces, its great tolerance. I think the people here are some of the most humane that one can find anywhere in the world. Every time I am travelling and return to Bangalore, I feel a sense of homecoming that I don’t feel anywhere else. Yet there is, increasingly, a sense of being stretched thin – the water is running out, people’s tempers are starting to fray, the traffic jams are apocalyptic. So, yes, I am often writing about it, not necessarily as a way of resolving anything, but just out of tenderness for the humungous life held within these 700 square kilometres.

You once said in an interview that you need some distance when you write about Bengaluru. Where do you write? What is your writing routine?
I tend to do most of my writing in Madikeri, Coorg, where I live part of the time now. It’s a luxury to retreat from the city and it’s a luxury to be able to cultivate some of that anonymity, silence and solitude that I so desperately need in order to write. My routine is to write for a few hours in the morning. There can be days and weeks when I don’t but there is always that ideal – of waking up feeling the seriousness of the urge to write the next page, and then acting on that feeling.

There’s this charming, evocative story (“A Question of Style”) about two little sisters and their sweetly amusing pursuit of style, where the Lady Diana haircut is a symbol of aspiration, of growing up. I had to ask: did it stem from a childhood memory?
Yes, it did. That story is about us – my sister and I, one image of our childhood and family life. And, of course, the obsession with style. I think it is also about Shillong in many ways – the intrinsic sense of style that people there have, the constant urge to embody and express oneself through clothes and hairstyles, and how hard that can be to copy!

You address growing violence, aggression, urban poverty, intolerance, communal tension, religiosity, isolation, issues of class and so much more. Yet the focus remains the inner lives of everyday people. Do you find there is a renewed interest in writing, and reading – in India and abroad – about ordinary lives and the contemporary socio-political circumstances that shape their days?
For a writer that word “people” – or “the people” – is a loaded one. I often think of Yu Hua’s great book China in Ten Words. The first idea he explores is “the people” and he finds how cynically it has been used in his country, even though at certain moments, like in 1989, the people did come together in a genuinely affirmative way. So when I say I write about ordinary people, I’m also thinking of ordinary violence and ordinary prejudice. The ordinary is not necessarily unblemished.

A Day in the Life could be seen by those who know you a little as a fine blend of memoir and fiction. In one story (“The Legend of Lutfan Mian”), there is even a passing mention of your name. So, is it part fiction, part memoir? Do you think a lot of fiction tends to be some parts memoir?
Yes, I do on occasion appear here but I’m not interested in memoir in the conventional sense – that is, as a form suited to the idea that you live your life first and write about it afterwards. I can draw sometimes on memory and experience in these stories but for me living, writing fiction and writing directly about my own life are much more scrambled and hard to separate from each other. I’m thinking of Roland Barthes’s insight on Proust that Amit Chaudhuri once drew my attention to. Barthes says Proust did not put life into his novel; he instead made his life a work for which his book was the model.

Even though many of the stories unfold over just a day, or less, or a little more, there is a deep sense of unpredictability, careful plotting, with so much going on in the mind of the central characters...and then you serve a kind of twist that often turns out to be cathartic. You had to compress all these layers into a short time frame. That’s a lot of craft.
I’m usually working, at the start, from a very small thing – an opening sentence that obsesses me, a person I want to write about, an atmosphere I want to describe. So the crafting takes place as part of the writing – certain things begin to emerge and there’s a process of clarification. I enjoy tying things together, finding patterns, creating those twists you mention, but in the end plot to me is a means to something else. It’s the excuse to bring together disparate things that I want to present to the reader as a unified slice of life.

Indeed, the most alluring quality of your collection are the outliers you write about and it is perhaps also what strangely makes this collection so relatable. It made me wonder if there an outlier in many of us. But there is fear in seeming different from others...
I’ve been reading Perumal Murugan’s new short story collection in translation, Goat Thief, and he says in the preface that all stories fall into two categories. “The first category focusses on the problems of living according to the rules of society, while the second concentrates on exceptions to those rules…When he talks about rules, a writer can bring a story alive by striking a note of mild sorrow. And what is this sorrow? It is the wretchedness of taking every step in life with the fear that one might violate the rules.” This reminded me of Kafka’s The Castle, which has the fear you’re asking about being taken to a sublime height through the story of a character who is trying to grapple with the rules but has no idea what they are. I don’t think I am writing about outliers, I’m just writing about people aware that there are rules and, also, that there is a life outside the rules.

I am sure you are often asked this but it is an irresistible question to a writer who is a master of all forms: Novel or short story? What are you more naturally inclined towards and how do you work differently when writing them?
Both, I hope. There are differences between them, of course, but there is also, for inspiration, a long history of writers adept at both such as F Scott Fitzgerald or Qurratulain Hyder or Vikram Chandra. I enjoy both forms in different ways – the capaciousness of the novel can make for a good home to live in for a few years, while with the story there is that poignancy of the passing encounter, the sudden glimpse, which really attracts me.

You have said you feel out of touch with the poet in you, and that this is not an age for poetry. Do you continue to write poetry regularly and do you hope to publish more poems one day?
I don’t feel the obligation to write poetry regularly or to publish it. Occasionally a poem might suggest itself and then I heed the call. Poetry is a state of mind, as much as fiction is, and at the moment it is largely fiction that preoccupies me. But I hope to get back soon to reading more poetry, if not writing it.

What are you reading currently? Any recent books that left you bedazzled?
I have been rereading – and discovering anew the pleasures of books I like. Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold, for instance, which is a sort of historical novel about contemporariness or a contemporary historical novel. Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s marvellous short story collection from 2009, Eunuch Park. I think he is that rare Indian English writer, Vikram Chandra is another, who really knows what it takes to write a modern, urban story. I also reread Manu Joseph’s Serious Men, another brilliant account of the difficult pleasures of modern life.

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