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From Behind The Yellow Door

Post by: Alpana Mallick
Anjum Hasan is a poet, novelist, and a chronicler par excellence of our times. She has published two novels, a book of poems, short fiction, reviews and essays in various anthologies and journals. Her first novel, Lunatic in My Head was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award 2007 and her second novel Neti, Neti was on the longlists for the 2008 Man Asian Prize and the 2011 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Award. She is also the Books Editor at The Caravan. 
I first met Anjum at a panel discussion titled These Hills Called Home at the Jaipur Literature Festival. I thought she was the quietest panelist present. I ran into her at some other events and I always saw her with a diary, making notes, intently listening to the various speakers. Following this interview and after reading some of her works, I've come to realize how keen and discerning an observer she really is. Read on to know what I'm talking about. 
Anjum Hasan-I remember you spoke a little about your life in Shillong, and your move to Bangalore at the Jaipur Literature Fest. I have trawled the interwebs, looking for a definitive biography of Anjum Hasan. Perhaps you do not like to talk about yourself much, as you've said in an interview of yours that you're not that interesting to yourself. But before we begin talking about writing, books and other things, could you please tell our readers a bit about yourself and how writing came into the picture? 
Writing is a kind of biography, an alternative one. I don’t mean that one always writes about one’s own life, but that one creates a life story in and through the writing. 
In Shillong, I grew up in the protected and somewhat insular way in which most Indian English writers grow up – going to an English medium school and reading a lot in English. Writing appeared naturally – I was always attracted to literature and with a house full of books and teachers for parents, it didn’t seem like a very radical thing, putting pen to paper. 
-Your first book, Street on the Hill, published by Sahitya Akademi in 2006, was a collection of poems. The poems present a picture of middle-class life in a small town. In some ways, they form pieces of a large picture, small accounts of a life that could be anywhere, but when seen together, make a clear, pronounced picture of small town existence. Why the decision to use verse over prose, not just for the subject matter at hand, but given that it was your first book?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was writing poetry in college: Shillong had and still has a very active poetry scene. I was part of a poetry circle and we used to meet at the university and read out poems to each other. Then we would critique each other’s verse. Or at least, the older poets would help us younger ones to see how overblown our style was or encourage us by picking out good images or lines. I loved the seriousness of the whole enterprise. That got me started on poetry and I saw how much of the early stuff I wrote was juvenile and long-winded. I started aiming for precision and clarity. I wrote for a long time – more than ten years – before I published that book. 
-Your first novel, Lunatic in my Head, weaves the story of three protagonists into one rich, elaborate narrative. Aman, the IAS aspirant, Firdaus, the lecturer struggling to make peace with Hemingway and her pending thesis, and the eight-year old Sophie Das, going through her own crisis, all of them are struggling to find their place in the world. Either by attempting reconciliation with their reality or inventing the world they seek to live in. Why did you choose three characters and these in particular to inhabit the world in your novel?
I wanted to write about a Shillong that is many worlds in one – it is a slow-moving small town that might not matter from the point of view of the metros but in other ways it is a huge place where people from all over the country live. A dynamic, violent and exciting place. To capture all that, I wanted to have three characters who are alike in some ways but different in others. And each has their own orbit of friends and lovers and family. And that fills up the novel with characters and stories. I hope it brings out something of Shillong’s multifarious nature. 
-Your second novel, Neti, Neti (published as Big Girl Now in some places if I’m notNeti, Neti, Not This, Not This mistaken), is the story of Sophie Das, now 25, living on her own in Bangalore. Did you feel that her character deserved a full book following Lunatic in my Head or had you always planned Neti, Neti and the first book served as an ideal setting for her debut as well?
No, the idea for Neti, Neti came later. After I finished writing Lunatic, I realized I wanted to write about Bangalore and that I wanted to do it through the eyes of a young woman to whom everything in Bangalore is new. And I realized one day that this woman is Sophie. Her alienation as a child, which she counters with fantasy and day-dream becomes a different kind of alienation when she’s older. And that’s what I started exploring. What kind of woman does a day-dreaming child become in a middle-class Indian world where is there very little room for day-dreaming?
-Sophie Das is living in big-city Bangalore, with all the freedom that she can get and yet she feels unable to let go of that “out of place” feeling. Do you think that this feeling, of not finding oneself accepted, of not belonging anywhere, is something that never really leaves a person, but swings from one extreme to another with time and place? 
It’s different at different times and in different places. I think it’s important to try and pinpoint the exact nature of 21st century urban Indian alienation. I think the lack that Sophie feels is a cultural lack. It’s about the values that are on offer. She likes her friends but cannot completely fit in with their world of hard materialism and functional attitudes. And she feels this as a shortcoming. She would like to be more like them but cannot. There is nowhere, no institution or space that she can turn to whose values fit in completely with her own unarticulated ones – the family is breaking down, religion has become functional in its own way, and as for literature and art, which she does fall back on from time to time, that is of limited help because she has only read 3 books! But even if she had read more, literature would offer a solitary recompense, while Sophie wants a social one. She would like to belong. 
-Your characters migrate from one microcosm to another, from one faraway corner to a big city, across the vast diversity that is India. Where smaller cities are sprouting up malls, multiplexes and CCDs, youngsters are getting trendier and stylish everywhere and economical development is seen as a means to bridge the cultural gap, how wide really do you think is the divide between big cities and small towns? Can and should this breach be removed?
Yes, you’re right – smaller towns are increasingly becoming like bigger cities. The middle class everywhere seems to want the same things. That’s what Sophie Das discovers too in Neti, Neti. But what my characters are interested in and what I’m interested in are the ways in which these are place aren’t the same – how each place has a specific local character which is erased in the name of development. That’s what my novels and poems try to capture. 
-The place where both your books are set play a very important role in the story; along with the characters you are also giving us a glimpse about life in Shillong or Bangalore; was it always an intention to showcase in your books how life is in the places where the books are set?- Ruchik Doshi (Reader submitted question)
I’m glad you feel the places play an important role. The novels and poetry I love and am inspired by has a very strong sense of place – not just the physical milieu but the social and emotional context too – Scott Fitzgerald's account of the Jazz Age, Arun Kolatkar’s poems about street life in Bombay, RK Narayan’s feeling for small town south India, Jonathan Franzen’s love for the domestic details of middle-class American life. For me imaginative writing rests on the strength of local detail. 
-The issue of identity crisis features as a leitmotif in many of your works. What compels you to explore this theme? 
I think that at a time when middle class India has a newly-acquired aura of world domination about it, it’s interesting to explore who we are and where the fissures are. Within this new idea of the Indian as unstoppable, the kind of people who don’t quite fit into the neat sub-categories that ‘Indian’ is made of, are often discounted. I’m interested in the stories of those kinds of people. 
-I've read quite some reviews that call your writing lyrical and subtle. While it is that, I also see a fine balance that speaks of measured restraint. Even the effusiveness present in some places seems to flow with a controlled rhythm. Is this a natural bend or has much practice gone into this nuanced style? 
Cheers to everyone who thinks I’m lyrical and subtle! But yes, I think I am critical about my own writing and I do rework it a fair amount. For me language is never only the transparent medium of communication in a story. Discovering the right language in which to tell the story is as much a part of the artistic project as laying out the story efficiently. 
-You have published poems, essays and novels. Which form comes to you most easily and which poses the biggest challenge? 
They’re all incredibly difficult! What I enjoy is not being locked into one form, being able to move from one to another. That movement itself is inspiring because when you’re turning from one form to another, there is a sense of freedom and possibility. I like that. 
-Your Wikipedia page has three links under the main entry. Indian Literature, Indian English Literature, Literature from North East India. While you've mentioned in an interview that you are very pleased to have earned the tag of "voice of the north east", do you ever feel shackled by such categorizations? 
I’ve tried to make sense of what it means to be called “a north-east writer”. As a writer, it doesn’t have much meaning but as a publishing category, as a category for readers who might be drawn to my books because they’re about the Northeast and they want to read about that region, it makes some sense perhaps. But the whole point of writing is to try and evade easy categorization. You want to be unique; you’re not writing according to a formula of what is a northeast writer or anything else. And I certainly don’t intend to write about the northeast all my life, though I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to it. 
-As books editor of The Caravan, which books have you across in the last year or so that you'd highly recommend? 
That’s the easiest question so far! I’d recommend Necklace of Skulls: Collected Poems (Eunice De Souza’s), Homeboy (HM Naqvi), Trickster City (various writers), Quarantine (Rahul Mehta), Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays (Zadie Smith), Serious Men (Manu Jospeh), The Story that Must Not be Told (Kavery Nambisan), Tomorrow is One More Day (G Natarajan), Revolution Highway (Dilip Simeon), and Bhimayana (Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam).
-When asked about giving advice to budding writers, what do you say? And if it were advice that you'd give, what would it be? 
Stay away from the public noise that is growing around the business of writing. Write in privacy and don’t worry about being published till you’re sure that you’re ready. And lastly, only write if you feel absolutely compelled to, not because it seems like a good career option. 
-One last question, which place is home for you- Shillong or Bangalore?
We’re living in a world where home no longer has to be one place so I have the luxury, I think, of saying that both are home for me. 

(You can know more about Anjum through her site. Photo of Anjum Hasan by Madhu Kapparath)


1 Comment

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mukesh saikia
Anjum, will U publish a novel with us?
Thu,Sep 4th 2014 12:47 PM