THE BANALITY OFBEING ALIVE
A collection of stories filled with wry observations about the lives of ordinary people
Poets and novelists belong to two separate countries, and rarely get permission to travel from one side to the other. Short story writers can be born on either side and, perhaps, slip across the borders at night. Anjum Hasan, however, is a literary traveller with multiple nationalities, who has been exploring all of these territories with a consummate sense of belonging, wherever she goes. First came her poetry, for which she got a Sahitya Akademi award; then came two novels, which got listed for various awards; and now there’s this delicious collection of short stories.
I remember reading one of Hasan’s poems, where she wrote about walking down the street wearing her mother’s clothes, thus being neither herself nor her mother, and dreaming of elusiveness. And that is a theme that seems to run beneath these stories: The interstitial spaces of human life, poised ambiguously between this and that. Something like Ayana, the character in the story Good Housekeeping, who, having fled an incipient relationship with the emotionally fragile Jack in London and returned to her small flat in Bangalore, suddenly realises that “the sense of resolution is missing. She hasn’t left Jack’s room yet. She’s still standing there, trying to talk to him. She hasn’t put on her jacket and walked trembling into the late dusk without closing the door behind her…” So neither here nor there; yet both here and there; just the way life is.
Hasan’s stories observe their characters and their lives in all their banality and sad-funny awkwardness, without making any judgment, or trying to figure them out: They are what they are and it is what it is. The stories have been crafted with a poet’s sensibility and written with some unusual writing instrument that is neither scalpel, nor water-colour paintbrush, but some strange hybrid of the two. They’re about people like you and me—economists, graphic artists, research scholars, photographers—who shop for groceries at the Dasava Nagar supermarket, chop tomatoes and black olives for a salad, endure water shortages, drink an inordinate number of Bacardi Breezers in Goa, or glare at the idiot in the giant sunglasses who reverses his silver Land Rover through your little lane with a series of violent lurches.
The stories are filled with wry, acute observations about people, situations and things that keep making you catch your breath. Telling us about the photographer named ‘Science’, for example, Hasan says: “Bombay was not exactly a random choice. The city had always been there in the way that, when we are 20, cities loom on our horizons and we imagine comfortably distant futures in which we might live in one of them.” About the tentative couple, Jasim and Dawn: “Slowly Jasim became a bit of Dawn and stopped opening the front door and threatening children every evening. And Dawn became a lot of Jasim and got used to straightening and cleaning and refining everything.” About the Swedish Ludmilla: “Her spoken English has a careful precision about it, every word chosen after a splitsecond deliberation to match it with some other word in her head.” And as we read we get to know our selves, and our world, just that little bit better.
I think it was William Faulkner who once said that the short story was the most difficult of writing forms to do properly. Hasan has done a masterly job, placing these stories before us like delicate, translucent slivers of life, breathing imperceptibly, as we examine them, one by one, and turn them over.