THE BA­NAL­ITY OF­BE­ING ALIVE

A col­lec­tion of sto­ries filled with wry ob­ser­va­tions about the lives of or­di­nary peo­ple

India Today - - LEISURE - By An­var Alikhan

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.

SAU­RABH Singh/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

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