A Ques­tion of Be­long­ing

India Today - - LEISURE - —Tr­isha Gupta

An­jum Hasan’s writ­ing has never lacked craft or per­spec­tive. The 14 sto­ries in A Day in the Life,

Hasan’s sixth book, sur­pass her own ex­act­ing stan­dards. The tenor might be med­i­ta­tive, but the prose is light-footed, spry, of­ten droll, some­times down­right wicked. In ‘Sis­ters’, a woman shrunk by sick­ness starts to see the healthy as ogres: “they are huge, they dom­i­nate the sky­line, they eat up the band­width”. Some­times a char­ac­ter swings between op­ti­mism and de­s­pair, grand re­sis­tance and quiet ac­com­mo­da­tion. “There were no new ideas to be found in the city so I re­tired last year to this small town,” be­gins the nar­ra­tor of ‘The Stranger’, be­fore let­ting an air of meta-res­ig­na­tion take over: “A whole pop­u­la­tion’s worth of people with re­duced hopes, happy to cut their coats ac­cord­ing to their own cloths.”

Whether the pro­tag­o­nists feel at home or (more of­ten) out of place, the places them­selves are evoked with de­tail and ten­der­ness. In ‘The Le­gend of Lut­fan Mian’, we savour a two-day walk to Ba­naras in a 19th cen­tury In­dian land­scape about to re­framed by trains and the tele­graph. Shil­long, the town of Hasan’s child­hood and set­ting of her first novel Lu­natic in My Head, fea­tures here in the nos­tal­gic but acute ‘A Ques­tion of Style’, while Delhi— Okhla Gaon—makes a sur­prise ap­pear­ance in the melan­choly but ar­rest­ing ‘Lit­tle Granny’s Song’.

At their heart, Hasan’s tales are in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the ques­tion of be­long­ing. Her char­ac­ters might in­habit a dense web of lo­cal­ity, like the pro­tag­o­nists of ‘Nur’ who must map the don Mush­taq Bhai’s house in re­la­tion to the Ara­bic Col­lege, or the Is­lami Nikah Cen­tre as be­ing “where Salim’s sis­ter’s wed­ding was fixed”, but from which some­one can be sud­denly air­lifted into an imag­ined Dubai. Or they might live in an im­per­vi­ous mid­dle-class bub­ble, like Jaan in ‘Sis­ters’, or Gul­fam in ‘Yel­low Rose’, who wants to be an an­droid in a postapoc­a­lyp­tic so­ci­ety but is stuck with Ban­ga­lore, and some­times forced to go to “Ben­galuru”.

Hasan un­der­stands this up­per mid­dle class per­son with a ten­u­ous grip on the world. Gul­fam ar­ranges her life so that “week by week, she saw a lit­tle less of the out­door world of heat and dust that did not re­spond to a click or a swipe”. The re­tired Mr Murthy in ‘I Am Very An­gry’ is un­able to “whole­heart­edly like his fel­low hu­mans in the old way any­more”. But Hasan’s un­der­stand­ing is not in­dul­gence. We are all im­pli­cated. “Each of us, the guiltily in­no­cent, has his own means of get­ting away from the news,” be­gins ‘Elite’. The head­lines press in—ur­gent, of­ten de­struc­tive, and of­ten it needs na­ture to of­fer a re­prieve.

A DAY IN THE LIFE by An­jum Hasan PEN­GUIN RAN­DOM HOUSE `599; 256 pages

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