A Question of Belonging
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