From Behind The Yellow Door

Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan

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.

Excerpts from the interview:

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.

-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.

-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.
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Petrichor

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They say rains sometimes wash away color and cloud vision. Not here. This grassy slope is as green as peace can be. This is not the green of envy, but of roiling calm. Young blades of grass tickle and tease, but never manage to cause irritation. I look out towards the gray lake. Somewhere along the horizon, it blends with the gray clouds. The gray doesn’t speak of indistinct evil and good. It doesn’t speak at all, it’s silent with weight. It contains a million little life sources. Each droplet will create life on earth. Each drop will fall on me, wash away something, will take away more than settled stale dust and blend me with the earth. All I need to do is soak them in, and offer myself for theirs to own.

There are woods behind, full of tall nameless trees. Those ageless witches covered by thick barks have taken over the lands with their dark long branches, and narrow spaces between themselves. The grass at their roots have obliterated brown. The earth there is sheltered, with grass and mighty goddesses of the forest. The rain falls softly on this cushion. It is more than water and moisture. It has taken the abandon of the clouds, the wisdom of grandmothers and freewill of the winds.

The lake ahead is trying hard to contain a turmoil erupting from within its depths. Tiny waves scarring its surface betray the secrets it wants to hold. The clouds tease him. They unleash a drizzle that will touch, entice and infiltrate its barriers. The spies within will get lost within the currents and rebel against their own mother. The revolt turns into a wild dance of passion and restraint. All water, held against its will by the greater powers of sky and earth. Where would the child go? It seeks to escape with the favorite uncle, the wind. But that traitor of the gods, he will drop them the moment it hears the roaring of the thunder from Zeus.

I sleep on the earth. Waiting for that stubborn, helpless son to make a choice and escape. He can rest with me, or take me along to whichever faraway land he seeks for adventure. I care not for my footprints to be left for worried search parties. All I ask is for him to leave the scent behind.

Calling Home

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She had returned to unadorned walls. The medium-sized suitcase was plundered and its contents strewn around in an orderly manner. Discarded paper and other items lay on the floor.

The neem tree outside the window looked bald and deprived. It had shed its leaves. The mango tree next to it was in bloom, as if mocking its neighbor. Little did she know that no one cared for its flowers, but someone definitely missed the neem’s jade green canopy.

Her mirror was missing again. She didn’t miss it, but she noticed its absence. That explained her barren looking walls. A lone lamenting voice coming out of a machine created disturbances in the air. The only kind she liked.

She sat down, trying not to look anywhere and to hold that moment to herself. To enjoy that solitude and peace, all by herself. The sun was growing weak, ready to sink into dusk. She wished it would hold on for a moment longer and not slip in to the cloak of evening, not just yet. She liked the way it fell on her window glass, touching it, not cutting across in a rush to reach the floor.

She looked at her overflowing book shelf. Part pride, part regret. There was too much white space around she felt. Birds outside were talking to each other, she wished she could know who they were. She didn’t want to understand what they said, that would be an uncivil intrusion on their freedom and privacy.

Her windows were left open, to let her room breathe. Her mother, had she been present, would have asked her to keep it shut, for fear of mosquitoes. But for now she wasn’t there and the room could behave however its owner wanted. This room was home. There was no one here, no one’s possessions encroached upon its territory. Everything inside was hers to call home. She would have wished for this to be an ever-present state, a perpetual ownership.

A knock forced her to pause her reverie. “Have you paid the rent yet?”, asked someone. She shook her head and went back to staring at a tiny screen. There’s a price to pay for everything. But it’s never too big a price if you can call the purchase home, however temporary.

The lament continued with another tune, with another softer voice. Her eyes returned to the flowers that covered every branch and caressed every leaf on the mango trees. It was said that the flowers had a mild sweet scent similar to that of the lily of the valley. She didn’t know whether she’ll ever be able to confirm that. She didn’t know if she would be around to see the fruits either. But that could wait, she didn’t need to concern herself with that at the moment.

For now, contentment was to be the flavor and rhyme.