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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