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.

How to Write a Book Review

I never thought I’d be writing book reviews, more so a guide to book reviewing. But thanks to a good man I know through Twitter and who shares the same liking for blogging and books that I do, I am now going to lay down a ten seven step guide to the art of review writing.

Disclaimer: This is meant for the simpler folks who don’t review books professionally and who have just started or want to start book reviewing.

1)   It is not rocket science: All you have to do is describe what you thought of the book. Did you like it, love it, hate it? What did you like and why you liked it? Since giving unsolicited opinions is such a great pastime for most of us, one would think reviewing books should be a cake-walk, right? Well, it’s not that easy but it’s not that difficult either. You just have to try and be articulate and let your readers/friends know what you thought of the book.

2)  Introductions please: It’s always good to start with a brief synopsis of the book. Jumping right into the details of the heroine’s sorrow at losing her grandmother might leave the readers a bit confused. Lay the groundwork first by telling people what you are going to review or talk about. Let them get a feel for the book before they get to your opinions of it. You can either take the synopsis from the cover or give your own version. A well framed description of the book can create a good deal of interest amongst your readers to continue through your review.  Drawing a few character sketches can also help you to progress better.

3)  Keep the butler out of it: Everyone hates spoilers, but thanks to human nature and its workings, we cannot keep from yelling about the butler who killed the cheating husband. Try to work your way through the review without letting on the secrets, the tricks that keep the reader turning the pages. This doesn’t just apply to whodunits and mystery thrillers but any and every book.  Try and evaluate as to which pieces can be given away and which should be kept to ensure that the reader gets his money’s worth from the book.

4) Let’s not forget the real hero: The author. The man/woman behind the scenes. I think this is where the true review lies- what you think of what and how the author wrote.  If you’ve read many books by the author you’d be more aware of his tools and devices in narration, of his style and his/her so-called USP. It can make for good reading if you can shed some light on it and let the readers know how the author bends words to move the story ahead, to bring elements of surprise or create something unheard and unseen before.  But here you too, you must know to exercise some restraint, keep it relevant and not go overboard with superlatives. You can say XYZ is the best, but it would be nice to know why you think so.

5)  Every read is an experience: With every book you pick up to read, you start an experience that will be unique to that book and you. There are books that make you laugh, shed tears, wonder, reminisce or the cogs in your head run at double speed. Then there are those that will make you frustrated, angry, sleepy, give you a déjà vu feeling and so on. Try to recollect that experience and consider it when you write a review.  Being objective in your review vis-à-vis the content, plot, and writing style is good, but a review can hardly ever be non-personal. I’ve personally seen that my liking for a book is influenced a lot by the time or frame of mind I was in when I read it. Try to draw the best out of that experience and share it through your review.

6)  Don’t get swayed by the lynch-mob: This is your review, your personal account of your experience with the book. Just because the book lies on the list of top 100 books of the century doesn’t mean you should like it or lie about liking it. Also, because everyone is trashing the book doesn’t mean you have to jump into the bandwagon.  Since you are not responsible for the sales of the book, neither do you stand to lose or gain anything by how the book is received, why not be honest with it?  There’s a difference between a recommendation and plain pimping, know where to draw the lines. Your readers can see through a dishonest review.

7)  Mind your language: Last but not the least, please respect the language in which you’ve read the book and are writing the review. You are not writing a review using a tweet or SMS, so drop the chat-SMS-tweet lingo. Please use healthy and wholesome words, not their chopped off vowel-less versions. You will not be penalized for using up many words or characters. Nothing is more off-putting than seeing chat/SMS jibber jabber like lol, cuz, u, luv, etc in a review.  And grammar, yes grammar. You want your reviews to be read and considered, letting your readers see that you have basic grammar knowledge will help the process.  Also, there’s spell-check if you’ve not noticed. As I said in the first point, it is not rocket science. But if you want to write a good review, a review that serves its purpose of helping a reader decide about a book or even just make for interesting read in itself, you have to know how to communicate.

I think this should do for now.  I hope this helps and you start spewing seven reviews a week. If it doesn’t, well, go read some other articles with 20 steps.

And for those who didn’t check the hyperlink in the introduction, this post was brought to you because of @prempiyush.


You can also read the post here.