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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Dreams in Prussian Blue- Book Review

 

Dreams in Prussian Blue - Paritosh Uttam
Dreams in Prussian Blue - Paritosh Uttam

I have some bias against Indian writers and writing. It was with much reluctance that I agreed to read Dreams in Prussian Blue. I didn’t have much hope from it and struggled through first quarter of the book. And somehow against my will, I started relating with its characters. And even more unwillingly, I felt affected by the fate of its doomed protagonists.

The novel begins with a simple, and somewhat clichéd, premise- that of a young naïve girl falling in love with a mysterious, somewhat obsessed artist. Love blossoms, and the odd couple struggles to set up a happy life together. Naina, the young feisty art student shoulders responsibility far beyond her age and Michael, the brooding painter immerses himself in his art while leaving his partner to make ends meet. Fighting against the world at large, and with each other, the pair still learns to love and live. Then calamity strikes and their already wobbly world breaks and shatters.  Michael is robbed of his eyesight in an accident. An accident that might not have happened had Naina not given him an ultimatum.  Naina fights with the guilt, but little does she know of how many more burdens she will have to bear in the near future.

What is a painter without his eyes? What is a relationship without trust? Paritosh Uttam weaves a story of conflicts that will sadden and trouble you, make you wonder what you would have done in their stead.  I personally hated the character of Naina. I could relate to her, understand her, even empathize with her to some extent, but I still hated where and what she had led herself to become. On the other hand, I felt more deeply for Michael, in a distant detached way, mourned for him. But after all of this, I can’t deny I was shocked at the end. For a small breezy read, the ending sure doesn’t hold back any punches. It can knock the wind out of you and leave you wondering, with a small knot of unease inside.

The story could have been paced better and characters given more depth I feel. But, it makes for an engrossing read nevertheless, once you get beyond the first few chapters. The writing style gives the impression of a strong current being held with much restraint. There is a lot explored within few lines, one only needs to look at it in the right way. The book might appeal a lot more to women than men I think, but that again is a very personal assumption.

Dreams in Prussian Blue came out from Penguin’s offering of “Metro Reads”, pegged as fun, feisty and fast reads that will go down with the temperament and taste of the burgeoning Indian urban middle class readership (or as Penguin says, for “readers on the go”).  In that league, Dreams in Prussian Blue fits almost perfectly. Readers who have grown up to city clatter and noise, rocky relationships and issues, the passions and dreams fuelled by a city like Mumbai, will be able to relate to the match that is Michael and Naina. But I wouldn’t categorize this one as a ‘fun’ read, where I count fun as something that will make you laugh, rollick and giggle at each turn of page. I won’t mark it for those who are “on the go” either. This one is meant to be consumed on a warm lazy weekend.

So would I recommend the book? I think yes. I think some folks, who enjoy reading about shifting dynamics of relationships, will like this book. It will give them much satisfaction to mull over what happens when love kills.

 

Psssstt.. I also interviewed Paritosh Uttam for BookChums. My first proper “interview” as such. You can read the interview here.