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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The Simoqin Prophecies – Book Review

The Simoqin Prophecies - Samit Basu
The Simoqin Prophecies - Samit Basu

Imagine all of your favorite myths and legends, fantasy series, science fiction pulp and the mish mash of all that and more is The Simoquin Prophecies. And a ruddy brilliant mash-up it is, brimming with puns and references and an underlying subtle current of humor that restrains it from becoming an outrageous parody of all its constituents.

First in the GameWorld trilogy, the book begins in the year of rebirth of the greatest rakshas Danh-Gem and the revival of another hero who will bring his downfall. That is a quite standard premise for most tales of fantasy fiction, we agree, but Basu makes this a much more interesting plot with his unexpected twists and a host of magical creatures and eccentric characters. The book has all the magical creatures ever explored in Greek, Egyptian, Hindu mythology (some characters and sub-plots straight off from our beloved Ramayan), and some are his own inventions. There’s the ravian Kirin, the good-looking prince Asvin and Maya, our feisty and sharp heroine who’s the daughter of one of the most powerful spell-binders Mantric. While the Chief Civilian of Kol, the most powerful city in the world, worries about the rising amount of magic in the world and increasing number of rakshas sightings, Mantric is busy in Bolvudis (oh, don’t you love such wordplay?) setting up the world’s first magical movie studio.

Thus, Asvin, Maya, Kirin and Spikes (a pashan), the Dagger(under the name of Amloki), a centauress Red Pearl, and a vaman Gaam set off for Bolvudis to meet Mantric. Much adventure and drama happens on this eventful journey and they come to a parting of ways with Kirin.

Where does Kirin’s path lead him and what further adventures do Asvin and Maya tackle? What happens to the love triangle of Asvin, Maya and Kirin? Well, to know all of this and get some more entertainment, you must go read this book.

Basu pulls off an amazing and delightful debut, bringing a first off fantasy genre novel in India that would appeal to those brought up on Star Wars and Harry Potter and those who grew up listening to Indian folk tales and legends. Basu wrote The Simoquin Prophecies when he was 22 and got it published when he was 23, making him India’s youngest author at the time. A much laudable feat, especially when you compare it with the ambiguous rise of Indian writers in English. His work might not be the most original, but at least it doesn’t show any signs of colonial burdens and hang-ups or any of the quick chick-lit types coming out in the market. Instead he gives you a story made up with elements from your favorites, adds his own charm and creativity and dishes out a book that will have you wanting to read the second one very very eagerly.

You can also read other reviews here.

Review: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin- Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin- Margaret Atwood
I’ve never been much of a sucker for award winning books. Even for the Booker winners. But this one had me falling hook, line and sinker. Read this one and you will add Atwood to your all time favorite writers immediately.

The Blind Assassin is a novel within the novel, a story running through two generations, in parallel universes, storming the worlds of two sisters and their families.

The novel has many layers to it, each unraveling an yet unseen sediment of story, each layer revealing as much as hiding. Atwood brings the characters to life with their mannerisms, dialogues crafted with an intensity that only just bubbles at the surface, inviting the reader to jump headlong into their entwined complex lives. The plot twists and turns and you’ll be enthralled till the very last page. Even there you’ll still be wondering if you concluded correctly.

The prose is the best I’ve seen till date, with compelling sentences that will stick out in your memory for a very long time. I found her writing to have the restraint and beauty as that of Irène Némirovsky, author of Suite Française. I’m sure that if I read the book again, I’ll find some more hidden clues and small stories that I’d not noticed the first time around.

Review: A Quiver Full of Arrows

A Quiver Full of Arrows- Jeffrey Archer
A Quiver Full of Arrows- Jeffrey Archer

Acclaimed author of Kane & Abel, The Prodigal Daughter and As the Crow Flies among others, Archer brings us A Quiver Full of Arrows- a motley collection of twelve stories that take the reader from London to China, from New York to Nigeria meeting bickering lovers, old fools and driven men and women.

Be it the story of The Chinese Statue which was lost in a gamble by Sir Alexandar or the incident with Septimus Horatio Cornwallis, who accuses a fellow passenger of stealing his possessions; each story ends up so unexpectedly, one has to revisit the pages to gather our wits about.

My most favorite piece in the book, the reason why I lament the loss of the book so badly to date, is a story called Old Love. It’s about William Hatchard and Phillipa, two English Literature undergraduates who are the best in their class and bitter rivals. Their rivalry reaches its peak when they both decide to compete in the Charles Oldham Prize. Phillipa’s father dies suddenly and William, without realizing why, decides to drive her up for the funeral and stays by her side for support.

What follows make it one of the most moving stories told in the book. I’ll not say that I never cry when I read certain books, but this story certainly makes a record of some sort.

Archer brings his masterful writing and admirable storytelling skills to each piece, forming tightly composed jigsaws, creating kaleidoscopes of personalities and places.

You can find the complete review here.

Review: The Undomestic Goddess

The Undomestic Goddess- Sophie Kinsella
The Undomestic Goddess- Sophie Kinsella

Star author of Confessions of a Shopaholic returns to her domain of chick-lit with this standalone offering in the form of a comedy of errors and life’s many frivolous swings.

Samantha Sweeting, a 29 year old workaholic, slaving away her life to become a partner at the prestigious law firm Carter Pink realizes to her horror that she has made a mistake as giant as the London Eye and in a state of disarray and delusion flees the city. She lands up at the doorstep of the Geigers who mistake her for a housekeeper they had been looking for and take her in. Completely lost and almost out of her mind, Samantha takes up the job in order to find a place to crash for a night.

People who like the genre and are fans of the Shopaholic series will welcome this with welcome warms and even applaud for the somewhat gutsy and smart Samantha Sweeting.

The complete review can be found here.