Writer and poet Anjum Hasan has weaved urban melancholy and the ennui of relationships in a string of lyrical short stories in her latest book, Difficult Pleasures. Here's the author in a tete-a-tete with Sonakshi Babbar.
SB: In your stories, most of the characters (Keya, Dawn) are like caged birds waiting to break free from relationships. The inner turmoil and boredom with their partners form the basis of many stories. Do you think frustrations over love/relationships best describe a sense of urban melancholy?
AH: I'm fascinated by what is one of the most common ideas in modern fiction-alienation. Keya, for example, is a happily married woman who is, yet, uncertain of how she will feel about things from minute to minute and day to day. This is what opens up, not a gulf but a little crack, between her and Mohan. This is also what drives the story. Yes, I mostly explore alienation in and through relationships because to me a lot of what is interesting in the world happens in the encounters between people.
SB: Pain is the leitmotif running through all the stories whether in the form of heart-break or personal tragedies. Do you think the emphasis on painful existence of real life has over-shadowed daily joys of life?
AH: There is pain but also joy-in the immersion of an artist in her work, for instance, or in the experience of falling in love. But my characters are not unequivocal in their feelings, and neither are they static. They keep moving - physically and emotionally-and the story moves with them. So I would say restlessness rather than pain is the leitmotif!
SB: The stories are very 'modern', none of them are bogged down by the quintessential Indian motifs. The western critics would be disappointed at not finding anything about the Diaspora, slums or spices. Was it a conscious choice to steer clear of the stereotypical topics and present a modern and liberal picture of India?
AH: I've tried to write the kind of stories I'd like to read - stories where characters are thinking, complex individuals rather than stereotypes. I think to do justice to readers, our fiction needs to become much richer, psychologically. We're too taken up with the social circumstance and setting-slums and spices- to be curious about how minds work. Alongside, Bollywood is a detrimental influence on storytelling because it focuses so much on the superficial.
SB: Along with personal journeys, the characters also undertake physical travel in almost all the stories. What is the significance of travel and its off-shoots (distance, nostalgia, sense of belonging, and idea of home) in your stories? Is it also to do with your personal relocation from Shillong to Bangalore?
AH: I moved from Shillong to Bangalore and that seemed like a big leap but then I realised it's an urban commonplace. It's increasingly rare to meet a person who has lived in one place all their life-who has neither moved between cities nor travelled. All of us do it and I'm interested in how this affects us. Some of my characters, like Tara John, move around to escape themselves, some because their work implies constant travel, like Banerjee.
SB: Most writers tend to get 'inspired' by personal experiences and thoughts in their work. How did you manage to create so many convincing characters caught in varied situations in life?
AH: I don't want to put down rules for what fiction should be but I think one way of testing one's strength as a fiction writer is being able to create convincing characters and lives very different from you and yours. If fiction is fundamentally about empathy-getting the reader to look into the hearts and minds of others-then being able to realistically create those hearts and minds is a pre-requisite.
SB: It is quite interesting that in a book focusing primarily on urban adults, there're three stories from the point of view of little boys. What prompted you to include stories reflecting the innocent joys and despair of children?
AH: I was interested in how children could become the subject matter for 'adult' stories. Based on the assumption that they are simple-minded, children are usually protagonists in children's fiction. But children negotiate reality differently from adults-not necessarily in a less advanced way. So how would a child, like in the story "Hanging on Like Death", deal with a childish father who has so much longing of his own.
SB: From Goa to Bangalore, cities are the silent characters in your stories. In fact, a review of your poems in Poetry International puts it accurately, "The town is never smudged into mere locale, and its people never flattened into the simply quaint. The poet acknowledges worlds within worlds. How do you give life to the locale in which the story is set? Is it because of a Dickensian obsession for cities?
AH: Nothing inspires me more than Indian city life. I'm also intrigued by how we not only live in cities but, increasingly, in public and in private, talk about them. Several channels, like the media and cinema, are discovering the city as a site for different things like crime and pleasure and history. So the relationship between the individual and the city is never settled and that is a great opportunity for a fiction writer.
SB: After an anthology of poems, two novels and a collection of short stories, what genre do you want to experiment with? What are you currently working on? What do you find more challenging to write - fiction or autobiographical works?
AH: I haven't written any autobiographical works yet, though my poems are probably more personal than my fiction. I'm currently working on a novel. I think I will always write in several genres because each appeals to me for different reasons. But the novel seems to be my big bug, the one thing I want to put most of my energy into.