Sunday, December 23, 2007

Anjum Hasan, Shillong and Lunatic in my Head

[A version of a piece I did for the Sunday Business Standard]
Shillong did that to people...preserved them in its Shillong-flavoured timelessness – the same rumours, the same jokes, the same gossip, the same petty jealousies. The scale of the town corresponded to the scale of people’s imaginations.
Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head begins on a typically overcast Shillong afternoon with a middle-aged schoolteacher named Firdaus Ansari walking along a wet street. Pine trees seem to drip slow tears, film posters turn to mush; a little later in this opening chapter, a precocious eight-year-old, Sophie Das, “stares past her own weeping reflection” in a window pane.

Such imagery recurs through this book, which is a portrait of life in a northeastern city as seen through three characters of different ages, all moulded in different ways by their setting. Teaching Hemingway in her class, Firdaus thinks of The Old Man and the Sea as a static work (“she failed to see any correspondence between the fussiness of the narrative and Santiago’s humdrum goal. It bothered her – how Hemingway’s language, instead of powering significant events, moving the wheel of the story forward, kept the story in the same place”), but this in a sense applies to her own life too: a dream of moving to Delhi died with her parents years earlier, and now she’s saddled with a thesis that seems fated never to get off the ground and a relationship that’s going nowhere.

Meanwhile Aman Moondy, a young dreamer obsessed with the early Pink Floyd (and convinced he has a psychic connection with Roger Waters), is studying for the Civil Services exam for a second time and waiting, with his small group of friends, “for something or someone to show them the way” – the way out of Shillong, that is. And little Sophie, though too young to make such concrete plans, chooses the world of the imagination (“she felt it was incumbent on her to lie, that the truth was often so shabby and unconvincing that she needed to embellish it merely to have something interesting to say”) over mundane reality. She is an adopted child, she decides one day, though there’s a problem with this idea: it means her new baby sister isn’t really related to her.

The stories of Firdaus, Aman and Sophie coalesce to form a dreamy, introspective book that probably won’t be to all tastes. I enjoyed Lunatic in my Head. Though it’s slow-moving at first, it acquires rhythm – and a lyrical intensity – as it proceeds, alternating not just between its protagonists but from one mood to the next (the section titles include “Courage”, “Sadness”, “Anger”, and so on), and leading up to a minor crescendo as the three paths very briefly converge. Though there are a couple of uninvolving subplots featuring peripheral characters, Firdaus, Aman, and Sophie in particular, are vividly realised people, and on the whole this is a very confident debut. It’s no surprise to learn that Hasan – who grew up in Shillong and now lives in Bangalore – has been writing for longer than most first-time novelists, with poems and essays published in several journals and anthologies. I did an email interview with her a few days ago.

The lives of the characters in Lunatic in My Head seem weighed down by the incessant rain and the mist. Do the elements play an integral part in shaping the characters of people in the region? I'm speaking partly of the dreamy indolence one sometimes associates with youngsters – which you bring out in the scenes with Aman and his friends.

Absolutely. In Shillong it’s almost always either rainy or wintery. The beauty of the landscape is somehow impenetrable. The rest of the country is far away. Things move slowly. Grand ambitions inevitably seem comic. People can be hugely lazy. I can’t remember what I did with my youth except wait for something to happen, write bad poetry and laugh. There was a lot that seemed funny, and I think now it may have been something to do with all these people from all over the country squashed together in a small place. They didn’t fit and they hadn’t noticed – like the English professor, Thakur, in my novel. Laughter was also a way to deal with one’s own awkwardness, the inescapable fact of one’s own alienness.

Your protagonists can be thought of as stages in a Shillong resident's life. Did you consciously identify with any of them?

Yes, they could be three perspectives on the same situation. It’s important that they remain largely ignorant of each other because their loneliness is crucial to their characters. I couldn’t really have identified with any of them when I was growing up because they suggested themselves to me only when I began thinking about what kind of novel I wanted to write. And I consciously did not want any of them to directly be “me” because I’m not that interesting to myself and I would have quickly become bored writing autobiography as fiction.

In an essay, you wrote: "You could live in Shillong for 25 years – loving its small-towns charms, chaffing constantly about not knowing your place in it – and spend the rest of your life fighting nostalgia." Can you elaborate? How different is it living in Bangalore?

I lived in Shillong till I was 26. It’s the place against which I judge every other place and every other place feels shockingly different! There is a scene in my novel when Firdaus is talking a walk on a lovely June morning and she finds herself longing for Shillong. She realises that she longs for Shillong even while she lives there and has lived there all her life. But of course writing about nostalgia is different from being nostalgic. Writing is a critical act. You’re in sympathy with and yet objective about many different points of view. That said, I’m fascinated by remembering as a form of unfulfilable desire.

We’re all supposed to be unsentimental and metropolitan nowadays – it’s provincial to be provincial. Yet to me R K Narayan, say, remains a great novelist because he embraces the local. I’m fascinated by the love of the local. Bangalore is very local too, in parts. But it’s easier to be anonymous here. I live in a very middle-class, very Kannadiga colony and my neighbours are a little curious, but I’m still not as self-conscious as I would be in Shillong.

To most people living in other parts of India, the north-east is an enigmatic place – out of the Indian mainstream in many ways. Has the region been under-represented in literature?

The northeast produces a huge number of writers. Assam has a literary tradition at least seven hundred years old connected with the Vaishnavite revival of the fifteenth century, which is comparable to the development of Bhakti literatures elsewhere in the country. In the late 19th century, the multilingual Khasi intellectual, Jeebon Roy, was translating the Ramayana into Khasi. So, culturally, there have always been connections with the “mainstream”. Today it’s through Bollywood and cable TV, which is a more one-sided and sterile kind of encounter, but influential nevertheless.

When I was growing up everyone seemed to be writing poetry and some of it was very good. About writing in the English language, put out by metropolitan publishers, and on the radar of the national media: that is growing too. Siddhartha Deb has internationally published two novels set in the northeast. Penguin has in the last couple of years published Mitra Phukan, Dhruba Hazarika, Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao. My own sister, Daisy Hasan, will shortly publish a novel set in Shillong.

You touch on the tensions between the tribals and the Dkhar (the Khasi word for non-tribals). What repercussions do these conflicts have for the future of the region?

It’s similar to communal conflict – news about which only underlines the fact that for the most part and for most of the time we are grudgingly tolerant of each other. In Shillong, though, there has been a huge flight of non-tribals out of the city because of the conflicts and the lack of opportunities. But it is still quite a mixed-population town. I think in India we find it hard to grasp the idea of cosmopolitanism and the fact that cities are by definition multicultural. Shillong was established as a modern town by the British in the mid-nineteenth century and people from all over the country started to flock to it from the very beginning. It has always been multicultural but it’s only recently that people have started to acknowledge the idea that someone not ethnically from Shillong can “belong” there. I think the self-image of Shillong is changing in a way that might reduce tension. It’s started to see itself from the outside, with a tourist’s eye.

I liked the bookending references to The Old Man and the Sea, especially the last sentence, where the girl stands up and “tells her indifferent classmates the story of the old man and the sea” – a story that Firdaus thinks of as staying in the same place. Was this meant to parallel the lives of your characters? Or am I going overboard with interpretation?

Well, perhaps it suggests the remoteness of literature as an institution. We’re used to thinking of fiction as something that plays a mirroring role, but what if someone is oppressed by the opposite effect that books can have, which is to alienate. Firdaus is alienated by Hemingway and Jane Austen and so on. I thought that was an interesting position for a teacher of English literature to be in. She finds her own immediate context stifling, and she finds the faraway books she teaches irrelevant. She has a hard life. So that small revenge on Hemingway [Firdaus concludes that “the old man was dotty. He was not meant to be taken seriously at all”] is apt, I think.

You've been writing poems for a long time now. How difficult was it to make the leap to a lengthy work of prose?

I think there’s a greater continuity between poetry and prose than is usually imagined. They are only forms after all – receptacles. Some people approach poetry as if they were encountering another life form, but if they came nearer they’d see that a poem doesn’t really bite.

If we take poetry to mean an appreciation of structure then poetry is always implicit in the novel. Like Orhan Pamuk says in Istanbul: “What is important for a painter is not a thing’s reality but its shape, and what is important for a novelist is not the course of events but their ordering, and what is important for a memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account but its symmetry.”

Do you see yourself writing more novels soon, or would you rather stick to poetry?

I’m working on a novel about a grown-up Sophie Das in Bangalore. And writing a few lines of poetry on good days.

[Anjum Hasan illustration by Binay Sinha. And an earlier post on Siddhartha Deb's Surface here]


  1. Very interesting insights on the life in Shillong. The inactivity maybe an Eastern thing though because I know life in Calcutta is also a bit like that. I am sure the natural beauty of the place also encourages it. Reminds me of this little coastal village I visited on my last trip to the motherland called Tarkarli. Life moves in slow motion there. Or maybe it's because of some chemical found in all sorts of fish. Hmmm...

    Loved the part where she says that you are nostalgic about Shillong even though you are living there.

  2. Hey. I read the book on reading this interview here about a month back. Loved the book.

  3. Anjum lived in the same campus as me.I last saw her when she came to my wedding in Shillong ( I married a brit and live in the UK) I am trying to get hold of the book. Good luck to Daisy too. Thrilling to hear about Anjum's success

  4. I think the book is very unique in that it tries to give an truthful unrepentant view of the multi-cultural situation in Shillong. It asks questions about our identities and whether they really matter so much as to inflict irrational violence and play dirty politics on one another. Her language is both impeccably succinct and lyrical. The book feels genuine and gives three interesting perspectives about a 'dkhar' fitting in this slow, yet gradually changing town. She is the new voice to look out for in Indain Literature... Eagerly awaiting the publication of her next novel.

  5. I just finished reading the book. I was born and raised in Shillong, had my education at St Edmund's, but now live elsewhere. Anjum Hasan has an undoubted flair for the written word besides being very well read (an aspect that comes across clearly through various references in the book). However, the story sort of stagnates. Viewing objectively, the lives of the main characters in the story go from nowhere to ..... nowhere! I am not quite sure that it might have an appeal that extends beyond the people who have an association with Shillong. But for me, names that had been relegated to the outer fringes of memory made a sudden comeback upon reading this book. I think I finished the book in two sittings and it was a pleasant walk down the alleys of nostalgia.

  6. I am from Shillong, living in the United States, talk about Nostalgia,Shillong may be out of site for over 40 years but never out of mind. Beautful childhood memories are etched in my mind, could relate to every word written by Anjum Hasan.
    The corridors of St.Mary's college still come in my dreams.
    Great book, read it once and lend it someone, never came back.
    Still looking to buy one for keepsake. Would love to read another book on Shillong