[Did a version of this review for Crest]
Anjum Hasan’s first novel Lunatic in my Head – one of the solidest, most assured debuts I've read in a long time – was about three people, unrelated to each other, living in Shillong and stifled in different ways by the pace of life in this misty northeastern city. One of those characters was an eight-year-old girl named Sophie Das, who spent much of her time in the world of her imagination. "Fat raindrops flecked her glasses and things turned blurry; car lights melted into streaks of gold, people were coloured blobs, bobbing on the surface of the world's dark sea."
In Hasan’s new novel Neti, Neti, Sophie has the floor to herself and her world is still in many ways a blur, though the setting has changed. She's 25 and has been in Bangalore for a year at the point the book opens, working for a US-based company that outsources the subtitling of DVDs (dialogue-transcribing, background sounds for the hearing-impaired) to India. This life is faster-paced than Sophie’s life in Shillong was – it’s a world of glitzy malls, late-night parties and office politics, a consumerist culture where people regularly spend beyond their means (an important subplot is about the repercussions of people defaulting on loans). Her boyfriend Swami – to whom she tries to introduce one of her favourite books, R K Narayan’s Swami and Friends - works in a call centre and keeps American time. Sophie has, in a sense, moved from one country to another; we are reminded that the north-east is frequently thought of as not being part of India at all. (At one point, beginning a journey from Bangalore to Shillong, she sleepily thinks to herself, “I’m not coming back to India”.)
This is a book with a dry, often dark sense of humour, especially in the sections where Sophie has to deal with a conservative landlord who frowns on a single woman coming home late at night (and who demands that she “remove her underwear” from the clothesline). Or the passage where she reluctantly attends a satsang - a spiritual meet held in honour of a new-age Guru – with freshly purchased beer bottles nestled in her bag. (It probably says something about me that I chuckled out loud at a passage that introduces the bereaved parents of a little boy who died in a mall, but the context, involving a clueless character who is trying too hard to enliven proceedings, really does make it funny.) It’s also a book of vignettes and moods, with chapter titles that often reflect Sophie’s state of mind, and in this it briefly reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent, underrated novel Black Swan Green.
I thought Neti, Neti was an easier read than the introspective Lunatic in my Head, which was driven more by the interior lives of its three characters than by plot movement. This could partly be because the tones of the two books were dictated by their respective settings: the first was about feeling weighed down in a city where nothing seems to move, while this one is set in a world where too much seems to be going on at once. But this isn’t a facile tale about a young girl attaining personal freedom, escaping to a more liberal world and having the time of her life. Bangalore and Shillong, located 3,000 km apart, may represent two very different aspects of the Indian experience, but there are contradictions within each of these worlds as well, and Hasan’s precise, controlled prose does a fine job of portraying Sophie’s disaffection with both the places she has known. (The book’s lovely title is a Vedic chant that means “Not This, Not This”, but this literal translation doesn’t quite capture the deep sense of restlessness, the world-weariness, evoked by the phrase; the sense of never quite being satisfied by anything.)
There has been a debate in Indian literary circles recently around a magazine essay that claimed our fiction lacks ambition and a sense of the Larger Issues – that it’s more about navel-gazing than anything else. This is a simple-minded argument to begin with (and it deserved to be explored in a much larger space than the 900 or so words that were available to the article), but Hasan’s two books, taken together, are good examples of how the personal can give depth and shade to the bigger picture; how individual lives can be used to map the life of this vast, varied country and the many subcultures that coexist within it.