Indian novelist and editor of the Indian literary magazine The Caravan Anjum Hasan's first two novels - Lunatic In My Head and Big Girl Now have been published by new Melbourne small press Brass Monkey Books. Prithvi Varatharajan talks to Anjum about the novels for Readings.
Your first novel Lunatic in My Head is set in Shillong, a small city in the North-East of India with an ethnically diverse population. In that novel I was struck by the multi-culturalism of Shillong, but also by the complex make-up of your several protagonists - there’s a description on the first page of someone ‘quarter-British, quarter-Assamese of the tea-planter variety, and half-Khasi’. Despite the cultural mélange of the town, Aman, Sophie and Firdaus all seem out of place in Shillong, don’t they? They don’t quite fit the moulds available to them there.
When I was in school, the Indian National Pledge was dinned into us—“India is my country, all Indians are my brothers and sister. I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage…”
One may believe in this textbook pledge and yet matters don’t end there. Living in a country like India means negotiating one’s difference from everybody else or everybody else’s difference from oneself every day. It’s an ongoing, dynamic thing and I think in a relatively small city like Shillong, with its highly mixed population, these negotiations become more pronounced.
So I was interested in exploring feeling ‘out of place’ as a condition. It has been done in fiction in relation to the Indian diaspora but less in the case of Indians feeling displaced within the country. Shillong lends itself well to that kind of a story because it has people from all over the country. It’s also quite a divided place, with a history of conflict between the different communities who live there. At the same time, the city has learnt to live with its diversity better than other cities in that region.
In my characters, these negotiations take place at different levels. Firdaus, for instance, who is ethnically not from Shillong, is nevertheless resistant to the stereotyping of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The eight-year-old Sophie Das goes one step further and want to unbecome who she is—wants to be Khasi rather than an immigrant from the plains. Aman feels that the best thing is to ignore the conflict because it’s hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong.
All the three main characters also harbour various fantasies of escape. So while they face Shillong’s mixed world with as much open-mindedness and dignity as they can manage, I think that deep down they would like to escape this ‘out of place’ feeling—by moving to another town or having a relationship with a particular person or simply inventing a different, dream life for themselves.
And your second novel, which is about to be published in Australia as Big Girl Now – that charts Sophie’s attempt, as an adult, to escape her ‘out of place’ condition, doesn’t it?
Yes, it does, and I think that in this novel the question of how to fit oneself in a place becomes a question not just about cultural background but also about values.
In some ways Sophie is not an unusual twenty-five-year old. She moves from small city Shillong to big city Bangalore. She enjoys the liberties of the big city—the money, the parties, the drifter friends, the freedom to live on one’s own—all of those things that are, in their newness, exciting to the current generation of young urban Indians.
But even as she enjoys these things she is unable to become a person who can believe in them completely. Everything of seemingly ordinary significance has a parallel, often darker and more mysterious meaning for Sophie. So, for instance, she escapes from Shillong in order to find a job, but she also escapes because one afternoon as she is standing smoking in her garden, a passer-by asks her what she is doing there. What is she staring at when there is nothing to see?
Sophie’s eventually becomes an existential crisis. If she cannot fit into the pattern that 21st century middle-class India offers her then where is her place? Is there a place—either physical or mental—where she can feel at home?
I want to try to trace this – Sophie’s existential crisis and her striving to feel at home, in the Bangalore of Big Girl Now – back to your early work as a poet.
You began writing as a poet. I wonder whether some of your poetic concerns – e.g. the limitations of life in a small town; the outsider’s struggle to belong; the nature of love and happiness – have come through to your fiction. Of course, the forms are vastly different: you write through a multiplicity of characters in your novels, rather than a singular poetic self – but there does seem to me to be a thematic track, leading from your early poems and into your later fiction.
I usually try and dodge questions about whether the novels are autobiographical. (Harder to dodge ones about whether the poems are!)
But yes, you’re right, there is definitely a thematic track leading from the poems to the novels. I think ‘concerns’ is the right word because while Sophie leads a life quite different from the one I led when I moved from Shillong to Bangalore, she feels some of the same excitement and dread in the face of the big city. And I too felt, like she does, ambiguous about the town that has been left behind – it’s a kind of secret one harbours and sometimes that secret sustains one and sometimes it’s a big burden.
I think in one sense I’ve been moving outwards in the writing, starting in the poems with the things that are close at hand and then trying, in the novels, to see if these can be broadened out to capture something of what’s going on in contemporary urban India.
But there’s also an important sense in which I’ve been in the same place all along. And this place is connected to poetry or to the poetic imagination. Like I said earlier, Sophie experiences a darker and more mysterious underside to things and that this disjunction between the ‘real’ world and her inner world leads to a crisis. What she is trying to fight, I think, is the literal, the material, the purely functional. Sophie wants to be allowed to day-dream, to not care for material success, to forge relationships not driven by the logic of identity or money. She wants to be able to inhabit a liminal, poetic space and in the gritty, middle-class world of Big Girl Now that poetic space is absent or threatened.
And if I could move away from your writing for a moment (without going autobiographical!), you mentioned the liberties of the big city, and the newness of certain social activities – parties, living on one’s own, etc. – that are irresistible to the current generation of young Indians. Is this particularly evident in Bangalore, or has this been happening in big cities all over the country?
I think Bangalore as well as other Indian metros have been growing steadily for a long time but in the last decade the pace of change has accelerated hugely. Most of the metaphors used to describe how our cities are changing are metaphors associated with speed. But I’d like to think of it not just in terms of speed, which is a given now, but in terms of a particular kind of disorientation which is caused by the speed. I hope I can eventually come up with the right word to describe this urban disorientation, just as Sartre came up with the word ‘nausea’ to describe a particular attitude of revulsion towards the world and oneself, or WG Sebald’s uses the word ‘vertigo’ to describe human emotions in the face of the past.
The current generation of young Indians is more and more like its counterparts from elsewhere in the world, but the environment has had to change quite dramatically around them for them to become this way. This is what (coming back to the writing) my novel Big Girl Now explores. Most of the characters in that novel are about twenty-five years old or younger and the older generation seems to be separated from the younger one by something more drastic than age or values.
This is not to say that urban Indians didn’t party earlier or that making a lot of money was not a concern before. But never before were these things such a central part of our narrative of ourselves. There is an intense focus on the concerns of the moment, which I think is new. There is an impatience and greed and a sense of entitlement that is new.
And finally, you’re appearing on a panel discussion on September 4 called ‘The Communal Voice’, at the Melbourne Writers Festival, with two other authors who use lots of characters. Did you know, when you set out to write Lunatic in my Head, that there would be so many characters telling the story?
I was always clear that I wanted the novel to capture the – as you pointed out in the first question – culturally mixed nature of Shillong. As the novel got going the three main characters demanded three separate threads of their own and they each came with their own little universes.
I like the idea, from 19th century fiction, of a novel taking on a wide expanse and being peopled with a large array of characters. It’s suited to telling stories about cities because the urban space – whether in a city like Shillong in the northeast or Bangalore in the south – is inherently a heterogeneous space. Cities, by definition, seem to be places where people congregate from everywhere. Yet our novels don’t always reflect that.
I’d like to believe that there’s a political edge to having so many characters from different backgrounds in Lunatic in my Head because it suggests that no one person or set of persons can lay exclusive claim to the city of Shillong, that it speaks through all their voices. Of course, even with so many characters, I’ve captured only a sliver of the city. It’s impossible to write a novel in a representative way where every ethnic group has their quota of space. That would not be a novel but something else altogether.
But even though I imagine I’ve created some kind of a polyphony, the fact remains, coming back to the first question again, that it is my three main characters who do most of the novel’s thinking and that these three feel, in some essential sense, ‘out of place’. The rootedness of some of the other characters reinforces this sense of dislocation.
So in the end it becomes a novel about the mystery of belonging. On the one hand, we long to feel affinity with a place and its people, and on the other hand we want to break free – not of this or that place but of the need to belong altogether!
Prithvi Varatharajan lives in Melbourne. He is a freelance producer for ABC Radio National.