Saturday, May 19, 2012

Small Exiles

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


To read Anjum Hasan’s Difficult Pleasures, a collection of stories that have appeared elsewhere over the years, is to be reminded once more of Irish writer Frank O’Connor’s thoughts on the short story. He asserted that it was in this form that one found “an intense awareness of human loneliness”. It was here, he went on, that we would meet outsiders, “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society”.

People who think of themselves as outsiders are aplenty in Difficult Pleasures. There are many drifters, in whose minds lurks “the mild danger that such a life encompasses a great deal but amounts to little”. A naïve, budding photographer comes to Mumbai to meet the person he thinks of as his mentor. A young woman returns to Bangalore after studying in England and sits among packing cases thinking of her mother and a failed relationship. A disobedient schoolboy plays hooky to marvel at the pleasures of a mall in the big city. A Paris-based economist decides to drive to Sweden upon hearing of the suicide of his brother. Time and again, Hasan’s characters emerge from ruts to find – as the bumper sticker has it – that they’re diagonally parked in a parallel universe.

Pleasingly enough, these stories are also leavened with wry reflections on people’s foibles. A character thinks of her landlord that he was “tolerant of the world's instabilities as long as the rent was paid on time”. Another character in the depths of despair thinks: “I can’t want to kill myself because I’m hungry and it’s not possible to feel both things at once”.

These, then, are humane, unshowy tales that depend more on character than on plot for their effects, and the best of them – such as ‘Immanuel Kant in Shillong’, in which a widowed professor re-visits old haunts – are moving and eloquent. In another vivid story, ‘The Big Picture’, the predicament of a widow approaching menopause and travelling to Europe for the first time to attend an exhibition of her paintings, is narrated with empathy, grace and finally, unexpectedness.

On a few occasions, though, there’s a slide towards solipsism, as with ‘For Love or Water’, in which a student in Bangalore discovers a scarcity of both. In ‘Hanging on like Death,’ in which an 8-year-old schoolboy worries about whether his father will attend the school play, there’s an uncharacteristic turn towards the dramatic at the close.

These, however, are minor quibbles, given the quiet yet striking insights that one encounters in other tales. “It is possible to feel completely at home in the world,” one story begins, “but this is only because we have laid claim to a small space – a few rooms, certain streets, a familiar town – over which our habitual wanderings create grooves that we can comfortably slip into”.  When Hasan’s characters drop out of such grooves, they find themselves amongst the unfamiliar, eavesdrop on conversations in cafes, ruminate obsessively over the past and, if they’re lucky, make their peace with it.

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