Anjum Hasan’s latest book is a collection of 13 perfectly crafted short stories that subtly explore the urban Indian mind. Wry and rich in imagery, the stories are built around the feelings and emotions of the characters in particular situations. As such, the characters themselves appear brooding, melancholic, almost eccentric and far from normal.
Why does a young amateur photographer sit in a revolving restaurant hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman, who is possibly his mentor, whenever she appears at her window (Revolutions)? Why does the young wife, Dawn, take her husband’s chastisement too literally to actually leave home after a routine tiff (Eye in the Sky)?
Why does Mrs Ali do what she does to a Max Ernst painting (The Big Picture)? Why does Tara John uproot her life from one city to another every time she’s disturbed (Good Housekeeping)? At first glance, and looked at from the point of normalcy, their reactions seem almost ludicrous. The situation is compounded by the fact that Anjum Hasan provides no explanations for the behaviour of her characters.
But when you delve deeper, pause for a moment in contemplation, and think of their reactions in retrospect, they will all seem perfectly normal. For, who can fully understand the inscrutable workings of the human mind? And delineated from our social selves, when we are only solitary repositories of thoughts, don’t we all appear a bit odd in the head?
In Banerjee vs Banerjee, a celebrated economist travels to Sweden to pick up something his estranged brother has bequeathed him before taking his own life. Much of the story goes in his travel to Sweden, but seems essential to building Banerjee’s feeling of alienation from his brother. The total disconnect of the brothers is apparent in the younger Banerjee’s humiliation at finding that his brother has left him a book, when he himself was no reader of books.
In Birds, an American father brings his young son, who has recently lost his mother, to live with his Indian grandparents who he’s never met before. The fact that the boy is going to be dumped in an alien country is revealed only towards the end of the story.
It comes as much of a shock to the boy as to the reader, for the reader has been privy to the child’s thoughts of returning to the States as soon as possible. The sense of abandonment little Samir feels is as tangible as his fear.
The History of Touch is an ironic take on a young woman who once craved and gave in to another’s touch, while losing her sense of touch to leprosy, in the end. Was it her act of indiscretion that brought on the ailment, as her religious friend
Immanuel Kant in Shillong, set in the North-East, has a retired professor of philosophy, who is mourning his dead wife, revisiting Shillong, a place where he’d once taught. A chance meeting with a former student and his revelations force the professor to wonder if his decisions, which seemed so right at one time, were right at all.
Sometimes, for the characters in the stories, the line that demarcates the real from the surreal is almost invisible. The protagonist, Science, (you can’t have a stranger name for yourself than that!) in Revolutions assumes that the woman he sees at the Bombay flat window is Darshini, the ace photographer he’s come to meet all the way from Bangalore. But is it really her?
In Fairytale on 12th Main, Inayat actually tries to stop time so that his beloved Hina is by his side forever. Moreover, not many of the stories have a nice conclusion to signal its end. On the other hand, most endings seem like the beginning of innumerable possibilities.
Anjum Hasan shows sheer mastery and certain brilliance in the way she weaves a plausible story around the ordinary. She shows that much can be written about the way humans perceive the mundane, the banal, and the day-to-day humdrum of existence.
With her rare ability to condense much in a single sentence (she thought of her husband and wished he weren’t dead so she could blame him); and write in word pictures (now she is perched on her new stool, doing nothing except staring, hypnotised, into the bedroom whose shape and size have been obscured by the battered mountain of her things), Hasan’s writing is a delight to read.
By no means easy or meant for a lazy evening, Difficult Pleasures teases, disturbs, and stirs you, as few books can even hope to do.