In an alienated world

In an alienated world

Neti, Neti:  Anjum Hasan  Roli, 2009,  pp  287, Rs 295

Anjum Hasan’s Neti Neti brings Sophie Das from her previous novel, Lunatic In My Head, to Bangalore, gives us a key to her mind and lets us go. Das herself drifts through her personal, professional and social life gazing out at this brilliant new world of the metropolis through the clear glass of quiet intelligence, honed in the very different universe of her hometown, Shillong. Her journey takes her back and forth between two places that would be home, but she is not simply looking for home. Her search is for a search, perhaps, though it is never arrogant or pressing enough to monopolise the centre of the work.

This story of migration within a country so unfathomably diverse was waiting to be told if only because it is the most crucial fable of modern times. But the way into its heart is strewn with traps of clichés — simplistic divides between rural/urban, young/old, development/nature and east/west. Hasan’s endeavour works its way around them to colour the larger picture languishing in monotones.

This is the portrait of a morally and spiritually challenged generation mindlessly pursuing a material dream assigned to them by a prophetic media that has borrowed liberally from the west. The city itself is hardly ever physically present, manifesting itself only in what it does to the characters. Its sameness is reflected in its people who stand apart only in the idiosyncrasies they accessorize with.
 
 Das is an outsider here; also because of how little she wants, and how apologetically. She is more curious, even passionate about worlds other than her own. She is nostalgic about the town she got away from, entranced by a little child’s antics and jolted by the ongoings in the lives of labourers nearby. Her own world fills her with disgust, which she must check before it grows into self-hatred. Fortunately she is compassionate and detached enough to counter the heaving dissatisfaction of the city that breathes into the truncated lives of people around her. Silence is her tool of survival. She recedes into her own mind which is always well-lit but comfortable.

Bangalore however has choked her imagination. Outside of the beauty, history and familiarity of Shillong, she has nothing to understand her new world with. Hasan arms her with the paltry reserve of three books that she must keep clawing into. This cultural disability is tragic, especially for someone so innately perceptive, but an accurate map of a world that only allows easy access to material wealth. Similarly her job of subtitling films is a grim reminder of the outsourcing world’s insistence on mechanising everything. It is a world of alienation where even cinema has lost its magic. Like her friends, she weaves a fantasy to escape — that of unrequited love, but is acutely aware of its shallow depths. Das has no moral judgments, only unregimented thoughts and feelings that are bittersweet, poignant but never fierce.

Violence and death in the book occur randomly and are never fully comprehended. In fact, all incidents are mere gateways you pass through swiftly enough to spend most of your time associating with the ideas of this book; interpreting them vigorously with the building blocks of the narrative. The ideas of India, globalization, family, love, communication, progress are all challenged in turn without resorting to didactics. And a thick vein of dark humour and crackling irony runs through it all.

Hasan is masterful with the nuances of longing and the subtlest of tragedies. Motivation-action-consequence are not defined in any order, but she keeps polishing the world of her creation revealing one gleaming truth after another.

Hasan is a careful writer, an artist with her words. There is writerly accomplishment in every turn of phrase that enthralls you. But the lyrical neatness only serves empathy and observation, never attracting attention to itself. And it is in observation and empathy that Hasan completes her novel, not even hinting at a conventional end. Das, who was always awkward in her hope of redemption, is in her journey when we leave her. She is at a point of submitting to disillusionment. But we don’t worry much because somewhere we know she has a pretty solid home in herself.

So far she has only succeeded in defining what she is not and where she does not entirely belong. But maybe that is all there is to know about happiness. As the scriptures suggest it is about God.

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