Friday, June 8, 2012

The pleasure is all ours, Anjum!

Bangalore's very own Anjum Hasan will be celebrating the publication of her new book at an event at the British Council here on Tuesday. (Anjum spent her early years in Shillong and is now the Books Editor of the venerable New Delhi-headquartered Caravan magazine — but it is in Bangalore that, I like to think, she found her calling.)

Difficult Pleasures,
the new short-fiction collection that was released in March, has already earned praise from critics. "The 13 stories ... are a good indicator why Anjum Hasan is widely regarded as a rising star on the literary horizon, as fluid in prose as poetry," wrote the reviewer in The Hindu earlier this month.

How did Anjum get her start? Who are the short story writers she admires? What does she think of short stories? Here, in an excerpt from an e-mail Anjum sent out along with details of the launch of Difficult Pleasures, she provides the answers to those questions:

As a child, I learnt the concept early — the name of the ingredient crucial to storytelling. It was a word my parents used often and approvingly for clever people, the word ‘imaginative’. I knew that if I had to count for anything, I would have to learn to make things up. From the tidy and well-stocked shelves in the children’s section of Shillong’s municipal library, one could pick out and immerse oneself in any made-up world one wanted to. Then there were the stories that one didn’t choose but loved all the same — the English high school reader khichdi of such supposedly immortal texts as an excerpt from John Buchan’s 1910s thriller Thirty-Nine Steps or that terrifying Chekov story, ‘The Bet’ or the highly sentimental ‘The Last Lesson’ by Alphonse Daudet — set in the French region of Alsace-Lorraine which, after the end of the Franco-Prussian war, is on the point of passing into Prussian hands.

When I got to university, one of my monthly pleasures was the arrival in the library of cracklingly new copies of American journals such as Partisan Review and The Southern Review. Before the poems, I would turn to the short stories. What would impress me were not so much the stories in the stories — in the sense of the chain of events described — as the texture — clothes, food, the way people spoke, how colours were named. I envied that texture; I wanted it. I started writing poems as a way of telling stories, trying to locate the specific, the expressible in my own world.

Many short story writers I admire, such as Qurratulain Hyder or Mahasweta Devi, are not writing individually distinctive stories as much as describing in each story a slightly different facet of the same world. Several recent collections of short fiction have been billed ‘linked stories’ because a single background runs through the collection, and characters recur. But that idea of ‘linked’ is often implicit without needing to be highlighted in the older writers. RK Narayan’s An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories is obviously a compact — stories about tradesmen and professional men who must undertake various minor and comic negotiations in order to keep going in an imperfect world.

Perhaps this is true of many short story writers. Raymond Carver’s stories can each seem to have a different quality of strangeness but aren’t they usually about people like himself, the unsentimental, the down and out, the working poor? I’m fascinated by this ability in a short story writer — to create a world in relation to which each story is but one expression.

But I’m also fascinated by the opposite — how a single story, or even a glimpse of a single character within it, does not necessarily have to rely on larger references for its appeal. My own characters are often solitary individuals whose choices are no longer so determined by older social mores, but who therefore have to invent their freedoms. They don’t draw on a world as much as try to locate one. Have I succeeded, therefore, in making things up? Is it possible, walking down a dark street and seeing a lighted doorway, to imagine the world beyond it? The mystery of that lighted doorway is what keeps the story going. You can never walk through it, every story is a just a means of trying.

I just love that phrase, "The mystery of that lighted doorway is what keeps the story going." Back in 2010, Anjum had visited Commits for an interactive session with our students, who were so captivated by what she had to say that two hours just whizzed by... and many students didn't even get to ask her their questions. So, later, I sent them to Anjum via e-mail. You can read those questions and her responses here: "A-1 advice from an author".

For more details about Anjum Hasan's works, visit her website:
  • I have already bought a copy of Difficult Pleasures. After I finish reading it, I'll place it in the Commits library, next to the copies of Neti, Neti and Lunatic in My Head.

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