The beautifully produced book treats the reader as an intellectual equal.
The short story has been witnessing something of a comeback in Indian fiction in recent years, and on its own evolved terms. Travelling a long way from the beginning-middle-and-end prescription popularly ascribed to W. Somerset Maugham, the short story today is an exploration of a moment that does not require an introduction or a neat ending. It's like a summer afternoon shower: Short and intense and, when it ceases to be, some things will have changed irrevocably — the light or the temperature, or perhaps just the perspective.
The 13 stories in Difficult Pleasures — beautifully produced, by the way the cover art, especially, is perfect for a summer release — are a good indicator why Anjum Hasan is widely regarded as a rising star on the literary horizon, as fluid in prose as poetry. Unapologetically urban, unsentimentally sensitive, this anthology treats the reader as an intellectual equal, provoking and involving him (or her) in an adroit waltz of the imagination.
It helps that Hasan's protagonists are mostly solitary people, living much more in their heads than in their routine physical lives. They conduct long conversations with themselves, convincing, cajoling, letting the reader into thought processes that, while not exactly similar, are certainly complementary. The stories work together as composite vignettes, going back again and again to a decisive moment from multiple angles and approaches, throwing up possibilities and alternative denouements.
The bulk of the stories captures their actors at a point where they themselves are unaware that they stand at the threshold of an irrevocable shift. In “Eye in the Sky”, Dawn storms out of the house after a typically low-key squabble with her husband and finds her feet and her mind wandering into areas where she has not ventured for years: “Because she is alone she drinks lime sodas… and, leaning back on the cane chair, she tries to call to mind some images of what her life was like before she married Jasim… Dawn finds that the answer eludes her.”
In the discomfiting “Banerjee and Banerjee”, similarly, a man drives across Europe wrestling with his uneasy equation with his just-deceased brother. He has been left something, something he hopes will give retrospective meaning to this sibling relationship of silences and incomprehension. Banerjee meets his brother's former mother-in-law, who treats him to a home-cooked meal and persuades him to go mushroom-picking in the forest, just like his deceased brother. At the end of the day, as the busy world-trade economist who has never lived or read for pleasure begins to feel more and more out of place, he is presented the bequeathed copy of The Brothers Karamazov. His brother, he learns, believed, “At least I can talk to him through the books.”
It's an exquisite, devastating ending to a story that, ever so lightly, touches on the deepest concerns of human existence. It's a talent Hasan showcases time and again in this collection, refraining from elaboration and pat conclusions, and remaining, always, just on the inner side of understatement. All signs of a sophisticated writer at work, aware of her power and prowess and certain of exactly where to leave off.
Hasan seems especially keen on articulating new urban relationship paradigms: A woman unsure of becoming a mother (“Saturday Night”), a protégé in search of a mentor (“Revolutions”), a menopausal woman on the verge of artistic recognition (“The Big Picture”). These are also the more successful stories of the anthology, focused as they are on adult perspectives and concerns. Children enter her ambit rarely and then not always with complete conviction. “Wild Things”, which moves out into rural Bangalore with the truant schoolboy Prasad, is probably the weakest link in this assured collection: Something doesn't ring quite true about the cool night when two boys, one wide-eyed, one world-weary, walk into a packed mall and spend their stolen money on a can of deo.
Difficult Pleasures is well-titled: Not always an easy read, it is still the kind of book whose stories will come back in your dreams, or in moments of self-absorption, to make you think, did that just happen, or did I read about it somewhere?