Anjum Hasan and Brinda S. Narayan spoke of the place of fiction in life and research

“Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t”, this observation by Mark Twain was given credence at a discussion on fiction, held recently at the Easylib, between authors Anjum Hasan and Brinda S. Narayan.

Anjum Hasan, whose novels Lunatic In My Head and Neti Neti are set in Shillong and Bangalore, respectively, spoke of the responses she has received for them. “Readers tell me how they have discovered Shillong— even those who have never been there— through my novels. But I also discovered the dangerous side, they consider the novels too close to reality when fiction is only a representation of reality. No fiction writer can accurately say that their novel is about one thing. Neti, Neti, for example, set in Bangalore, is a story of liberation as well as a dystopian novel. So, it’s not an absolute novel on anything.”

Anjum’s “struggle, joy and challenge” is now to write fiction for its own sake. “A novel is a work of imagination made of small moments and insights. It is pleasurable for every word and sentence.”

LolitaThe Naïve And The Sentimentalist Novelist

Anjum says that the stories in the critically acclaimed anthology Difficult Pleasures are about characters who have broken out of a larger social set up.“For my characters, the old community ties are not that important. They are essentially solitary characters who are in search of something.”

To Brinda’s query on why she chose to write short stories after three novels, Anjum replied: “As a writer you just follow your intuition, not an agenda. I was attracted to the brevity of the short story.”

Place—as Brinda concluded—plays an important role in Anjum’s stories and is almost like a second or third character.“We are constantly interrogating our relationship with a place. For me, it is hard to write a piece of fiction without setting it in a place. Place functions both as an agent of liberation and of imprisonment. There’s this urge to travel and then there’s an urge to get out of a place, it’s from here that stories begin. Stories have to be rooted in conflict,” Anjum explained.

Brinda Narayan’s novel Bangalore Calling provides an insider’s view on the phenomenon of call centres through interlinked short stories. The novel deals with the alienation youngsters who work at call centres feel. Brinda argues that the use of MTI (Mother Tongue Influenced) to distinguish one accent from another is used as a tool of discrimination. “Grading someone by their accent is the same as grading them by the colour of their skin,” Brinda says.

Brinda put in extensive research for her novel.She visited three call centres, interviewed 70 agents across Bangalore and listened into 100 live calls. What she found among them was a new sense of isolation. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart inspired Brinda.“She studied air hostesses and she found that there is surface acting, where you know you are unhappy, but you still have to smile. This alienates a person from their feelings. Feelings signals how you should respond to situations. But working in these organisations, you don’t know what is real or fake anymore.”

She found a similar conflict among the agents she had interviewed. “I noticed that call centre workers had to fake an easiness with their American clients. But what happens when they return home? I found 85 per cent of the agents were able to transit between their professional and personal roles. There were, however, 15 per cent who bought into the notion that the other culture is superior.”

Bangalore Calling

Anjum observed that the characters in Bangalore Calling go through a lot of moments of self-hatred and anger, and wondered if there is anything good at all about the call centre industry. “Most media reports on the industry are centred around India’s gains and America’s losses. There are social losses, even though there are some positives. It has had a negative impact on languages, for instance. There has been a huge linguistic erosion. We lose a different way of being, each time we lose a language.”

Anjum countered this by stating that by definition, the modern Indian is already alienated and that the call centre is just a symptom of a larger phenomenon.

Anjum and Brinda both agreed that fiction is enhanced by human interactions, which allows a writer to evoke shades of grey.

More In: Metroplus | Features | Books