Anjum Hasan tells Sravasti Datta her latest collection of short stories, Difficult Pleasures, focuses on the search for everyday joys
Reading Anjum Hasan’s collection of short stories, Difficult Pleasures is cathartic. The stories of Science’s encounter with Darshini, Mrs. Ali's first visit to Europe, Banerjee's relationship with his brother or a glimpse into the life of the optimistic Neel, all guide a reader to his or her own unexpressed emotions and experiences.
Anjum, author of the award-winning Lunatic In My Head and Neti Neti, gives expression to our innermost desires, disappointments and despair in the engaging Difficult Pleasures.
Empathy and the visual element make Anjum’s stories sparkle with life. “A writer has to consider a character as nuanced and many-sided as a real person and so, needs to lend a character a psychological depth. This interests me both when I write and read. Hence, the characters in Difficult Pleasures.”
All too real
The characters though fictional are incredibly real. For Anjum, while it is important for an author to believe in his or her characters, it isn’t always easy to do so because the characters are fictional.
“We increasingly live in a world that is very literal and wants everything to have a factual basis. So fiction becomes tricky. It’s a challenge to sustain the life of a fictional character over the length of your work. I have to first convince myself that this character matters and that he or she has an existence in a particular realm. It is only then that the reader will believe in them. I have to give weight to a character and that I do by building up a life, and building up a life is not about giving away all the details. You need to tell a reader five details so that the reader can imagine the rest, especially in the short story format.”
Anjum likes to leave things unsaid and explore the specific more than the generic.
“I don't want to judge for the reader. I am interested in the moment in which a character responds to a specific event, and no other motives extraneous to that. I don't want to make a character completely transparent. Even in life, however well you know someone, there will always be something about them that eludes.”
The notion of home is being widely explored in contemporary Indian English literature. Bangalore, for example, is considered to be a cosmopolitan city. Many youngsters from different cities and small towns have made it their home. “Living in Bangalore, you constantly encounter people who are a little fragmented, in a way, whether they belong here or not. They find themselves up against so many different changes and things moving so fast, so there is an element of loss and a sort of sadness that haven’t really been captured in any of the narratives on the city. I wanted to capture that in my work.”
Anjum contends that home is self awareness. “There is a great sense of freedom in this country, at the moment, and that’s very exciting because it means that there are more opportunities. But the flip side is that a person might feel lost. For me, home would be when you can make use of that freedom. My characters also have the quality of searching and who understand their place in the flux, whether in relationships, jobs or values. An awareness of this is what home is.”
Anjum's definition of self awareness, however, is not an unquestioning acceptance of life. “It is not about suppressing your doubts and anxieties.For a fiction writer, it is a constant process of engagement.”
Anjum insists that “empathy for characters is a basic requirement of a fiction writer. You have to get into the heads of multiple characters, otherwise how will you write fiction? The true test is to move beyond your experiences to get into the heads of a child or an old man, somebody who is unlike you. I would like to put my money in fiction where I would be able to meet lots of different characters. That is far more exciting.” she says.
The ones that got away
“On the other hand, there are writers who have got away with writing about their experiences and we still respect them for that. Saul Bellow is American-Jewish, his protagonists are like him — white-American Jews in New York, Manhattan or Chicago and yet his novels are very rich. Empathy for states of mind is also important. Maybe they are all in one person but then that one person represents the world."
The irony of life has been succinctly captured in the title Difficult Pleasures. “The pleasures are difficult and the sorrows are bitter-sweet. There are characters who might be in a good relationship, but there are always cracks in it. In Eye In The Sky, something happens that is minor, but it leads to a drastic step. Difficult Pleasures is a search for everyday satisfactions and yet it’s not so straightforward.”