‘A quintessentially modern form’

Anjum Hasan talks of her special affection for the short story, the form used to tell of life in the city, apartment building, or a small family, rather than the community or nation

Anjum Hasan’s sixth book, A Day in the Life, is a collection of 14 short stories. Set across space and time, the stories are peopled with a wide range of finely-drawn characters. A Day in the Life is on the shortlist for The Hindu Prize 2018 for Indian literary fiction. Ahead of The Hindu Lit for Life, to be held in Chennai from January 12 to 14, where the winner will be announced, Anjum talks of the short story and Bengaluru among other things. Excerpts.

You have written in different forms, which do you prefer and why?

I do feel a special affection for the short story, partly because it is a quintessentially modern form – the form that has been used to tell of life in the city, life in the apartment building, life in the small family, rather than the community or the nation. Many Indian languages have had long 20th century traditions of the short story so one feels a sense of affinity with that too, especially now with the growth of translations. One could read a short story by Ashokamitran or Manto or UR Ananthamurthy or Uday Prakash and imagine oneself part of something larger than just the storms in the teacup that constitute Indian writing in English.

What are the pros and cons of writing short stories?

The pro for me is that the short story lets me give form to the relentless turbulence in my society. There is a great deal going on and the short story is the ideal vehicle to provide both the passing glimpse and the sudden revelation. The downside is the patronising attitude that short stories are sometimes treated with, the view that they are poorer cousins of novels. We don’t seem to be able to judge short stories except in quantitative terms – as delivering less of something that novels give us with more of!

How would you describe Bengaluru as a character?

Bangalore is not a character – it is the city in which I live and which in some ways inspires me. Cities have character of course and Bangalore’s character interests me very much: that combination of entrepreneurial energy and cheerful provincialism and an older cosmopolitanism layered with a new, more Americanised one. One often hears it said that Bangalore has no character. It certainly has very little historical character. Yet out of this, millions of people constantly striving to make their lives here in the present, something emerges, an atmosphere, a consciousness, which I would like to capture.

How did A day in the Life come to be?

The genesis is always just a story. And then one writes a second and a third. I write each story as an individual piece but taken together many of the pieces here happened to be set over the course of a day so that provided the framework for the collection.

Which is the first short story you read?

All children’s stories are short stories but I think the first story I read that alerted me to irony, to short stories being playful and disturbing in a lingering way, was ‘The Barmecide’s Feast’, abridged from The Arabian Nights. It is about the Barmecide inviting a poor, hungry man to an imaginary feast to test his, I don’t know, fortitude perhaps, or sense of humour. In fact that story features in ‘A Short History of Eating’, one of the stories in A Day in the Life.

Who is the short story writer you admire? Why?

I’ve always loved Raymond Carver for his piercing realism, while being aware that Carver is something of an American writing school cliché now and that his economical style needn’t be the only way to write. And I’ve recently been taken with Lucia Berlin’s stories which come out of a similar sensibility.

Could you talk of the brief for the cover?

I thought it would be wonderful to have a Bhupen Khakhar painting on the cover. I like his way of making something out of materials very close at hand, right outside the window or down the street, and how the good and bad in his moral vision have this sense of proximity and entanglement too. The painting I wanted reproduced on the cover was hard to establish ownership of but Gunjan Ahlawat of Penguin, who is an artist in his own right, was very persistent.

Have you thought of dabbling in the super short story format?

No, not really. I am in fact thinking of going in the other direction – trying out the very long short story, something in between the novella and the short story, the sort that the superb writer Yiyun Li does. Though the sketch, the deftly-told fable, the compressed allegory also fascinate me. I am reading Italo Calvino’s Adam, One Afternoon which has elements of all three.

If there is a common thread running through the stories in A Day in the Life, what is it?

The common thread is that all these stories are written by me. I very much resist the idea that a collection of stories should respond to a singular theme. Stories are meant to be distinct pieces of writing, not novels in disguise. There is often a misplaced anxiety about stories, the worry that one is not getting one’s money’s worth unless the stories are connected in some way.

What next?

A novel, I hope! But short stories are always a welcome distraction.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 5:04:46 AM |

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