A Day in the Life by Anjum Hasan reviewed by Carlo Pizzati

It begins with a dark and stormy night and moves into a masterful melange of voices and experiences

March 03, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

The stories in Anjum Hasan’s A Day in the Life are so craftily written that the author actually gets away with realising the dream of any Peanuts comic strip reader: to begin a book by sneaking in the sentence “It was a dark and stormy night.” Up until now, it had been the prerogative of Snoopy, in his role as World Famous Author, to start with the much parodied opening sentence of the romantic novel Paul Clifford .

Depth and beauty

The elegant, pondered and deep-reaching prose of this collection allows subversive humour, such as this, to surface effortlessly. The mood created in the opening story ‘The Stranger’ (yes, another reference, this time to the higher brow Albert Camus) is so ominous and at the same time intimate that it wraps around us like a warm shawl that might catch fire at any moment.

In an inspiring paragraph that captures our times without disrupting the pace of the tale, Hasan writes that “…a contemporary sordidness intrudes, the actions of men that deliver this place into the present.” Depth and beauty. But, then, also depth and self-introspective humour: “I’m not grumpy, I realise; I’m just unsuited to my era,” as the protagonist concludes. A Day in the Life is constellated with such well-thought-out and chiselled poetic parentheses.

Even while relating the broken English of a WWII Indian former batman in the British Army, the authenticity of the voices always remains vivid, as Hasan has honed the adroitness of the chameleon, blending in all corners of a contemporary India.

Muslim woman, mother, daughter, husband, son. The voices change, the believability stays intact. But the time travel also works — in 1872 discovering ‘The Legend of Lutfan Mian,’ as well as in today’s Bengaluru, where more than one story takes place.

There are also memorable descriptions: one of the author’s characters has “teeth so remarkably white and solid they seem like a form of wealth he carries around in his mouth.”

Or witticisms, like characters who are doing “something extravagant, Judgement Day-worthy, or at least Facebook-worthy.”

In ‘Yellow Rose,’ among other things, the intricate nuances of a possible love between two young IT entrepreneurs are projected against the contemporary conundrum of the relationships between our bodies and our emotions, and the conflict of living in our heads versus living in a real city.

The 230 pages are filled with underlineable gems like these: “What form would thoughts take if we didn’t allow them words?” Or “There’s no why to the wind,” a refrain to the story titled ‘Bird Love.’

Hasan explores many of the relevant experiences of life in present-day India. In ‘I am very angry,’ the not so subtle arrival of new, loud neighbours disrupting the life of an older, methodical Brahmin man is amusing and hypnotic in its maniacal obsession, but at the same time it builds a suspense, in the malaise of the isolationism of retirement, that seems to lead down an Edgar Allan Poe alley. But — surprise — in a gripping crescendo things don’t go as we’d expect. Instead, we get a refreshing happy ending.

Special mirrors

In ‘Elite’ we’re dragged into another prototypical Zeitgeist: the drunk, entitled big Indian man abusing and thrashing staff. But nothing is obvious in A Day in the Life , and, again, the reader is not disappointed. The writing always offers the unexpected turn.

The final story, ‘A Short History of Eating,’ is entirely constructed on the shared culinary passion of a married couple who for years lived with the dictum “Food was our food of love.” As we grow hungrier and hungrier at the turn of every page, we are brought to the realisation that, as the couple tames the voracious appetite for exotic menus, wife and husband are equally settling into a different and less erotic phase of marriage.

“My husband and I often make salted porridge for dinner. We don’t eat French fries more than once in four weeks. We still speak of food — remember the risotto in Verona, that bag of smoked prawns in Waxholmen, that dumpling soup in the old quarter of Beijing, remember that…? We go out for a meal now and then. We order a plate of something and a drink or two. We share a main course, we skip the sweet. And after we have finished, paid the bill, are walking home through the drizzle, it occurs to us that we are full. That is, we realise we are no longer hungry.” What better way, for a master raconteuse, to kindly paint the beginning of the end of passionate love?

From the retirees in Coorg to the teenagers travelling to Benares, the characters in A Day in the Life seem to accommodate the Brechtian view that if art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors, making us laugh at those who cry, and cry at those who laugh.

In this collection, Hasan creates a world that points out what’s disquieting in the ordinary and what is ordinary in the disquieting. Or, as the German poet Novalis suggested, she succeeds in the very high aim of making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

The writer is an author and professor of communication theory. His most recent book is The Edge of an Era .

A Day in the Life; Anjum Hasan, Penguin Random House, ₹449

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