How to combat humourlessness | Interview with Anjum Hasan on her new book, ‘History’s Angel’

Anjum Hasan’s richly-detailed new novel is a sardonic take on new India and its citizens’ lives

Updated - July 20, 2023 04:38 pm IST

Published - July 20, 2023 04:37 pm IST

Anjum Hasan says she likes the A.K. Ramanujan idea that fiction refracts as much as it reflects.

Anjum Hasan says she likes the A.K. Ramanujan idea that fiction refracts as much as it reflects. | Photo Credit: Lekha Naidu

She has a scientist’s eye for detail. And a love for the past befitting a historian, as she proves with her latest novel, History’s Angel. The book holds a mirror to our times — a combative society increasingly divided into the ‘we’ and ‘they’ compartments. Unsurprisingly, Anjum Hasan’s book comes riding high praise.

William Dalrymple, who once penned City of Djinns, a remarkable story of Delhi, calls Hasan’s novel “A wonderful novel of our times, a Shahr-e-Ashob of the new India… reminded of Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi.” The International Booker-winning Geetanjali Shree reads in it the reality of Indian Muslims’ sorry state today. She calls it, “A seething seismic tale about the disturbing times the Muslims of India are living through, in ever growing dread of worse to come”.

Edited excerpts from a conversation with Hasan:

At the time of the publication of ‘History’s Angel’, you said, “It’s a strange and lonely time to be a thinking person in India and I’m fighting my corner as a novelist here…” Why do you think so?

It feels like we’re becoming literal-minded — following from this taking of ideological positions or imputing them. We go on about culture on the outside but what interests me as much is culture on the inside, what we’re like in private and in our heads and during ordinary moments — when politics can go away or at least look very different.

Let me mention Karnataka because I live there. Writer U.R. Ananthamurthy thought a great deal about this struggle between being part of society and breaking out of it. In present-day Kannada writers, one sees the same concerns but expressed more upfront, less in that metaphorical, playful, strikingly open-ended style that he developed.

‘History’s Angel’ comes with rich detailing of Delhi. How did you go about the research?

I’ve always had a thing for Delhi’s past, and for this book, I read up of course, but also wandered about repeatedly, trying to take in two-dimensional ghosts and not just three-dimensional buildings, as Alif says. It was my parents’ city once and I’ve been an occasional visitor for two decades, so it’s both familiar and strange. Bringing Alif’s wavering consciousness to life was the project here, his tenderness for these relics yet his tiredness about the way Muslim culture has become that somewhat moth-eaten thing we project our liberal, syncretic yearnings on.

Your book talks of the experience of a history teacher. Isn’t history being used as a weapon to settle political scores in new India?

The tradition of objective, academic history-writing on India remains strong. As for the battle outside academia over memory and erasure, that is more personal and fraught, and can draw blood as we know all too well. Walter Benjamin knew this too. In his essay, from which the title of my novel is taken, he talks about this violent sundering from the past and how even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. In this country today one has occasion to think of that every day.

How difficult was it to observe, feel, yet stay dispassionate from the events unfolding around you?

I was doing all my observing through Alif who is deliberately different from me in many ways — he is something of a scholar, so he aims to be sceptical, not sentimental. He doesn’t always succeed. There is a point when thinking about the recent past makes him cry and he doubts then whether he is a historian because, as he says, historians don’t cry. I like very much the A.K. Ramanujan idea that fiction refracts as much as it reflects. One has to try and break it down and put it together again.

What was your abiding emotion as you sketched the troughs of Alif’s life here? Also, does the name signify a new beginning?

My abiding emotion was worry about what Martin Amis once called “the forces of humourlessness” — and how to find the humour to combat them. Despite the turmoil that surrounds him, Alif wants to be left alone and keep his head low; in a way he wants, impossibly, of course, to keep out of history’s way.

I love the ring of “Alif” and long wanted to write a character with that name. Not sure it’s a new beginning but maybe an old one. For, one of the things that fascinates him is the overlapping roots of Islamic and Christian civilisations, and here’s an example — from the Greek ‘Aleph’ to the Arabic and thence Persian and Urdu.

Though Alif pays the ultimate price, is it not symptomatic of our times where free expression comes with a heavy price?

There’s definitely a feeling of things closing up, judging from the news, even if not in everyone’s personal experience. So a sense of absolute freedom is threatened but then what does that look like — in speech or in imagination? I’d rather think of what is at stake in our writing, what gives it purposefulness, not whether one lives in a completely unrestricted society because as some of the great 20th century North American writers knew, absolute freedom can simply mean everything goes vacuity.

Finally, at one place you say, we remember only the cases of destruction in history, how Alexander overran Persia, the Mongol attacks, etc. Will our age be remembered in the same way, how people have been denied the right to eat the food they want, wear the clothes they like, worship their god...

For that definitely, but for victories too. When before this, in the modern era in India, did women, at least urban women, have as many liberties? Not enough by far still, but much more than our grandmothers. In fact, when before our time were so many women writing novels?

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