The session, ‘City Lights’, had authors Anjum Hasan, Abdullah Khan and Neelum Saran Gour in conversation with V. Sriram

V. Sriram, Abdullah Khan, Neelum Saran Gour and Anjum Hasan spoke about books transporting you to places you’ve never been

January 19, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Spaces: (From right to left) Anjum Hasan, Neelum Saran Gour and Abdullah Khan in conversation with V.Sriram

Spaces: (From right to left) Anjum Hasan, Neelum Saran Gour and Abdullah Khan in conversation with V.Sriram

An hour before she was announced the winner of The Hindu Prize 2018 for Fiction, Neelum Saran Gour was in a session titled ‘City Lights’, with historian V. Sriram and authors Anjum Hasan and Abdullah Khan, on the second day of The Hindu Lit for Life. They discussed why authors write eloquently about their own cities.

“Allahabad, where I was born, is a visible city in history, but I have shared its invisibilities with a keen sense of place in 13 of my books,” Gour said, describing herself as a “24 carat Illahabadi”. Her novel, Requiem in Raga Janki, which won her the award, weaves together the history of Allahabad and Hindustani classical music to create an enthralling portrait of of a 19th-century courtesan and singer, Janki Bai Ilahabadi.

“My city of birth and my work are my enduring world. People and the events in their lives reverberate in the places associated with them and that interests me,” she said, talking of yet another of her recent books, Three Rivers and a Tree: The Story of Allahabad University . She has made a U.G.C. commissioned book interesting by showing the impact of national history on campus and narrating anecdotes about people who shaped the institution — for instance, the vice-chancellor, Ganganath Jha, who rode a bullock cart to the university daily in the 1920s.

It is the responsibility of writers to capture a city in a way that it comes alive in the minds of readers. As Sriram said, even if readers haven’t visited a city, they should feel they know it after reading a novel. The works of the three speakers resonate with a sense of the places they are describing, underlining how the imaginative creation of ambience is as essential to good writing as a logical mind to connect the details.

There is certainly a relation between the two, felt Abdullah Khan, the Mumbai-based banker and author of Patna Blues , who grooved towards literature after discovering George Orwell was born in his town, Motihari, in Bihar. “One of the oldest cities in the country, Patna struggles forever, in a way,” he said. He has brought this out through his story of a lower-middle class family making enormous sacrifices to get their son into the IAS. The son doesn’t make it, but the family’s aspirations tell us something about the character of the city, where every second family is training their child to become a bureaucrat.

You are transported to a place while reading about it, said Gour, who began to see Allahabad University as a factory for generating sarkari babus while researching its history.

Anjum Hasan talked about her first novel, Lunatic in my Head , where, incidentally, one of the characters is a young civil services aspirant stuck in the small town of Shillong. Shillong, humming with gossip and replete with idiosyncrasies, is as much a character in its own right. “Indian cities have become subjects of interest and can be presented differently as the city where you are born, grew up, work and live, the city you see outside your window or as one the media paints. There are tensions, contradictions, migration, alienation and a sense of freedom too. Each city has its mythology, gossip and rumours that affect every individual’s experiences. When you observe, understand and write about it, the city becomes a character on its own in the story,” she said.

“The cities may be distinctive, but their characteristics often apply to cities all over India,” said Khan. “

The authors said they would love to write about other cities too. Hasan, who grew up in Shillong and now lives in Bengaluru, said she would like to take on the challenge of writing about a city she has never lived in. Gour wants to remove the trappings of a location or language in her next book and do a threadbare storytelling. Khan’s next book has chapters on Los Angeles, which he has never visited. “Research leads you to interesting facts and you wouldn’t know about a place till you write about it,” he said.

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