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Multilayered maps of modern India: Anjum Hasan’s fiction

CULTURE_Hasan book cover

Review by Anjali Vaidya
The protagonist of Hasan’s more recent novel The Cosmopolitans (2015) finds herself coping with a strange kind of nostalgia: for a Bangalore only 15 years in the past. Middle-aged, never-married, comfortably unambitious Qayenaat is faced with a new money-crazed atmosphere she feels out of step with, and old friends who have adapted to changing times that have left her far behind.
“I’m fascinated by what the memory of a city does to your perception of it,” Hasan said at the fictional cities talk. For those like Qayenaat, which included some in the audience that day, memory means a sense of continuous alienation from the present. Internet groups have sprung up in recent years to exchange grainy photos of Bangalore’s not-so-distant past, talismans against incomprehensible change. For Qayenaat, memory and nostalgia spur her to action, as she searches for meaning — and meaningful art — in modern India, in a village wracked by Maoist conflict half a country away.
Bangalore is not the only part of India (or the world) presently experiencing the aftershocks of neoliberalism and globalization. Neither is India the only country that has witnessed violent backlash in response to those global forces, as nations struggle to build new stories of themselves. All across India right now, rising Hindu fundamentalism and xenophobia in the political sphere fans the flames of ethnic and religious conflict, producing popular nostalgia for a reconstructed past. Times are volatile; Bangalore is not the only place that seems to have lost the plot.
To capture such times with words is difficult enough, but to make them coherent without resorting to tidy ideological explanations is harder still. When conflict over questionably offensive artwork leads to riots in Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans, Qayenaat mourns the loss of nuance that such violence creates — the loss of freedom to see the world from multiple points of view.
Hasan has described “the cosmopolitan” as one who is rootless. The status of the rootless cosmopolitan has often been tenuous, viewed with particular suspicion during turbulent times. It can be a radical act to insist on a bit of rootlessness in India today, which almost all of Hasan’s protagonists do. Always at a slight distance from their surroundings, they resist easy categorization, in a country increasingly prone to black and white.
The consequence is that Hasan’s characters work their way into your mind, revealing new layers years after first reading. There was a time in the late 1990s when I felt as if I didn’t know a single teenage boy in Bangalore not currently learning the opening guitar riff to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” I saw echoes of those boys in Aman, one of the protagonists of Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head (2007), who divides his time between studying for the Indian Administrative Service exams and taking long tea breaks to philosophize about classic Western rock music with friends. In that same novel, a woman named Firdaus leads a quiet, relatively cloistered existence, teaching and caring for her traditional grandfather, while writing a never-ending graduate thesis on Jane Austen and cloistered Regency women. Aman’s and Firdaus’s stories are set against the backdrop of 1990s Shillong, a city evolving to exclude each of them from its ethnic definition of who belongs.
In Hasan’s short-story collection Difficult Pleasures (2012), a young village boy impetuously hops a train to Bangalore, where he loses what is for him (and most Indians) an astronomical sum of money at an upscale Bangalore shopping mall, purchasing a trinket priced for India’s elite. Elsewhere in that collection, a Shillong philosophy professor, fixated on Kant and the higher mind, remains oblivious to the complexities of his students’ precarious, impoverished lives.
These are character-driven tales, avoiding explicit social commentary, but the reader may find that, as they are drawn into the protagonists’ minds, the world cracks open in unexpected ways. If there is a literary map of Shillong and Bangalore to be found in Hasan’s fiction, it’s not a map that lets you know precisely where you are, because nobody in these cities has that luxury. There are a few lurking dragons on this map: shifting boundaries and variable place names, with perhaps an abyss or two for unsteady feet. A pervasive disquiet reigns, without easy solutions. In The Cosmopolitans, Qayenaat remembers her engineer father, part of the post-independence nation-building generation, watching the news on television and saying simply, “Something seems to have gone wrong somewhere.”
“Nations are great empty abstractions before they are filled up with stories,” British-Indian essayist and novelist Rana Dasgupta wrote in 2010. In Dasgupta’s estimation, novels don’t just reflect a nation’s reality; they also create that reality, giving structure to a shifting landscape. That task of tracing the new shapes of a nation through words is a vital one in India right now, as the country whittles down its acceptable range of stories. Media censorship is on the rise, while writers are murdered for promoting rationalist thought, academic papers excised from curricula for recording alternate tellings of religious stories, and the ambiguities of historical research lose out against the comforting certainties of mythical dogma.
I thought I knew New York City the first time I visited it, because pop culture had covered the place so thoroughly. The fact is, I didn’t know the place at all. But I had to let the firm bounds of my fictional maps unravel in order to accept that. Fiction has the ability to map out the world into neatly digestible parts, sketching solid lines where none exist. It is far harder to map uncertainty, to give a literary guide to complexity and doubt. But fiction also has that power: to open windows onto a multilayered world, brimming with more questions than answers. Stories that manage to do so, like Hasan’s, have a way of sticking in the mind. These stories bear witness, with eyes wide open, to the beauty and contradiction of a dark, changing world.
(The Cosmopolitans is available from online booksellers)

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