Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Interview with Anjum Hasan

When she speaks of “Shillong-flavoured timelessness” and of “Fat raindrops flecked her glasses and things turned blurry; car lights melted into streaks of gold…” (Lunatic in My Head)
….we are enthralled. Somewhere a forgotten memory is reawakened. We are reminded of times flown by, we hear echoes of lives unheard or of lives about which we hear so much that we are left almost in a  daze. A “loose tangle waiting to be tightened” as Estelle Tang writes in the Melbourne Writer’s Festival Blog,  Anjum Hasan’s narrative unfurls like the gurgling streams that criss-cross enchanting North East. Deceptively simple, and poetically beautiful her poetry and fiction present an India which is so familiar, one which is gradually changing with increasing pace.

Poet, novelist, travel-writer, editor Anjum Hasan’s quill yields myriad hues. Her debut poetry collection Street on the Hill was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2006. Her debut novel Lunatic in My Head published  by Zubaan-Penguin in 2007 was short listed for the 2007 Crossword Book Prize, and Neti,Neti published  by Roli Books in 2009 was long listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize  and short listed for 2010 The Hindu Best Fiction Award. Besides she is the winner of the Indian Review of Books Award (1994), and the Outlook Picador Non-fiction Contest (2002) for her essay “Shillong, Bob Dylan and Cowboy Boots”; she was also short listed for The Little Magazine New Writing Award, 2006. Her poems have been included in anthologies Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets (ed. Ranjit Hoskote, Viking Penguin,2002), Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast (ed. KynphamSing Nonkynrih and Robin S. Ngangom, NEHU Publications, 2003), Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, W.W.Norton  Co., 2008),  60 Indian Poets (ed. Jeet Thayil, Penguin India, 2008)  Besides, her poems, articles, travelogues and book reviews have been variously published in The Brown Critique, The Journal, Indian Literature, Chandrabhaga, Kavya Bharati, The Post-Post Modern Review, Heat Magazine, Komma, Critical Quarterly, Himal, Fulcrum, Man’s World, The Literary Review,  Biblio, The Caravan, Deccan Herald, Hindu Literary Review, Outlook Traveller, Tehelka, Mint Lounge among others. She has edited the biannual journal of Indian Foundation of Arts ArtsConnect.

Anjum’s parents hail from Uttar Pradesh. Her father Noorul Hasan was a lecturer of English in North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong. Her mother Santosh Hasan a Hindi teacher in Loreto Convent, Shillong. Anjum did her schooling in Loreto Convent and graduated from St.Mary’s College, Shillong with honours in Philosophy. She pursued her Post Graduation in Philosophy from North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). After her Post Graduation, she shifted base to Bangalore (Bengaluru) where she joined the NGO Indian Foundation for Arts. Today, she is the Book Editor of The Caravan, India’s first narrative journalism magazine. Her sister Daisy Hasan too is a writer. Based in the University of Leeds, Daisy’s debut novel The To-Let House (Tara Books, 2010) too had been longlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, and short listed for The Hindu Fiction Award, 2010. Anjum’s husband Zac O’ Yeah is a Swedish writer, columnist, songwriter and the author of eleven books, including a biography on Gandhi, which was short-listed for August Prize 2008 for the best work of non fiction.

Following is an excerpt from an email interview with Anjum Hasan--

Stuti Goswami: You have alluded to marginality of Indian English poets/poetry in your essay ‘Watering the Desert: Modern Indian-English Poetry’. Now, for someone belonging to the North-East, doesn’t the term ‘marginality’ have added layers of meaning?

Anjum Hasan: I think as far as literature is concerned, marginality is interesting only if it infuses the writing in productive ways – like the anger of Dalit poets giving their poetry a particular charge or a poet like Robin Ngangom writing about the tragic ironies of his home state, Manipur, while living in Shillong. I’m not interested in marginality worn as a badge of honour.

 SG: Do you think poets/writers of the North-East tend to limit themselves over a period of time because of their almost-overt concern with certain issues—insurgency, the region’s long history of oppression and violence, of what people of the region perceive as being ‘internally colonized’, their subjugation, political neglect and exploitation at the hands of the ‘Indian state’? Do you think this limits the ambit of readership/response?
AH: Again, what matters is the creative spirit as much as the themes. Literature is not news reportage. The way the story is told matters as much as what the story is about. You could write about oppression and violence in a sterile way and you could write about it in a way that makes it completely new and shocking for the reader. So I wouldn’t judge writing coming out of the NE only on the basis of the themes being addressed.

SG: As a poet, how far do you think appreciation/acceptance of the readership matters?
AH: It matters to any writer that what she writes is read and appreciated. If you make a sound and there is no echo, then it is like that sound was never produced.

SG: Who would you consider among the finest new voices to have emerged from North-East in recent times—both in poetry and fiction?
AH: I like the work of Siddhartha Deb and Jahnavi Barua.

SG: Readers are interested in knowing what happens to Aman and Firdaus after Lunatic in My Head . Do we see these characters returning in your works in the future, as Sophie does?

AH: It’s not impossible that future novels will feature these characters.

SG: You are often called ‘voice of the North-East’. What is ‘voice of the North-East’ according to you—somebody who writes about the North-East or somebody from this region who may or may not write about the North-East?

AH: I think there are certain experiences of living in contemporary Shillong which I’ve tried to capture in both my novels and perhaps those experiences haven’t been reflected in fiction before. I don’t know if this warrants the ‘voice of the North-east’ tag but if it does then I’m very flattered!

SG: You have been involved with translations, I suppose with Swedish translations of Indian poems. It is often heard that translation cannot convey sensibilities of the original works in their entirety. What would you say in this regard?

AH: A translation must be judged from many different angles, of which fidelity to the original is only one. I believe in what AK Ramanujan said: “A translation has to be true to the translator no less than to the original. He cannot jump off his own shadow.”

SG: In both Lunatic in My Head  and in Neti,Neti there is a coming-to-an-end of the immediate story, but your narrative seems to  defy/deny the idea of end as a  closure, which is what we may term postmodernist. Was this a conscious effort on your part?

AH: I was conscious of not having a categorical ending, of leaving things a bit open-ended in both novels. But this does not mean absolute lack of closure, I think. It only means that I present a range of possible futures which the characters could go towards without saying this is the specific one they will choose.

SG: Who would you term your favourite authors—who you believe have shaped your art?
AH: I love the work of RK Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Marguerite Duras, Vladimir Nabokov, WG Sebald, Scott Fitzgerald…

SG: In Lunatic, the narrative too seems gentle-paced. I also felt echoes of Street on the Hill in it. In contrast the poesy in Neti,Neti seems different. Neti, Neti is also faster-paced. Is it, the difference in setting and story-line or evolution of the writer and her art?

AH: Perhaps it’s both. Some writers are able to keep to a consistent style from book to book but in my own case, I found my style changing. It’s not just setting and story-line but also the overall sensibility of the two books that made for different styles. Lunatic in my Head is in the romantic mode, while Neti, Neti is in the loss of romance mode.

 SG: In an earlier interview with yours truly (published in mélange,The Sentinel in 2008) you had said, regarding your move to Bangalore--“I somehow felt I had outgrown Shillong. I had exhausted possibilities that it could offer. Home though it was, I needed exposure that was unavailable here”.  Does Sophie, somewhere, go through similar emotions?

AH: Sophie’s relationship to Shillong and Bangalore is ultimately for the reader to decode. I don’t think I set out to write a character who exactly mirrored my own experience of the two cities though I do admit that there are echoes.

SG: Which do you think is tougher—etching poetry or creating fiction?

AH: Fiction is more demanding but poetry comes more rarely. Also, poems are more  personal. In a novel, you have to go beyond you and portray characters, their distinct style and their dialogues which will have to take the story forward and at the same time, give away to the readers, bits of what is in their life and mind. And then, unlike a poem, the canvas of a novel is bigger.

SG: Neti,Neti is  a Vedic Chant. I have read somewhere that it implies ‘an analytical process of conceptualizing something by clearly defining what it is not’. You had in your earlier interview remarked that there was a slightly nihilistic feel involved (with the novel). You had even called it a search for meaning. Do we take Neti,Neti as an individual’s search for meaning through negation?

AH: Yes, that’s what it is. Sophie is searching for meaning – not through religious means – but simply through a process of questioning and exploring and rejecting.

SG: In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students to describe God. He states "The Divine is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti). What of Sophie’s spiritual experiences?

AH: I point out in the novel that as a child, Sophie was a Vivekananda fan and she still cherishes her book of Vivekananda’s collected writings. But in the present of the novel she finds that spirituality – in the sense that it is commonly understood – has no meaning for her. Those around her who are the most religious are also those who are the greediest, or those who turn to religion as an escape route. So for Sophie all that remains is a nostalgia for the spiritual as typified by Vivekananda’s rousing exhortations to the young in his speeches and writings.

SG: I quote a review in DNA—“One has heard of the Delhi novel and the Bombay novel, and finally, here's a Bangalore novel”. Is ‘Neti, Neti’ a Bangalore novel the way ‘Lunatic’ is perceived to be a ‘Shillong’ one?
AH: Labels are for the critics. I did want to write about the experience of living in both these cities. If the novels strike a chord with those who live in Shillong and Bangalore then I’d consider myself successful.

SG: Sophie is neither at home in Bangalore, nor at Shillong where she returns. Unless the ‘Das’ is suffixed, the name Sophie itself stands out from its surroundings. Will she always remain isolated?
AH: I think so. The question in Neti,Neti is whether she can make something worthwhile out of her isolation, whether it can lead her to insights that will help her to live, to make peace with her isolation.

SG: Neti,Neti has been published by Brass Monkey Books, Melbourne as Big Girl Now. The latter title seems to focus more on Sophie’s becoming a big girl .
AH: The title was changed because we felt Neti,Neti would mystify an Australian audience. (It possible mystifies an Indian audience too, but that’s another matter!) I thought Big Girl Now was apt because Sophie has to grow up and face the world in this novel and the test she has to face is whether she can fit into 21st century middle class India with its crass materialism and its impatience with the kind of attitude Sophie represents – the attitude of the day-dreamer.

SG: In an interview with Prithvi Varatharajan for Readings you have said that you like the idea “from 19th century fiction, of a novel taking on a wide expanse and being peopled with a large array of characters”. Firdaus in Lunatic researches on Jane Austen. Again, in an interaction with Vivek Narayanan you had said that the 19th century novelist and poet Thomas Hardy was like a patron at home in your childhood. Do we take these as a natural development of your conditioning during childhood?
AH: I do admire 19th century fiction – the ability of novelists like Flaubert to imagine that it is possible to recast the whole world into fiction, into what he called “the total novel”. That kind of imagination is harder to encounter today though one does see it in the works of writers like Orhan Pamuk.

SG: You are often deemed a serious writer, though there is a great deal of irony entwined in the language. I would like to cite the ‘nose-biting’ incident from Lunatic and the ‘landlord-Sophie banter’ in Neti,Neti. Where do you feel this stems from?
AH: Irony is central to the work of some of the most serious writers from Shakespeare onwards. Consider the work of Vladimir Nabokov, RK Narayan, Jane Austen and Salman Rushdie to take the example of four writers I admire. I am inspired by writing that is funny while it is serious and vice versa.

SG: Any message for the aspiring writers who are reading this interview?
AH: Firstly one should read widely. It is only when you read well that you can actually write. At the same time, one should be adventurous while reading. One should also endeavour to expand the consciousness of ones self. However it is very important not to think of yourself as belonging to the marginal regions. Just because you write from a region lesser-traveled does not imply that you are at a disadvantage. People tend to stereotype you, yes--but you got to fight that. At the same time, it is also important that you write for the world at large.

[published in Quills 2010 the annual literary folio of the Dept. of English,B.Borooah College, Guwahati, Assam.]


  1. stuti ba!!!! omg!! i search for you over the net and i get such a long flowing blog of yours, which of course is amazing, being the prolific writer that you are!! it seems you have been creating quite some buzz in the literary circle!! excellent!! keep up the good work!!
    Anyway, u r not even there on facebook!!! n you teach at B.Barooah college!!! wow!! its been so long we haven't spoken! 6yrs!!! more than half a decade!!

    i know this is so not an appropriate place to post this, my apologies for the same, but i couldn't find your email address anywhere!! please please please mail me your number or at least the mailing address to the following --

    rashmi ( ambee's--akhomee path--mathura nagar, i hope it helps u remind you of me)

    P.S. : i still have the poems that u wrote for me on those tiny pieces of paper..and the poem u wrote me on my birthday!! <3

    love you!

  2. Nice write-up. Aspiring for more such interviews.