The Riveting Facets of the Ordinary: ‘A Day in The Life’ by Anjum Hasan
Where is your place in the new order, where have you come from and where are you going?
Take a moment to rewind and look at your day. Think about the events which form the plot of your twenty-four hours. The dialogues and the action. The people we encounter and the things we think to be too trivial to speak of. There is indeed something riveting about the ordinary. Anjum Hasan unfolds, through pages, 14 stories that give us a sense of the daily life of a wide cast of characters – imagine Quixotic nonconformists, young newly weds, a forlorn retiree and a middle-class woman, among many others. Hasan’s protagonists are the inward-looking, whimsical and vulnerable outliers and their lives make for stories to be read. SheThePeople.TV converses with the critically acclaimed author about her anthology of short stories on the daily lived experience – A Day in The Life.
She writes about one man’s despair with his new neighbours, one woman’s fear of her maid, one child’s attempt to be stylish and so on.
Hasan wished to make the ordinary experience concrete, amidst the course of our passing everydays, by giving it a tangible form in language and sidestepping the abstractions that we surround ourselves with. She wanted to explore, through fiction, those moments when one might feel alienated by the things that make the country go round – money, religion, imagined histories and unexamined identities. She writes about one man’s despair with his new neighbours, one woman’s fear of her maid, one child’s attempt to be stylish and so on. In A Day In The Life, Anjum sought to write about the proximate things, against the grain of generalisation.
Image Credit: Penguin Random House India
A Day in the Life was written over a period of 3-4 years. The individual stories themselves were usually written over a week or two by the author. The writing process was to let an idea stew in her subconscious – psst, Anjum says that sleeping helps! She then tried to build what was in her mind into something that found its way on to paper. Hasan was consciously working on individual stories rather than a book. But there were a few things she seemed to be coming back to and there, she found a theme – the everyday.
“Rather than conscious selection, it’s a process of sublimation which doesn’t bear thinking about too much. Some things have to be left to alchemy!”
Anjum thinks that the things one notices in everyday life can sometimes resolve themselves into patterns, and that these very patterns can become stories. “Rather than conscious selection, it’s a process of sublimation which doesn’t bear thinking about too much. Some things have to be left to alchemy!” says the author. She does maintain that a willingness to take in life helped, as did the belief that nothing is insignificant and everything is strange.
Anjum Hasan is interested in movement and incident. She likes to try and create surprise. There is always something going on in an obvious sense in her stories, but there is also something else happening within them that she hopes is more insidious or subtle. The author doesn’t see herself as a reporter on people. She says, “When I write about ordinary people, I’m not aiming for any kind of totality. I’m not even sure anymore that there is anything like ordinary people, in the sense in which ‘ordinary’ is used to mean charmingly innocuous, even benign. And if there are ordinary people, then there is also the ordinary violence and ordinary prejudice which we practice and witness all the time.” She recalls Manto’s stories – those were all ordinary people.
“I’m not even sure anymore that there is anything like ordinary people, in the sense in which ‘ordinary’ is used to mean charmingly innocuous, even benign. And if there are ordinary people, then there is also the ordinary violence and ordinary prejudice which we practice and witness all the time.”
The daily lived experiences are largely banal but Hasan was curious about what goes into the emptiness of people’s lives and how they experience that humdrum. When someone says that they do nothing, or that their lives are regular or ordinary, it immediately captures her interest. Fiction affords this very nothingness a certain tenuous and short-lived beauty, and to think that whole lifetimes are made of such moments, well, Hasan finds that to be a staggering thought.
She loves the short story form and feels most at home in it. The novel, to Anjum, is a different and more deliberate kind of undertaking – there is something painful and consuming about writing them. Stories, on the other hand, feel organic to life. Reading poetry while writing short stories is a good idea, notes Hasan. People wanting to write short stories often have the bare bones of the plot but don’t quite know how to fill the spaces in between and this is worrisome to her. Because it suggests that one is thinking of stories as some kind of information. “Stories are no more information than life is a pocket map,” comments Hasan.
As the Books Editor at The Caravan magazine, Anjum Hasan often finds herself inundated in tomes. “We have a very patronising attitude to Indian literature and translations from it. We feel that they’re a good thing but we pronounce on their importance in a virtuous kind of way without necessarily finding out if anything in these literatures speaks to us,” observes Hasan. Anjum is speaking of people who mostly operate in English, like herself. She wonders if it is possible for us to develop a relationship with translations and now that there is so much of it available, she asks – will we finally begin to see them for what they are?
“I do want to see how much I can extend myself – write about places or things outside my ken but hopefully not in a way that makes them exotic or grand.”
There is a story called ‘The Legend of Lutfan Mian’ in A Day in The Life. It’s set in the 19th century Benaras. Having been to neither, Anjum Hasan found writing the story to be a good challenge. She never does have an agenda regarding the subject matter of her written works. “I do want to see how much I can extend myself – write about places or things outside my ken but hopefully not in a way that makes them exotic or grand,” says the author.
Feature Image Credit: Penguin Random House India
A Day in The Life, by Anjum Hasan, has been published in Hamish Hamilton by Penguin Random House India. It is priced at Rs.599 and is available online and in bookstores.
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