Anjum Hasan’s stories paint pain and sadness in still life, says Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
RECENT COLLECTIONS of short stories — Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth comes to mind, and Anita Desai’s The Artist Of Disappearance — seem to have some template of melancholy. If they don’t leave you with a little nugget of despair lodged right in your throat, they’re doing something wrong. Anjum Hasan’s Difficult Pleasures cuts again to that vein, and leaves you all yearning and brooding. But the sorrow rendered in words makes the collection deeper and more poignant.
Hasan’s stories are about the smaller sadnesses, the mundane melancholies of life. In one, a woman, unused to travel, gets her period en route to an art exhibition and looks to the shopkeeper, to the other women in the airport for some solidarity and receives none. The reader looking for small acceptance of their little depressions will find this resonating with them, and really, don’t we all have little depressions? In another story, a character is “hit by a very definite sorrow. It was so tangible, she felt cheated” and it is such an identifiable feeling.
The collection has what Orhan Pamuk once described as “huzun” or “urban melancholy” because they are specifically situated in metropolitan settings, where everything is busy around you, and yet, you are alone. Mostly Bengaluru, but you recognise a Mumbai restaurant, a Shillong dive, ride a ferry to Sweden; each character is finely tuned to their city and its pulse. All Hasan’s characters are of the ruminative, gathering sort, and the stories are littered with conversations eavesdropped on or observations about people encountered. Their foibles, the way a landlord cuts clippings out of a newspaper whenever they reference his home town, funnel to inner lives. In that sense, it is a slow book, very much about being a witness instead of an active participant. Here Hasan shines. Her strength is unravelling people’s thoughts; for instance, the man making his way to Sweden from Paris to deal with his brother’s suicide meditates upon his relationship with the deceased.
The more active stories are from a child’s point of view. We meet three little boys, one runs away to his city cousin, another wants his alcoholic father to come to his school play, and the third is made to move to India from the US after his mother dies. These voices seem inauthentic. For example, the American child uses very British slang, so that whole story sounds slightly off.
All in all, Difficult Pleasures is lush with people. The stories complement each other, from the girl who has a difficult relationship with her flighty mother, to the old professor missing his dead wife. They almost seem like scenes from a film; many characters are either photographers or artists, but of the kind who photograph everyday life as they walk past it. And if active characters don’t quite move you, the others absorb you into the stillness of being passive. Think of the book as a collection of prose photographs, each deftly capturing some version of the urban Indian. You can look at them from a distance while still falling into their lives.
Madhavan is the author of You Are Here and Confessions Of A Listmaniac