Cornucopia of characters

Annie Samson
Saturday, 22 September 2018

In Difficult Pleasures, author Anjum Hasan paints herself into her cast of characters she day-dreamed up

Parents give their children all kinds of names, some of which are downright ridiculous and some, well, just grow on them. Science, is one such person, so rechristened by his grandfather because of his proclivity with trying to turn objects into other objects — torches into alarm clocks for the hearing impaired, rubber boots into flower vases for the thrifty. Over time, the nickname erased his proper name and Science became Science.

Anjum Hasan begins her Difficult Pleasures, a collection of 13 short stories, with the account of Science, a young Bengaluru-based amateur photographer who lands up in Mumbai chasing his dream of working with a celebrated lenswoman. This short narrative sets the tone for the ensuing book, which is filled with varied characters into whose minds Hasan dips in, to give readers a bouquet of stories set in real places and about mostly young people with a need to escape and the longing to belong. 

So, while Science attempts to find his muse walking around downtown Mumbai, eating at a restaurant called Revolutions and feeling like an ant whose “thoughts and memories could not impose shape or order on this city”, there is the schoolboy Prasad who channels his inherent rebel to fling away the free meal of rice and rasam at his village school to take off to meet a cousin who works at a restaurant. Fine detailing fleshes out the escapades of the brothers who walk into a high-end mall to spend their stolen money on a can of deodorant. The narratives are not told by anybody but simply transfer themselves from the protagonists into the minds of the reader. It is like Hasan is providing a ringside view to the everyday lives of her characters. 

In the piece titled ‘For Love or Water’, the protagonist describes a quarrel in Kannada between a neighbour and his wife. “Every once in a while, his anger spilled out of the language and he would say in an English that rose to a crescendo ‘You are forcing me forcing me. You are forcing me to hit you. Bloody idiot! Just shut up’!” 

In ‘Hanging on Like Death’, an 8-year-old is shown practising for his school’s musical drama where he plays the character of a magic mushroom who has a solitary line to say but which means the world to him. 

Hasan’s writing sparkles like a poem — lyrical and evocative. One can almost see Neel with “his hair sticking out in clumps from his head like a battery of antennae and his oversized glasses catching the almost-three-o’ clock sunlight that slid out in dusty planes from the ventilators. He looked like an ant with goggles.”

The cornucopia of characters in the stories spans an old woman who harbours a desire to be a celebrated painter, women who want to become good housekeepers, a philosophy teacher whose story is fleshed out with the ‘The categorical imperative’ the central philosophical concept of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. There is the looming Punjabi postgraduate research assistant who was so shy and hesitant that even his laughter was tentative, as if laughing at something, anything was going too far. 

The author paints herself into her cast of characters she daydreamed up. Neel’s father is portrayed as an author who had once received a letter from an American magazine that commends him for writing to “exceptionally moving effect, yet steer clear of any sentimentality associated with…” Hasan’s writing precisely fits the description. The stories have the common theme of longing to belong to something or someplace. 

The characters in Hasan’s book seem so ordinary and their tales so believable that readers might often wonder whether or not what they read had actually taken place in real life! It is very likely for readers to keep carrying the stories with them even after they have put down the book.

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