There is great news for short story aficionados. The genre is enjoying a little revival in India. Thanks to writers like Anjum Hasan and Mridula Koshy. Hasan, who began as a poet, still has that faceted brilliance about her language that poetry brings. This collection shows a range of subjects, settings and characters, always with an eye on the inner truth and the stumbling ironies of modern life.
A common thread running through this collection is that of the stranger in a strange land, having to deal with new and sometimes unwelcome knowledge and situations. Stories like Revolutions, The Big Picture, Eye in the Sky and Banerjee and Banerjee provide variations of this theme. Hasan has an easy familiarity with settings. As far apart as Shillong and Sweden. The time zones one crosses in the course of reading are not jarring. The spotlight is on the traveller, whose internal time remains a matter of spirit and memory. Hasan crafts sinuous and subtle plot twists. So, until the end of For Love or Water, one isn’t quite sure what to expect. Secrets and revelations stalk through her work.
Hasan showcases in these stories the art of creating much with little. In Hanging on Like Death, the central character, a child, gives us a beautifully observed soundscape of how his mother, and then his father, move around in the kitchen, thus building up a shadow-picture of both, seen through the distorted lens of a child’s regard. The post-modern mess of the school play doesn’t prepare us at all for its aftermath, where we are finally made to face the truth hiding in those kitchen-sounds. Having said that, not all stories are equally good, and The History of Touch particularly, doesn’t work because of dropped stitches in the plot and a rather unfocused buildup. But all this is mere detail before the sparkling bittersweetness of the final story, Fairytale on 12th Main, or the casual savagery of Saturday Night or Good Housekeeping. The last story is shocking. Yet it draws to a close very sensibly, without drama or lamenting, leaving you with desolation and perhaps hope.
What will really get to you from Hasan’s work is the clarity of vision. It was evident in her novel Lunatic in My Head, but it has matured and refined since, turning from a machete to a finely wielded rapier. The rawness of the anger and grief that animated Lunatic... has grown into a more polished and clear-eyed sense of irony. Hasan is much less hesitant about charting the fall of innocence, or sometimes its rebound. She is able to stare evil in the eye. She has come with a nuanced understanding of the beast. Writing fiction with craft is an endangered skill today. Hasan cares about getting it just right. There aren’t enough like her around.