‘Finding every city strange is a source for my writing’

‘Finding every city strange is a source for my writing’

Anjum Hasan.
Novelist Anjum Hassan speaks about the inspirations, themes and ideas behind her celebrated 2009 novel Neti, Neti, which was recently reissued by Roli Books.

Q. Between the conception and birth of your novel Neti, Neti, how did you see yourself evolve as a writer?

A. This was my second novel and I found myself a little more conscious of craft while writing it — more aware of certain novelistic techniques, more sensitive to structure. I started to understand the implication of Orhan Pamuk’s belief that “what matters to a novelist is not the course of events but their ordering”.

Q. Intimately personal and detached from emotion at once, Neti, Neti is definitive of existentialist angst. What is your own relation to the story and its characters?

A. The novel started with my own experience of coming to Bangalore, the feel of the big city — the light and the air, shop displays, what the construction sites look like, how things that were there yesterday have vanished today, what you see if you’re out late at night, the violence on the streets. I started thinking of how it would feel to capture all this from the point of view of someone to whom it is new — both fascinating and horrifying.

Q. Your novel explores the wannabe metropolis of Bangalore, which was until the IT revolution in the ’90s  a larger-than-life town of sorts. Between 2009 when Neti, Neti was first published by Roli Books, and now again in 2016 in a renewed avatar, has your own relation to Bangalore altered? What does this city mean to you today?

A. In Neti Neti, the sheer physical volume and weight of the city impinges on the imagination of my protagonist, Sophie Das, and this became the main theme. What I describe as the “very voice of the city — this whirring, manic hum of urgent construction” does not seem ordinary to her, she is constantly noticing it. While writing my recent novel, The Cosmopolitans, I became more interested in specific histories of people in the city — those who already had cosmopolitan lives here before the IT boom happened, or those who had grown up here and lived a sophisticated Cantonment life that started to seem vulnerable and antiquated after that boom. But I continue to write about Bangalore in my fiction, in short stories, for instance, in all of these different ways. The manic construction hasn’t become less manic and the experience of being in and moving through Bangalore, in a purely visceral sense, still interests me as a writer. 

Q. The personal, the political and the social design of the small town Shillong is larger than life in Neti, Neti. How much of this representation is personal to you?

A. Shillong and what it means to Sophie Das form one half of Neti, Neti. She returns to the city she grew up in and finds things changed both in themselves — in the relations among her family members, for instance — and also appearing different because of her altered perspective. So she begins to reflect on the city as a city and not just the place where her parents live. I’ve come to realise that everything in fiction is personal, not in the sense that it has to be autobiographical but in that what you put in your fiction always has some personal significance, as Shillong does for me.

Q. What do you share in common with your protagonist Sophie Das?

A. Sophie Das, in being dislocated from Shillong, or pulling herself away from it, and trying to make a life in Bangalore, comes to realise that she cannot take any place for granted. This is another way of saying that she cannot be straightforwardly comfortable in any place. And I think I share this with her, which is one source for my writing — finding every city strange, in the sense of being a location one could explore and question.

Q. Then again, this common tale told in a prolific and uncommon writing style, has been noticed not once but thrice over, going on to being long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Also, shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction award. What have these nominations done for you as a writer? And more importantly, what have they done for Neti, Neti?

A. I am very pleased, of course, that the book was noticed and appreciated this way. Equally inspiring are the occasional letters from readers or blog reviews saying that the novel expressed their own experiences of Bangalore, a set of experiences, usually including bewilderment and dislocation that they had not found reflected in fiction before. I hope this new edition will find new readers. 

Q. Neti, Neti, has been published as Big Girl Now in Australia and Bort, Bort in Sweden. How different are these versions from the original Neti, Neti?

A. They are not different at all, it’s the same novel. It seemed to have struck a chord in Sweden. The story of a city and its breathless modernisation and of a young person’s doubts in the face of those changes seemed to make sense to especially younger readers, even if some of them seemed surprised that a novel about India could be so contemporary — that is, not have any orientalist elements!

Q. What’s a typical day in your life like?

A. Writing, reading, working on my job as a books editor at Caravan, cooking, taking a walk, talking with my family on the phone or watching a movie. 

Q. Your thoughts on being a writer?

A. There is the actual writing, the forming of sentences on the page. But I’m also realising how much empty, day-dreaming time is needed to be able to nurture the writing. The obsession with discipline and productivity can sometimes make one neglect that. The other thing is thinking about writing in general, about literature, which I’ve also been doing more of lately.   

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