Big Girl Now/ Neti Neti, Anjum Hasan (2010)

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I first encountered Anjum Hasan through her story in Zubaan’s 2007 collection of young, female Indian writers’ work, 21 Under 40: New Stories for a New Generation. In a generally impressive anthology, Hasan’s “Like a Scene from All Those Movies” is certainly a standout, reflecting on the different, often contradictory pulls that young, educated Indians are facing at the present-tradition, westernisation, the lure of the big city. Her introspective, slightly cynical tone appealed to me, and when I was in India last I saw her speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival and picked up a copy of her first novel, Lunatic in My Head. Big Girl Now is (the Australian title of) a sort of sequel to that first novel, the genesis of which can be clearly seen in that earlier story, “Like a Scene from All Those Movies”. It identifies Hasan as one of the most promising, unique and attractive of contemporary Indian writers (along with Githa Hariharan, I would say, though she is a generation older than Hasan, and has been active for quite some time).

I said that Big Girl Now is the Australian title of this book, because it was originally published in India with the title Neti, Neti (which, I believe, suggests something like “not this, not this”). Published by Brass Monkey Books, a Melbourne-based imprint that has recently set about making more high quality Indian literature available to Australian and New Zealand readers. They were absolutely right in identifying Hasan as one worthy of a larger audience, but I don’t think they have done the book any favours with their packaging. If I hadn’t already been a fan of Hasan’s, I certainly wouldn’t have picked this book up in a bookshop (the old adage of not judging a book by its cover should be true, but who can honestly say that they don’t?) The title, for one, is banal, and unless one has read Lunatic in My Head and is already familiar with the central character Sophie Das (who, in the first novel, is an eight year old girl, and in this is a twenty-five year old woman), could lead the reader to believe that this is some type of romance. I understand that the original title (Neti, Neti) was probably not marketable to a non-Indian audience, but if marketing was such a concern, Big Girl Now doesn’t seem like an ideal title.

But that gripe is extra-literary, and should not detract from the fact that this is a wonderful book. Hasan’s protagonist, Sophie, is a bit of an odd-ball, but the reader is thrown so thoroughly into her world that we entirely empathise with her neuroses, obsessions and self-destructive trains of thought. Sophie is from Shillong in India’s Northeast, and, having failed to win a scholarship to study in America (every young character’s dream) that she thought she wanted because her father wanted it for her, moved to Bangalore. Like so many other young, educated Indians with limited prospects in their small-town homes, she works in a Business Process Outsourcing company (BPO), transcribing subtitles for western movies. She is neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with her job, her eclectic and eccentric group of friends, or her boyfriend, Swami. This ennui is finally shattered when one of her friends brutally murders his girlfriend, and Sophie travels back to her small-town home to seek the balance she feels is missing from her life. Of course, the answers cannot be found in Shillong, with life and relationships there being just as messy as in the metropolis.

Underlying the chain of events in Sophie’s life is the question of what it means to be a young Indian at this moment in time, with the pull of roots and the potentiality of rootlessness. But more than this, it is about being an outsider in the place where one is encouraged to believe one belongs. Like Hasan herself, Sophie and her family are considered “settlers” in the Northeast, not belonging to a “native” tribe, but not really belonging anywhere else, either. Sophie considers Shillong home, but her parents do not, and neither do the indigenous inhabitants of the area. She ponders:

“Maybe it was the weed, but the word “India” lodged itself in Sophie’s brain. Somewhere in the depths of her childhood she had formed the idea that India was an exact feeling, a fixed series of things in contrast to everything else in her environment which was simply what it was and had no relation to India. […] The little flags with their dripping orange and green watercolours, which she and her sister used to laboriously paint when they were little, were self-evidently India. […] At school, the girls who oiled their hair and worried about exams reeked of India, as against those who wore their skirts short and who, already at thirteen or twelve, understood the mysterious workings of sex.” (page. 128)

These themes run through all of Hasan’s work, with varying emphasis on the periphery, the metropolitan centre, or the sought-after, elusive and fleeting mirage of the west. The wry, cynical but strangely hopeful final sentence of Big Girl Now (and I don’t think I give anything much away here) suggests that Sophie’s story may not be at an end just yet: “The only problem we’ll have in life from now on is the problem of where to find parking space.”

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Gender Anxiety and Contemporary Indian Popular Fiction

I have just had my second academic article published, in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture online journal. This is an open access journal, so you don’t need to be affiliated with a university or library to access it. My article, “Gender Anxiety and Contemporary Indian Popular Fiction” looks at Chetan Bhagat’s One Night at the Call Centre, and Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom.

Broken Verses, Kamila Shamsie, 2005

The last time I reviewed a book of Kamila Shamsie’s (Burnt Shadows), I admitted that it was the first of hers I had read, and ended by saying that I hoped she wasn’t Pakistan’s most overrated writer. On reading Broken Verses, my first impressions were proven entirely correct. I challenge anyone to present me with a more overrated Pakistani writer than her—they may exist, I have not read as many Pakistani authors as Indian ones, so recognise that my field of reference is somewhat narrow, and I may be proven mistaken on that point—but I will not change my opinion that Shamsie is a truly mediocre novelist.

Broken Verses cannot decide whether it is literary fiction or pop fiction, and herein lies one of its biggest flaws. I believe it is the latter masquerading as the former, and because it throws in some political themes, may have fooled some readers into thinking so, too. Though not usually a fan of pop fiction, I concede that it has its values and uses, so it is not inherent literary snobbery that makes me say such things. So why should this generic confusion bother me so much? For the same reasons that Burnt Shadows did—Shamsie does not so much use her literature as social and political critique (that alone would be worthwhile), as use her convoluted and ridiculous plots as vehicles for some very important said critique, thus belittling and diminishing it. It’s not that she can’t write exactly, it’s just that her writing could have been put to better use in journalism, where she could have reported on other peoples’ realities, instead of coming up with bizarre ones of her own.

Take the title, Broken Verses—each time I typed that so far I have had to triple-check to make sure I hadn’t actually written Burnt Shadows, the title of Shamsie’s other book about destruction, mystery, secrets and so on. I’m terrible at coming up with titles myself, and fear my thesis is going to end up either with something staid and academically boring, or metaphoric and a little bit silly, to make me cringe in a year’s time. But surely as a novelist, or the editor/publisher of a novel, a title is extremely important? You cannot afford for readers to confuse one book with another. Unless, of course, you’re emulating John Grisham (which brings me back to the pop fiction thing…)

The protagonist of Broken Verses is Aasmani, an independent young woman from Karachi. Her mother was a well-known, fearless, glamorous journalist, who disappeared (presumed suicide) two years after her long-time lover, the Poet, also disappeared (presumed killed by the Pakistani government). Aasmani begins a new job, and shortly after receives a letter in a secret code that only she, her mother, and the Poet knew. More and more letters arrive, leading Aasmani to believe that the Poet is still alive, and if he is still alive, what about her mother? Needless to say, things don’t quite work out as Aasmani fantasises. At the heart of all this mystery is plenty of commentary on what it means, ideally and realistically, to be a woman in contemporary Pakistan, in the form of monologues like the following:

“When I was twelve and Mama was at the forefront of political activism with the Women’s Action Forum, the mother of one of my friends said I mustn’t be angry with my mother for getting thrown in jail when she should have stayed at home and looked after me; after all, the woman said, she was doubtless just doing it because she thought she could make the world a better place for me. I looked at the woman in contempt and told her I didn’t have to invent excuses or justifications for my mother’s courage, and how dare she suggest that a woman’s actions were only of value if they could be linked to maternal instincts. At twelve, I knew exactly how the world worked and I thought that by knowing it I could free myself of the world’s ability to grind people down with the relentlessness of its notions of what was acceptable behaviour in women.” (p. 254)

These are sentiments I would be inclined to sympathise with if they were aired in a different format than the mystery novel. There is no innate reason why a mystery novel with social and political commentary of this sort should not work, but Shamsie just fails to bring the strands together in a believable, satisfying, or pleasing synthesis.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby (1958)

Since my days studying English as an undergraduate, I haven’t read a lot of what could be called “classics”. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is certainly a classic of the travel literature genre, and turns up at every second-hand book stall and shop I frequent. I am of the opinion that there is no literature better than good travel writing, but truly good travel writing is hard to come by. Like many other classics, its acclaim is well deserved—it is funny, wry, and adventurous. It is also clearly the ancestor of some more recent travel writing on Afghanistan, Jason Elliot’s sublime An Unexpected Light, and Rory Stewart’s slightly looser, yet still enjoyable, The Places In Between.

What made Eric Newby—a mountaineering novice who worked in the London fashion industry—take on one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, still eludes me even after finishing this book. But it is his inexperience that provides much of the humour. His travelling companion, Hugh, is hardly much better. Faced with the realisation that they will be travelling overland to Afghanistan in several days, Eric and Hugh head to north Wales for a crash course which, at times, is as farcical as Monty Python:

“Full of boiled egg and crumpet, we clung upside down to the boulder like bluebottles, while the Doctor shouted encouragement to us from a safe distance. Occasionally one of us would fall off and land with a painful thump on the back of his head.

‘YOU MUST NOT FALL OFF. Imagine that there is a thousand-foot drop under you.’

‘I am imagining it but I still can’t stay on.’

Back at the inn we had hot baths, several pints of beer, an enormous dinner and immediately sank into a coma. For more than forty hours we had had hardly any sleep. ‘Good training,’ was Hugh’s last muffled comment.” (p. 37)

Things don’t exactly improve from here—they spend most of the time in Afghanistan sick, hungry, cold, and battling infected feet and difficult local guides. This latter difficulty seems to be caused almost entirely by cultural clash and misunderstanding. An attraction, if I can call it that, of reading non-contemporary literature is encountering those turns of phrase or episodes that one just couldn’t get away with today, yet that are told entirely sincerely:

“I started to cook. Unable to stand the thought of Irish stew, and as a revenge on our drivers for forcing us to camp in this spot, I concocted a loathsome mixture of soup and pork which I knew would be unacceptable to them on religious grounds.” (p. 209)

Showing contempt for one’s Afghan guides by cooking pork is cringeworthy, but surely a sign of the times. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was originally published in 1958, and though it has certainly dated, it is a wonderful chronicle of not only two men’s adventure, but of Afghanistan in a different era.