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Anjum Hasan tells MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER she couldn't have written about Bangalore unless she was looking at it through the eyes of a narrator who both loves and hates the city

Photo: K. Gopinathan

Counterculture Through Dylan and Hamlet, Anjum tries to deconstruct fictional charters

“Titles are tricky things,” admits writer Anjum Hasan as we settle for a chat at Bangalore's favourite sitting room — Koshy's. “The title of a book needs to capture and evoke the book without being too obvious.” Anjum is talking about the title of her second book, “Neti, Neti” (Roli Books, Rs. 295), which translates to “not this, not this” in Sanskrit.

“It was a eureka moment two years into the writing the book. It is from the Upanishads. I plucked it out of the spiritual into the everyday. The title is apt because Sophie is a seeker, she rejects things — but not in the absolute sense.”

Sophie Das, who we last saw as an eight-year old in Anjum's first novel, “Lunatic in My Head” in Shillong, is now a 25-year-old in Bangalore. “Sophie had potential. I wished to see what would happen if I were to put a dreamy person from the hills in a hard-nosed practical world.”

“Neti, Neti” is described as the first Bangalore book. “I am very excited with that. There have been other books written about Bangalore but I guess this is the first where Bangalore is a character.”

Anjum feels the book could not have been set in any other city, as “then it would not be this book. You could not possibly have a character like Ringo Saar in any other city.”

Talking about Sophie's love-hate relationship with Bangalore, Anjum says: “It's just not possible to come from a smaller place and slip into Bangalore casually. Sophie is liberated by Bangalore and yet struggles with it. The good thing about this is that she becomes an observer. I couldn't have written a novel about contemporary Bangalore unless I was looking at it through the eyes of a narrator who both loves and hates it.”

“Neti Neti” almost seems like a Bangalore book with a vengeance. There are the zillion malls, the rock shows, the easy money (the delightfully-named Ringo Saar is drummer for a band called Little Idli), the BPO industry as well as the darker side of the city from the child's death in the mall to a casual murder.

“Newspapers are a novelist's dream in India. I find enough grist in my occasional reading of newspapers,” Anjum explains.

Though Sophie like Anjum grew up in Shillong and moved to Bangalore, the writer insists they have nothing in common. “Sophie is her own person. Characters always have a life of their own. As a novelist, one has to create a consistency. The challenge is to stay with the character without making them predictable.”

While Pink Floyd was an important character in “Lunatic…”, counterculture icon Bob Dylan jostles for space with Madame Bovary and Hamlet in “Neti, Neti”. “I think in making my characters obsessive about figures like Dylan, Hamlet, Emma Bovary and Vivekananda, I am trying to understand what fictional charters mean to us. Do they give us clues about how to live our lives? Do they become our secret touchstones? Do they give us a sense of what our values are? Do they help us to imagine the world? And in this sense I think of Dylan and Vivekananda as “fictional” too, just like Hamlet or Emma Bovary.”

Anjum describes editing Art Connect for the IFA as her “Bread and butter job. It is not reasonable to expect writing to fund your life. I ensure that I write something creative three to four hours a day.”

Ask her about which genre she prefers and the poet and novelist comments: “I enjoy all kinds of writing. Fiction, however takes precedence because of the scale.”

About book tours Anjum says: “I grew into it. I respect my readers and am curious to know their reaction. I choose a composite for readings to go with the mood and the audience.” Readings in bookstores Anjum says is “very enlightened. The distractions, such as noise can be taken care of.”

“Neti, Neti” is about a 25-year-old woman making it on her own in a big city. She has a job, friends, a boyfriend and the attendant troubles that come with it. So would the book fall under the chick lit category?

“I did not set about writing chick lit. Classification does not matter. I would like the reader to engage with the novel. And while the protagonist is a young woman and has the concerns of a young woman, ‘Neti Neti' has larger concerns as well.”

Anjum says it is too early to talk about her next book. “It would be set in the art world. As of now it is not about Sophie, but who knows what the future holds?”

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