18 April 2018

Book Review: Anjum Hasan's A Day in the Life

A Question of Belonging
Hamish Hamilton, 2018. 256 pages. 

Anjum Hasan's writing has never lacked craft or perspective. The 14 stories in A Day in the Life, Hasan's sixth book, surpass her own exacting standards.

The tenor might be meditative, but the prose is light-footed, spry, often droll, sometimes downright wicked. In 'Sisters', a woman shrunk by sickness starts to see the healthy as ogres: "They are huge, they dominate the skyline, they eat up the bandwidth". Sometimes a character swings between optimism and despair, grand resistance and quiet accommodation. "There were no new ideas to be found in the city so I retired last year to this small town," begins the narrator of 'The Stranger', before letting an air of meta-resignation take over: "A whole population's worth of people with reduced hopes, happy to cut their coats according to their own cloths."

Whether the protagonists feel at home or (more often) out of place, the places themselves are evoked with detail and tenderness. In 'The Legend of Lutfan Mian', we savour a two-day walk to Banaras in a 19th century Indian landscape about to reframed by trains and the telegraph. Shillong, the town of Hasan's childhood and setting of her first novel Lunatic in My Head, features here in the nostalgic but acute 'A Question of Style', while Delhi --  Okhla Gaon -- makes a surprise appearance in the melancholy but arresting 'Little Granny's Song'.

At their heart, Hasan's tales are investigations of the question of belonging. Her characters might inhabit a dense web of locality, like the protagonists of 'Nur' who must map the don Mushtaq Bhai's house in relation to the Arabic College, or the Islami Nikah Centre as being "where Salim's sister's wedding was fixed", but from which someone can be suddenly airlifted into an imagined Dubai. Or they might live in an impervious middle-class bubble, like Jaan in 'Sisters', or Gulfam in 'Yellow Rose', who wants to be an android in a post-apocalyptic society but is stuck with Bangalore, and sometimes forced to go to "Bengaluru".

Hasan understands this upper middle class person with a tenuous grip on the world. Gulfam arranges her life so that "week by week, she saw a little less of the outdoor world of heat and dust that did not respond to a click or a swipe". 
The retired Mr Murthy in 'I Am Very Angry' is unable to "wholeheartedly like his fellow in the old way anymore".

But Hasan's understanding is not indulgence. We are all implicated. "Each of us, the guiltily innocent, has his own means of getting away from the news," begins 'Elite'. The headlines press in -- urgent, destructive -- and often it needs nature to offer a reprieve.

16 April 2018

Adult Beginners

My Mirror column:

Two beautifully crafted European films – Summer 1993 and A Ciambra – offer delicate but substantive insights into how childhood flows into adulthood.

The six-year-old protagonist of Carla Simón’s affecting, unusual debut Summer 1993 has a ‘baby’, a doll she is often seen holding in the early scenes. Later, we see a statue of the Virgin Mary in an alcove, holding Jesus in exactly the same way as Frida cradles her doll.

Obviously, that’s not true. It’s the other way around.

Watching Summer 1993 alongside Jonas Carpignano’s superb second feature A Ciambra, both beautifully crafted recent films from Europe, I found myself thinking about children and how they learn to become adults. All learning begins, at the most fundamental level, with mimicry. So there is much to be learnt from observing children, and then working backwards to observe what they observe – and eventually absorb – from adults around them.

Summer 1993 is about an orphaned child’s first summer without her mother. That summary probably seems maudlin, and the film does make Frida’s disorientation and bewilderment palpable. But Simón draws on her own memories to produce a cinematic experience that’s tender, delicate and radiant with detail – never sentimental.

The figure of the absent mother is everywhere – in the crook of Frida’s doll-cradling arm, but also in Frida’s playacting games with her baby cousin Anna, where Anna is the ‘child’ to Frida’s ‘mummy’. The signifiers of adulthood are both hilariously general and heartbreakingly specific: Frida paints her cheeks with lipstick and puts on sunglasses, but she also lies about on a sofa and refuses to play with ‘her daughter’ Anna because she feels “sore all over”.

One of the ways Simón makes sure that the film does not become a one dimensional portrait of victimhood is to go beyond the ‘poor child’ tenor adopted by Frida’s well-meaning, affectionate but perhaps misguided grandparents. While the camera takes the child’s eye view of much that is vivid or baffling to Frida about the adult world – a firework-fuelled Barcelona neighbourhood as it grows more distant from a car window, a chicken being chopped – it does not shy away from Frida’s attention-seeking, sometimes at the cost of Anna. A child not brought up to watch out for a younger one can swiftly become a danger to her. Because if Frida takes her cues from the adults, then Anna takes at least some of her cues from Frida – and as Frida shows off her semblance of adultness, she deliberately lets Anna compete at things she has no chance of achieving.

The atmospheric, wonderfully acted A Ciambra is also about a child thrown in at the deep end. Carpignano’s young Roma protagonist Pio (Pio Amato, one of an exceptional cast of non-actors) finds himself handling a family crisis when his elder brother is thrown into jail. At fourteen, Pio is of course much older than Anna – on the cusp of adulthood. But what Carpignano does masterfully is to show how complicated it is to be on that cusp: young enough to be ordered around at home by his harried grandmother, and to want to hide his face in her lap – but also, in his own head, old enough to slip out of his house at night to conduct solo deals.

Much of the film’s visual shock value – and later its most heart-wrenching moments – derive their power from the fact that Pio still looks like a child, even as he smokes and drinks and generally tries his hardest to act like a man. Carpignano is clearly deeply invested in his very particular setting – a real-life Roma family living off petty illegalities on the outskirts of Gioia Tauro, a small southern Italian port city known for drug deals and organised crime – and he immerses us in it powerfully enough to see how hard it is for its inhabitants to imagine a world beyond it. There are other communities in this world, but their otherness is evoked right from the raucous opening family dinner scene, where someone says “We’re eating like the Italians” and later someone else: “You’re drunk like the Africans”. Here, too, the succession from adults to children, of how an approach to the world gets passed down through generations, is key. In one astutely underplayed scene, Pio’s ancient grandfather says to him about a cart lying in the garage: “I was born in that thing.” And then, “We were always on the road. Answerable to no one. It was us against the world. 
Remember. Against the world.”

The grandfather dies soon after, and the death brings the family’s men out of jail faster than originally slotted. It also puts paid to Pio’s fumbling, half-understood attempt at forging solidarities outside the community he was born into. In what is perhaps the only rupturing of the film’s observational realist style, a dreamlike silver horse that appeared in an early scene featuring the youthful grandfather appears to Pio – a symbolic vision of escape that might now forever stay a dream.

Perhaps that, in the end, is the difference between acting grown-up and actually becoming grown-up: adulthood makes sure you know that a dream is only a dream.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 8 April 2018.

1 April 2018

The dreamlife of angels

My Mirror column:

On the eve of the Hindi writer Mannu Bhandari’s 87th birthday on April 3, a look at two films on which she collaborated with director Basu Chatterjee: Rajnigandha (1974) and Swami (1977).

Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha (1974) was one of my favourite Hindi films long before I learnt that it was based on a famous 1960 short story by Mannu Bhandari, one of Hindi’s most well-known modern writers and an important participant in the Nayi Kahani literary movement of the 1960s. The short story, ‘Yahi Sach Hai’, has also been wonderfully translated into English by Ruth Vanita as ‘This is the Truth’, published as part of Vanita’s 2013 anthology ‘Alone Together’.

Even though it came into the world first, reading ‘Yahi Sach Hai’ for me involved working backwards from the 1974 romantic film I had grown up on. As always when a film colonises one’s imagination first, it is difficult to populate the literary work with people different from those that have impressed themselves on screen. My mind kept wanting to turn the Deepa of Bhandari’s story into the doe-eyed Vidya Sinha, and her Sanjay into the ever-smiling Amol Palekar. The imperative is strong because the cinematic adaptation really seems to ‘get’ Bhandari’s characters, deepening and broadening what we know about them and their context in ways that seem exactly right.

The film makes three fundamental changes. One, Sanjay gets a meatier role, with gossipy colleagues, office politics and a backstory for his wooing of Deepa. Two, Deepa’s old flame Nishith is renamed Naveen, with his “long hair like a poet” becoming “hippie
jaise baal” in the case of the film’s Dinesh Thakur. Third, crucially, Deepa’s journey from Kanpur to Calcutta is brilliantly transformed into a Delhi-Bombay trip, with Delhi — and Sanjay — playing charming provincials to Bombay’s — and Naveen’s — sophisticated urbanity. Beyond these, however, Chatterjee remains faithful to the story, presenting us with what remains a rare Hindi film portrayal of a woman choosing between two romantic prospects.

When we meet Deepa, she is awaiting the arrival of her boyfriend Sanjay: a nice, chatty, predictable man who can turn even a romantic gesture like bringing flowers into a ritual: “Once I happened to mention that I like tuberoses very much, so he has made it a rule to bring a whole lot of them every fourth day...” She is totally convinced that Sanjay is her real love and that her teenage attachment to Nishith (Naveen) was an illusion — until she meets him again. The film takes Bhandari’s diary-like structure and transforms it into something breezily cinematic, with long shots of Deepa and Naveen enjoying the freedom of Bombay interspersed with close-ups of Deepa’s luminous face. “Proximity, distance and loneliness work to bring to the fore different emotions as the young female narrator convinces herself she is in love with one or the other man,” writes Vanita in her introduction. “Throughout the story Bhandari uses variants of the words sach, sachmuch (true, truly) as Deepa insists on the lasting truth and reality of states of mind that the reader increasingly perceives as fleeting.”

Recently, I watched another Basu Chatterjee film in which Mannu Bhandari had had an important role to play: 1977’s Swami, starring Shabana Azmi and Girish Karnad. Rajnigandha won a Filmfare award for Best Picture, Swami won it for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Story. The credit for the film’s story went to the long-departed and legendary Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. But as I watched a youthful, rather frisky Shabana Azmi — Saudamini, better known as Mini — forced to forego a long-time romantic attachment to her childhood acquaintance Naren (Vikram) in favour of marriage to the stable widower Ghanshyam (Girish Karnad), I was suddenly reminded of Rajnigandha. I haven’t read the Sarat Chandra story, but it seemed to me quite remarkable how much the clean-scrubbed smiling face of Sanjay in Rajnigandha resembled the always-radiant, patient Ghanshyam (Karnad) in Swami.

If we stay with that train of thought, then both films turn out to have parallels that go beyond two masculine types —and that seem to me possibly informed by Bhandari’s own particular concerns. The context in which Swami unfolds is very different from Rajnigandha — 19th century Bengal. But Mini, like Deepa, has had the privilege of an education and Naren, as the philosophical interlocutor of her youth, holds out the possibility of freedom to pursue her intellectual interests — just like Naveen and the job he helps her get in Bombay.

In Swami, too, the moment of truth is propelled by the arrival of the heroine’s previous lover, and in a moment of passion, she abandons the gentle stability of the husband she has been trying to accept as love for a remembered excitement that she once defined love as.

In Bhandari’s ‘Yahi Sach Hai’, Deepa gets the job of teaching in a Bombay college, but the letter Nishith writes to inform her of this makes none of the revived romantic overtures she is now expecting. The story ends with Sanjay’s arrival, who, looking at her distraught face, assumes that she hasn’t got the job. She falls into his arms gratefully, not telling him that she in fact has.

But this is more open-ended than the film version, where Deepa declares she doesn’t want the job and Sanjay’s promotion will ensure that her life is the one he creates for her — not the one she might have created for herself. As in Swami, the instability of romantic love and mental companionship is traded for the calm security of marriage.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 1st April 2018.

31 March 2018

Roads to Recognition

My Mirror column:

The deceptively quiet The First Lap takes you on a journey into Korean society. But as with the best films, you might end up meeting yourself.

I often think of films as a way of travelling. A well-crafted film set in a place I’ve never been to has long seemed to me the next best thing to visiting it. As the lights dim in the hall, so does the everyday world around you, until it’s only you and the world on screen. Even better if the film sends its characters on a physical journey; then your mind automatically piggybacks on their experience.

Watching Kim Dae-hwan’s quietly observed Korean feature The First Lap (2017) at the ongoing Habitat Film Festival in Delhi on Friday, I was struck by how much a handheld aesthetic could enhance this sense of vicarious travelling. Ji-young and Su-hyeon live together in a Seoul apartment. As the film begins, they are lying under the covers, contemplating the potential adoption of a cat. Then Ji-young says it’s two weeks late for her period, and a tense silence ensues. The rest of the film unfolds over the next few days, as the couple decide to make two longish trips: driving first to the home of Ji-Young’s parents, and then to the village on the coast where Su-hyeon’s family runs a sashimi eatery.

These journeys involve long sequences on the highway, shot from inside a car. The First Lap is all long takes and realistic silences, with practically no background music. The couple are traversing long distances, and yet we see very little of the country, on these roads. Instead, the film captures perfectly the closed atmosphere inside the car, with the entire focus of both people being on the GPS signal and whether they’ve missed the right exit off the highway. The metaphors are thankfully never underscored, but if I had to put a description to it, I’d say the journey conveys the sense of being stuck as well as in limbo – which could very well describe the couple’s relationship.

Ji-Young works in a broadcasting company, while Su-hyoen is an art teacher vaguely contemplating graduate school. In their early 30s, they’ve been living together six years and seem so stable as to be boring. But the shift from imagining owning a cat together to having a baby seems to throw them into a turmoil that feels worse because it’s largely unspoken. As Su-hyoen’s friend says to him about the need to theorise his paintings, “The work is important, but the words are more important. How you describe it affects everything.”

That anxiety about definitions is certainly on Ji-Young’s mother’s mind – and here the film shows us how travelling takes you full circle. The scene where she brings the rare family meal to a truly awkward halt, by insisting that Ji-Young and Su-hyoen should stop “wasting their time” and get married, will bring many Indian viewers back to their own lives. “Why don’t you behave like other girls and give me a grandchild to show off? I have nothing,” she says, sounding petulant. Then, met by an implacable silence all round, defensive: “Have I said something wrong? I always become the villain.”

Ji-Young’s family seems better-off – her mother works in real estate, they live in a modern house and eat around a Western-style dining table. But it is Su-hyoen’s mother who takes her son’s girlfriend aside to tell her to try living together before any decisions about marriage. “Marriage, it’s nothing more than having to put up with a person for years and years… If you’ve tried it and are ready to do it for the rest of your life, then do it.” And also, chillingly, “Hell is closer than you think.”

The scenes to do with food are among the crucial ways in which one is transported to Korea, with all kinds of talk about the filleting of fish, sweet and sour pork and shochu going down like honey. Yet here too, one is struck by the similarities with a traditional Indian home: the women do all the cooking and serving and pouring, even when Su-hyoen’s mother assumes a working woman might not cook much. The men eat silently and drink till they’re raucous. The women eat later, in the kitchen.

The gendered division of labour is quite clear beyond the home, too. When Su-hyoen has to change a punctured tire in a snowstorm, all Ji-Young can do is brush snow ineffectually off his collar.

It is among the few physical gestures of intimacy between the couple, and characteristically non-intense. Even when Ji-Young sobs, or tells Su-hyoen she’s really scared, he seems unable to summon up anything more than an ineffectual pat on the shoulder, or an unsatisfying sideways hug and a selfie. I waited for Ji-Young to fling her arms around her boyfriend and insist on a real hug. That it never happened felt excruciating, and yet entirely recognizable from our own context of physically non-demonstrative relationships. That’s the thing about true travel; it brings you back home.

Book review - No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories

Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s evocative stories are infused with the body and soul of Mumbai.

Set in Mumbai, and translated into English, this is an insightful, illuminating, and powerful collection.

In a freewheeling conversation at the end of this superb book, the translator Tejaswini Niranjana tells us that while this book was being envisaged, the writer Jayant Kaikini said to her on WhatsApp: “Do not hang all these stories on the Bombay peg.” She told him to trust her. The result is Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, a volume whose wondrous evocation of city life is only aided by the cheeky inclusion of this meta-data.
Kaikini is an extremely well-known figure in the Kannada world, as a writer of short stories, a poet and last but not least, a lyricist for Kannada films (he has won the Filmfare award for Kannada lyrics four times). Now based in Bangalore, Kaikini has previously lived in Mumbai for two decades, working with pharmaceutical companies.
There are other famous Kannada litterateurs who have made Mumbai their home and fictional focus, among them Shantinath Desai and Yashwant Chittal (whose famous 1978 Bombay novel Shikari was also recently translated into English). But Kaikini’s stories seem to breathe the city’s air. Reading them, in Tejaswini Niranjana’s magnificent translation, one feels they simply could not have been written without Mumbai.

Sub-local identities

Part of the reason for this is Kaikini’s obvious spatial immersion in the city, his unerring sense of characters’ lives unfolding not in some generic “Bombay”/”Mumbai”, but in very particular sub-locales. There are several stories here in which Mumbai’s powerful neighbourhood identities are placed upfront. So, for example, in “Opera House”, a cinema sweeper’s sense of local geography illuminates the charms of an increasingly sidelined urban history. “Indranil wove his small world around the Opera House theatre. The night streets, the local trains, the colourful curtains of the rooms of the naachwalis that one could see from Kennedy Bridge, the Anantashram rice-and-fish plate, the round aluminium boxes containing the film reels – these were the small strands of his web.”
Or in “Mogri’s World”, Kaikini delineates with stunning evocativeness what it might be like to grow up in the Shivaji Nagar chawl, or to watch the world go by from inside the Light of India restaurant. Sometimes everything is contained in a one line reference to a place: “The past three days he had got caught in some lafda of a Sindhi fellow in Dombivli.”
Even when a story moves us across the city, Kaikini’s gaze remains located and we always know what speed we’re travelling at. So in “Partner”, Roopak Rathod has his epiphany while gripping the poles of the Murphy Baby hoarding “glistening blue, pink and purple in the weak sunlight near Nana Chowk”. In “Toofan Mail”, we attach ourselves to Toofan and his mother as they walk to the end of Teli Gali, run till Andheri Station, jump into a local train to Dahisar to meet the Toofan Mail. In “Water”, we sit in the back seat as Kunjbihari the driver starts “throwing the taxi into little lanes and alleys” only to get stuck in the torrential rain near Mahim Creek with his two passengers, strangers off a plane.
“Water” is a masterful evocation of how the city reflects itself back – whether it is the view of traffic on the Mahim-Bandra flyover, or the radio song requests that seem to allow communication across the enforced isolation of a crippling breakdown: “For Pankaj, Shweta and Nobin who are stuck at Dadar TT, this special song... Kajra Re”.

Signs and Secrets

Kaikini is powerful and valuable as a documenter, a mapper of the city. But he is much more than that. He is able to make the city resonate with the dreams, hopes and fears of those who live in it. Mumbai’s neighbourhoods and landmarks come to serve as metaphorical markers, animated signs that become keys to the surreal landscape. To Sudhanshu in “Gateway”, the thirty-storied Communication Tower in the distance seems like a giant tomb, with the two big antenna dishes on top like gigantic begging bowls held out.
The title story, “No Presents Please”, effortlessly establishes the mood with its opening reference to the half-finished Ghatkopar Flyover, whose iron spikes Kaikini describes as having trapped bits of the sky. “Below, the vehicles crawled their way through the construction rubble and slowly disappeared. This was the fate of all roads. A man could stop wherever he wanted, but a road?” This is, of course, also the sort of sentence that almost doesn’t need a story attached to it. Kaikini is a poet, and he does aphorism with ease. But as you read on, you are primed to be sensitive to Popat’s sense of being trapped in an identity, by a name that seems to him to leave him nameless.
Sometimes it is a person who becomes a sign, coming to stand in for something in the eyes of the beholder. Seen through Sudhanshu’s tired, questioning eyes, the keychain seller at Kala Ghoda seems like a seer who will answer his life questions. Even this “nameless man with his greying eyebrows” who stands “in two feet of space” is someone for whom Kaikini can conjure up a detailed tender backstory: “when he was a child in the cradle, when he used to be rubbed with oil and then bathed, who competed in school sports, lived different roles”.
In the dream-like world of “Interval”, both Nandu (the battery-torch boy of Malhar Theatre) and Manjari (film-viewer from Mahindrakar Chawl) wordlessly become for each other the beacons of an imagined alternative future. Even when Kaikini enables his two naive protagonists to gently disengage – having made them see, equally wordlessly, that they know nothing about each other – their symbolic importance to each other remains.
There is no dearth here of sociological detail – class, age, gender and caste are sharply observed and sensitively understood. Yet in the end, Kaikini’s Mumbai is a majestic microcosm of humanity, and his stories are concerned with quivering, beautiful examples of how stranger sociality can be meaningful. The locations for these loving exchanges between strangers can range from hospital wards and picture framers’ shops (in the superb “Unframed”) to the tea shop in “A Spare Pair of Legs” at which the village’s naughty boy Chandu encounters the urban working child Popat, one of the “army of brave boys” who “leap from running trains so that not a single peanut fell”, holding the city up on their thin hands like some Govardhan Hill.
Kaikini is often tuned to the saddest, most secret frequencies – the quiz contestant squirming as her father grovels before an oblivious TV show host; the film extra covering her face with her hands as her husband berates her in public for pretending to be shy; the two halves of a couple who’re actually relieved when the other doesn’t come home, because sleep will be undisturbed. He is an antenna, gathering up the city’s dreams and hurt, bewilderment and rage, and transmitting them ever so gently back into the zeitgeist. The result is a gift worth receiving.
Published in Scroll, 25 Mar 2018.

25 March 2018

Book Review: Tanuj Solanki's Diwali in Muzaffarnagar

Resentment and Responsibility

Diwali in Muzaffarnagar
By Tanuj Solanki.
HarperCollins, 2018. Rs. 299. 232 pages.

Tanuj Solanki’s new collection of stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, moves easily from Mumbai to Delhi to Diu – but it’s the Uttar Pradesh town of the title that forms its throbbing centre.

The book is an impressive follow-up to his 2016 debut novel Neon Noon, which was set in Pattaya, Thailand. Stories like the masterfully executed formal experiment “Reasonable Limits”, or “B's First Solo Trip”, which turns a laserlike gaze on the race, sex and class dynamics of a backpacker vacation, establish Solanki as an astute new voice. 

But it's the three stories set in Muzaffarnagar that are most memorable, enabling it to emerge as more than a name in the news-cycle. It's not that Solanki is uninterested in the specific geography of what one character, with the jaded chutzpah of youth, describes as his “Riot-prone-piece-of-shit town”. In fact, the book could serve as an unerring guide for first-timers: teaching us to recognise how not just neighbourhoods but institutions (schools, malls, hospitals) filter people out by category; to watch how social borders become visible when crossed. 

Yet Solanki's Muzaffarnagar is more than the sum of its warring parts. This is the small town in its remembered boredom and its stultifying predictability, but also the power of its self-containedness.

In it the Indian middle class family comes to pitch-perfect life, in descriptions so clear-eyed as to startle. The normalised sexlessness of parental marriages, the slow drip of filial duty, the terrifying truth that bonds are as much about resentment as responsibility: these form the matrix of Solanki's fiction.

Parents stuck in the matrix hope their children might yet be released from its clutches, if only they pay obeisance to the right gods. But that dream of an anxiety-free future creates an ever-receding present, in which attendance and board exam anxieties segue into talk of take-home packages, then savings, then insurance. Deaths, marriages, even honeymoons become inevitably about money. Those outside this world can look undeservedly lucky: “Mahesh's money allowed him a calmness that could even be construed as having spiritual origins.”

It is particularly remarkable, then, to watch Solanki's characters move beyond knee-jerk sharpness and dreams of escape, coming to view their surroundings and themselves with acceptance and yes, love.

Solanki's prose is crisp and unornamented, but at times it descends into clunkiness: “Her eyes were swollen, darkness beneath them, and her face carried a pained expression.” Or “Katy is laughing! As if his travails with choking and drowning are a flimsy drama he is playing to evoke some seaside mirth... He emerges a bit from under the ocean, and as flushes of relief come to him, he scampers faster.” Still, these instances do not rupture one's sense that Solanki is a writer worth reading.

An edited version of this review was published in India Today, 23 Mar 2018.