All novels have plots, characters, ideas and sentences, but some novelists follow their characters one step further than others, can tell us about what someone is feeling in unusually rich and precise language, can elaborate a theme more vividly and subtly than others. The pleasures of fiction are as much local as global—here a shard of piercing observation, there a patch of dialogue so persuasive the reader forgets he is holding a book. We read not just to find out what happens to somebody, but also to experience what they are going through, moment by moment.
The great virtue of Anjum Hasan’s debut novel Lunatic in my Head is that its storyline, following the lives of three main characters and many subsidiary ones in the small town of Shillong, is nailed together with hundreds of such moments. There is hardly a page on which we are not treated to the extraordinary private drama of human feelings.
Lunatic in my Head: Penguin/Zubaan, 292 pages, Rs295
At the beginning of one chapter we come across the middle-aged Firdaus Ansari, a college lecturer in English who lives with her grandfather, and who is seeing (across Shillong’s palpable divide between natives and outsiders) a far younger Manipuri man and is confused about her relationship. Ansari is looking at herself in the mirror, and finds that “there was no connection between her and the image; if she got up and walked away, this woman whose eyes were boring into hers would remain.” Our sense of a woman who is estranged from herself, is unforgettably realized in this startling vision of a reflection that may behave independently of its source. Elsewhere, we follow the journey of the gauche, music-obsessed youth Aman Moondy, a civil services aspirant who has already failed the exam once and who now lives in dread of a second rejection. Moondy understands life through the music of Pink Floyd and feels the greatest affinity—a soul-to-soul contact—with Roger Waters. Moondy is infatuated with a Shillong girl, Concordella, and loves to sit in the library not far from her, sneaking glances at her. Hasan perfectly captures the agitated swell of his feelings: “He couldn’t understand how beauty of this order did not cause universal confusion and heartache, pull the world into its dizzy vortex.”
And anybody who remembers something of their childhood, of the longing to turn the drabness of reality into the tall tales of fancy, will understand what Hasan means when she tells us that her last protagonist, eight-year-old Sophie Das, loves to lie, but not as a way of hiding the truth so much as improving it. Das feels “it was incumbent on her to lie, that the truth was often so shabby and unconvincing that she needed to embellish it merely in order to have something interesting to say.” Das lies not only to others but to herself: she believes that she is an adopted child, and that one day her real parents will arrive to retrieve her from her foster ones.
Hasan is also a poet (her first collection, Street on the Hill, was published last year by Sahitya Akademi), and the delicacy and pungency of her portraits of these characters is very striking, as is her evocation of the provincial milieu of “the hill-encircled town” in which they live, and against whose ingrained codes they beat their wings. Among the book’s many surprises is the way in which it is itself steeped in literature, and has a number of striking things to say (through the eyes of the English lecturer Ansari) about Jane Austen and Shakespeare. Lunatic in my Head is without a doubt a major work.
About the town: The streets and hills of Shillong come alive in the book
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