Early on in Lunatic in My Head, Anjum Hasan’s very accomplished debut, we see Shillong through the eyes of Firdaus: empty pavilions, tiny tea shops, clumps of dolmens. “The beauty of it, she would think as she walked, the beauty of it. Firdaus found that she longed for Shillong even as she lived there, even though she had lived there all her life.”
City limits: Sophie’s Bangalore is the outsider’s Bangalore, crammed with buildings, pubs and immigrants. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Neti, Neti opens some 15 years after Lunatic. It has no role for Firdaus, but Sophie Das, 9 and newly anointed elder sister when we last met her, verbalizes their hometown in exactly the same way. “What she really missed was Beauty. The white gushing of Elephant Falls or the green expanse of Umiam Lake were nothing compared to waking up early on a winter morning because you were in love with someone who hadn’t noticed, and watching through the frost on the windows two boys in jackets and mufflers kicking a ball around…and continuing to stand there and freeze as the light slowly changed and the yellow cast of morning deepened… till it was 8 o’clock and sunlight transformed the air of ancient sadness that hung over the scene… into an ordinary morning.”
The difference is this: Firdaus longed for Shillong even as she lived there. Sophie longs for it with the desperate idealization of the wilfully exiled. If Lunatic captured a long moment in the life of a hill town that nearly everyone seeks to escape, Neti, Neti—the Sanskrit title comes from an Upanishadic chant literally meaning “not this, not this”—takes that theme to its logical conclusion in Bangalore, a city as antithetical to Shillong as can be imagined, for an unflinching investigation of the immigrant narrative.
Neti, Neti: Roli Books, 287 pages, Rs295.
As a result, this is a tougher book to negotiate than Lunatic: Sophie’s Bangalore is the outsider’s Bangalore, highlighted by the strange—which is also often the obvious—and, consequently, a point of view tempting to undermine. Unlike Shillong, so internalized it needed only the briefest of delineations, Bangalore is a heaving mass of observed chaos, crammed with ugly buildings, wayward traffic and, always, people, people, people.
Sophie’s life is representative of any of the tens of thousands of youngsters who swarm the city’s outsourcing sector, exchanging hours of tedium for material prosperity. Swami, her boyfriend, epitomizes the drive of the BPO worker, inveigled to love his job by the visions of the luxury car he can now buy on loan. As they go mall-crawling on a Saturday night, taking pleasure in “things, things, things”, Hasan attempts as precise a deconstruction of the new economy worker as has been done in Indian fiction in English, onion-peeling the fake confidence, the false bravado coexisting with the newfound sense of entitlement.
Yet, a year old in the big city, Sophie is already growing disenchanted with the bright lights and the buzzing parties. Her dissonance with her surroundings is complete when a friend is arrested for the murder of his girlfriend and she must escape— ironically, but inevitably, to Shillong. Neti, Neti can legitimately claim to be the definitive “new Bangalore” novel, but this section is the heart of the book: Sophie returns home to find the centre no longer holds and the static Shillong of her day-dreams, too, is morphing into a faded replica of the glitzy metropolis.
Through her story and the stories of those around her— Swami, yes, but also Sophie’s boss Maya, her colleague Shanthi, her sister Mukulika (a newborn in Lunatic), the much older old love/new love Ribor—Hasan captures a generation so adrift it doesn’t even know it has lost its moorings. The present is imperfect, but the past isn’t what it used to be either—not this, not this—and, as for the future, what’s that?
While real life newspaper headline-grabbers such as fatal falls in the mall, call-centre murders and glib godmen underpin Neti, Neti, the layered, literate novel makes exemplary use of Shakespeare and contemporary music. From chapter titles to an elaborate scam involving Bob Dylan (this is Shillong, after all), Hasan never shies away from challenging the reader or treating him as an equal.
If there was one crib about Lunatic and now Neti, Neti, it’s this: The novels follow, at least in broad brushstrokes, Hasan’s own life. The sequel, coming barely two years after the first, takes away some of the fear fostered by the likes of The God of Small Things (though Arundhati Roy is now learnt to be working on her second novel), but it’s to be hoped Hasan will soon be liberated from the autobiography.
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