This past week, between sniffles and lazy lie-ins, I got to read this brilliantly written novel called Lunatic in my Head by a young woman named Anjum Hasan (Penguin, Dec 2007). Sometime last year, Mona Zote had sent me an issue of a poetry mag called Carapace which featured my favourite poem of hers, as well as this fantastic poem titled "The Last Winter, But" by the said Anjum Hasan. The structure of the poem just blew me away but I assumed she was probably one of those very high-brow, middle-aged looking eggheads with uncombed, scruffy hair. Recently, I googled her down and found that she was actually a young, pretty woman who'd grown up in the same place I did, Shillong. Now Shillong and the name Hasan rang a bell so I quickly made inquiries and discovered that Anjum was the daughter of one of my teachers at university, the laconic Dr (now Professor) Nurul Hasan. I remember him as a complete Thomas Hardy maniac with a gangly frame who'd come in and sit with his legs crossed, talking non-stop in the same tone of voice about Tess of D'Urbervilles, William Golding or Jane Austen, all the time kicking the air with one foot under the table and never really minding if the class wasn't quiet or paying him a great deal of attention. He was a brooding intellectual who approached things from the opposite end of the stick and gave us home assignments on topics like Lord of the Flies as an anti-modern novel or Pride and Prejudice as an anti-ironic novel. Despite his obvious knowledge, however he didn't inspire us as much as he might have because he was so close-mouthed and uncommunicative, and didn't exactly give off warm, welcoming vibes. It's wonderfully in keeping with the scheme of things though, that his daughter (and a younger sister Daisy who's reportedly also written a novel) should have inherited their father's formidable little grey cells.
Lunatic brings back many memories of Shillong where my family had fled Mizoram in the wake of the insurgency movement in the mid 60s. My father had been a high-ranking young officer then and after a while, had gone back to Aizawl with my mother, leaving four very small children (us 2 sisters and a male cousin) with my maternal grandparents. We lived in an assortment of houses, ranging from a Mizo family's ground floor tenement to a little cottage near a pretty field to a larger house in Nongrim just next to the Khasi section of Auxilium Convent. There had been many Mizo families then, many like us, on enforced self-exile due to the political instablity back home. Of course, Shillong was always the most cosmopolitan place in the Northeast even then.
I'd started my education at Auxilium and later shifted to the all-girl Loreto Convent. Loreto was, hands down, the most snobbish, stuck-up, snooty schools I ever went to. I remember lunch time when we'd take our little tiffin boxes to the lunch room or whatever it was called, and eat furtively with our right hands while with the left, we kept a tight grip on the slightly ajar lids of our boxes so that nobody could see what we were eating. Another memory I have of LC is funnier. My grandparents had instructed my older sister to always make sure she shepherded us younger ones home, so there we'd stand at the bus stand at Dhanketi and my older sister, always a voracious reader, would bury her bespectacled head in a book, usually an Enid Blyton, and never pay attention to the buses coming and going. So bus after bus after bus would sail by and we'd only eventually make it home when it was almost dark. Finally, grandma strictly forbade my sister from reading at the bus stand or until she'd brought us safely home.
Though I never knew Anjum Hasan personally, from what I do remember of her family, I can see that she weaves in many personal details of herself and her folks in varying degrees in her three protagonists. Like their little house just above the Fire Brigade bus stand which was opposite A la carte restaurant, and for anyone who knew/knows Dr Hasan, he's been immortalised quite unmistakably in the character of Mr Das. But despite the interest and hype about Anjum's Lunatic bringing the largely little-known and often ignored Northeast into the Indian literary mainstream, a word of caution. This is the Northeast through the perspective of someone who was born and brought up in the Northeast certainly, but to whom the distinctive essence of the Northeast must forever remain impenetrable because she is, as she keeps putting it, a "non-tribal". Never liked that tribal/non-tribal terminology and even while I understand perfectly well that the theme of the book runs along precisely those lines, I'll stick my head out and say I like Anjum the less because of her obvious inability to transcend the socio-cultural divide.
Her poetry though is immaculately faultless, and I include here the poem that first made me sit up and take note of her. Just love the innovative pattern of these lines.
The Last Winter, But...
This longing to get to the end of things,
I just walked everywhere, eating dust.
It was December and the light had changed,
Sunlight ripening like squares of rare fruit.
I just walked everywhere, eating dust,
Thinking, this will be the last winter, but...
Sunlight ripening like squares of rare fruit,
Every city street still resistant to habit.
Thinking, this will be the last winter, but...
I have explanations to offer myself.
Every city street still resistant to habit,
And barefoot women wanting the time.
I have explanations to offer myself,
Firmer than the day's jelly shadows
And barefoot women wanting the time,
The afternoon's sounds like, like a new alphabet.
Firmer than the day's jelly shadows,
That place where all sentences hold good,
The afternoon's sounds, like a new alphabet,
This longing to get to the end of things.
PS I'm going to hospital to have an ovarian cyst removed on Tuesday. Please, everybody, say a little prayer for me.