“The lunatic is in my head” is a line from a Pink Floyd song (maybe you knew that, but I didn’t) that takes on a much more interesting reading in Anjum Hasan’s debut novel, published in 2010. The three main characters have in their heads that ordinary lunatic that we all have – the lunatic that doesn’t quite believe the world we live in can be real, that what’s happening to us is what was meant to happen, and that simultaneously hopes and fears that things might change.
Shillong, the hill-town where Hasan grew up and where the novel is set, has always had a lot of migrants but there’s still a strong feeling in the 1990’s world of the novel that the non-Khasi residents, no matter how long they’ve lived there, are dkhar – foreigners. Aman Moondy, making his second attempt at the Indian Administrative Service exam, Firdaus Ansari, trying to explain Shakespeare and Hemingway to teenage girls at a convent school and struggling to write a thesis on Jane Austen (she hasn’t read enough Dickens, the only other suggestion that’s been made), and 8-year-old Sophie Das are all dkhar. The elephant in the room is the extreme dkhar-ness of the system of Indian education and advancement. To pass his exam, which will qualify him to start his career in some small, dead-end town in the North-east, where he would fight to exercise authority over a dusty office full of people whose language he did not speak (59) Aman needs to mug up on Kant and Hegel as well as to answer questions on microwave ovens, virtual reality and the Theosophical Society. And really, he’d much rather be listening to Pink Floyd. Sophie, child of an ultra-pedantic English teacher, adores the British Royal family and knows that everything of value in this country was the legacy of the British (21). And here is Firdaus “teaching” As You Like It to her teenage class, reading from hand-written foolscap sheets that English department teachers kept handing down – their origins long faded, their anonymity adding to their air of authority (157):
Jacques says to Duke Senior that his only suit or requirement is that he be allowed to wear a motley coat, one that will signal to the world that he is a fool. In addition, that is withal, he must have freedom as large as the wind to quote blow on whom I please unquote, that is to direct his foolish wit or his witty folly towards whomever he chooses (58)
They all have ways of avoiding reality: Aman, with his lengthy philosophical letters to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd (not, so far, answered), Sophie with her habit of lying and her belief that she’s adopted, and Firdaus with the work on Jane Austen she’s been considering for four years without writing anything or even deciding what the thesis is about.
There’s a whole world that swirls around this calcified culture, a richly-realised world of small-town India. Aman’s life contains local Khasi thugs and hippieish lovers of Happenings (the Happening organised by Aman and his friends is very funny), Sophie finds a surrogate grandmother in Kong Elsa, the matriarch of Shillong with a shady Cilla Clarke-loving son, and Firdaus is in a nebulous relationship with Ibomcha, who may well be involved in something dubious, something that would enable him to make a quick buck. (103)
Hasan has a beautiful eye for detail:
Aman’s mother watches soaps all day wearing an expression of careful consideration, as if what the characters were saying held some personal significance for her (11)
Firdaus’ principal Mother Gertrude has feet in bandage-like stockings encased in shiny black platform shoes, dodging puddles on the tarred compound. Mother Gertrude was Irish and as old and permanent as stone (13)
Aman’s doctor father, son of a poor man, had never been able to come to terms with the incongruity of sitting in the dark rooms behind the mithai shop, stuffy with fumes from the relentless frying of jalebis and kachoris by men in dirty vests, and reading about cholera and jaundice, food poisoning and indigestion (62)
This is a book that deserves more attention than it’s got, at least in this part of the world. Although the characters are often sad, it’s very funny; quite apart from Aman and his Happening, I loved Firdaus’ clash with a colleague who bites her on the nose, and her encounter with a lecherous supervisor. Sophie is a touching and absorbing child (whose story has been continued in Hasan’s next book Neti Neti). And it feels so fresh, so confident in the ironic eye it turns on British influence, and so at home in being Indian. I’ll definitely be reading more Anjum Hasan.