Anjum Hasan in Conversation

with Namrata Pathak

  1. In History’s Angel we are ushered into an Indian Muslim household, a space that jostles with multi-hued narratives, political, personal, national and regional at once. More so, the novel takes recourse to history in plural, to the ‘mini’ historical narratives of life that are extracted from the depth, sometimes stolen from the periphery and at times, dug from the subterranean layer. How do you look at history and who is the history’s angel, Anjum?

     

    I think all the best fiction does that jostling – the larger history of a place and a people is in the background somewhere, though in the most committed of the realists – say Jane Austen – it’s faint, almost invisible and in the more comic of the realists – say RK Narayan – it is cut down to size, leached of any notions of grandness. I’m trying to draw on that tradition. So there is that background history of North India in my novel put alongside history as subject matter, what Alif teaches, what he is often thinking about. History’s angel is a troubled figure – someone who doesn’t have the wherewithal to really grasp the past and who feels stuck in the present.   
  2. Elsewhere, regarding your writing, you have remarked as such, “We go on about culture on the outside but what interests me as much is culture on the inside…” As an author how do you find oneself in the ‘insides’? Do you find yourself in the borders, ‘in-between’ interstitial spaces as well? Or in that grey zone between both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’?

     

    Maybe all culture is a fiction but it’s individually internalized and that’s what interests me, what’s going on in people’s heads, all the contradictions there behind the fronts we put on. Cultural identity is becoming so much a curated, deliberate thing that we’re forgetting the messiness and the mix. So this novel is of course read as being about Muslim lives in India but it’s as much about spaces in the head that religion does not touch and also about people who are not Muslim. It’s just a contemporary Indian moment I’m trying to capture. 
  3. How do you look at the process of writing; is it healing, cathartic, obligatory or is it a devotion, a commitment to your soul, a pact with the greater joys of life, sorrows too, at once enabling, ensnaring and life-giving? Why do you write and how do you write?

     

    It’s a way of life, a way to live, and also a responsibility to language and to what we call reality. This constant search for new ways of translating one into the other is what it’s about. We so easily give in to dead language and lazy writing, I do too often, so the question always is: how to make it new? How it make it funny? How to it make feel like a living thing?
  4. Is the place from where you write, that is, the North-East, important for you? Does the locale or the terrain of the author an impactful mark on the writings that s/he produces? Does the North-East or at best, Meghalaya, enter the creases and crevices of your text, sometimes unconsciously, without you resorting to it, and without volition too?

     

    I think about the Northeast a lot and it also feels like the best place from where to think of stuff that concerns the whole country. In fact it could have shown the rest of country a way of living with differences, the minority could have lead the majority, become an avant garde, but that didn’t happen, and now it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.
  5. You write about Shillong extensively, be it Lunatic in my Head, Street on the Hill, Neti, Neti to name a few. Most of your characters hail from Shillong? Is Shillong a character in your novels, a figure throbbing with life and its vulnerabilities?

     

    I’m not done with Shillong, maybe I will never be. Am struggling with a book on it at the moment. It’s not so much a character as a deeply frustrating, deeply fascinating place with a unique history. And for some time now, like many Indian cities with very mixed populations, it’s been veering towards what Sunil Khilnani once memorably called hyperlocal parochialism and bleached cosmopolitanism. I’m trying to study both. 
  6. What advice would you give to the young, aspiring writers?

     

    Develop taste to begin with. Find out what you like. Questions to do with writing often become questions to do with technique or subject matter or career development. But who is this doing the questioning? What gives them joy? Pleasure and preferences is where we should start.

Author’s Bio:

Namrata Pathak teaches in the North-Eastern Hill University, Tura, Meghalaya. Her publications include Trends in Contemporary Assamese Theatre (2015) and Women’s Writing from North-East India (2017). She regularly contributes articles in The Assam Tribune, a seminal newspaper of north-east India; Muse India; North-East Review; Café Dissensus; Setu; Indiana Voice Journal; Aneekant; Negotiations; Ruminations to name a few. Her first collection of poems, That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranade was published in 2018

 

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