Where Fantasy, Desire, and the Everyday Meet: A Day in the Life by Anjum Hasan

A Day in the Life: Stories by Anjum Hasan is a collection of fourteen stories that "give us a sense of the daily life of a wide cast of characters," says the blurb on the book. On reading this, I was immediately reminded of Akhil Sharma's A Life of Adventure and Delight, a short story collection that I really enjoyed reading.

Hasan's collection, however, fell short of the expectations that I had built around it after reading the blurb. A Day in the Life failed to connect with me. It is not a bad collection, to be fair, and Hasan's writing is nothing short of observant, critical, and brilliant, but there were definitely some stories that I enjoyed more than others.

Desire Goes Global

Let's begin at the end, taking cue from Hasan's 'The Legend of Lutfan Mian'—a story that, in my opinion, fits uneasily with the rest of the collection—where the legend only begins at the end of the short story, where the last page announces, "And that is how it starts, the legend of Lutfan Mian."

I really liked the last story in the collection titled 'A Short History of Eating'. The protagonist of the story confesses, "I ate breakfast, two lunches and dinner, and was always hungry." The history of this insatiable hunger is narrated in the context of India's economic liberalisation at the turn of the 21st century.

It wasn't just us, all our compatriots had fat and greedy hearts in that innocent turn-of-the-century time, that softly-spotlit-restaurant time when people had to learn to make conversation as they waited for their order to arrive.

'A Short History of Eating' captures how liberalisation created desire while widening the range of experience of what one ate, what one read, and what one saw. Everything that one desired and consumed had a global tinge to it.

An (Un)intended Intertexuality

The story 'The Question of Style'—my favourite from the collection—also captures the same but this time from the perspective of two young people who want to be stylish instead of being "skinny, awkward, myopic and unwealthy."

Eager to bring some novelty into their lives, the protagonist of the story attempts to give a 'Lady Diana haircut' to their younger sister, an attempt that leads to disaster. In a scene that is reminiscent of Maggie Tulliver cutting off her hair in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, the elder sister snips away at the younger one's hair. This bildungsroman of a short story ends on this note,

We remained children for a little longer, still yearning for the sophistications of an adult world, till that too passed and we became, for better or worse, the people we were meant to be, no more those we hoped to become.

The intertexuality in 'The Question of Style' is probably unintended—the comparison to The Mill on the Floss is perhaps a reading that I, as a reader, have brought to the story—but the opposite is true for 'A Short History of Eating', where the protagonist desires the food that they read about in books such as David CopperfieldLittle Women, and The Guide.

Yet food was a fantasy—not this that existed around me, but that which the magazines sometimes illustrated, that adults described from another lifetime, that children ate in rosy Blyton land.

Where Fantasy, Desire, and the Everyday Meet

Desire is, therefore, linked very closely to fantasy-making. The protagonist of 'A Short History of Eating' is obsessed with Alice in Wonderland and the legend of Lutfan Mian begins in Benares (present-day Varanasi), a city described in great detail and fantastical words.

Again the city starts winking its mysteries at him—an arm covered with bright bangles flashing in an upper window, the almost human voice of an astrologer's parrot at a street corner.

A dazed Lutfan—who came to this town harbouring the desire of buying a silk saree for his bride-to-be—asks,

How can one person's desires stand out in Benares, where there are seemingly a hundred temples with the gilded feet of multitudes of gods to lay every possible prater at?

In Hasan's stories, the everyday is not opposed to fantastical worlds built in the mind, but desire, fantasy, and the everyday meet to create the narratives inhabited by her characters.

The Limits of Zeitgeist

Having discussed the end and the middle, let me return to the beginning of this short story collection. In an interview with Firstpost, Hasan expressed her preoccupation with the German word/idea of zeitgeist. She said,

One element of the zeitgeist is certainly this sense of inconsequentiality – the feeling that the important things are happening elsewhere, in the news or in other people’s lives, but not to us. . . I am fascinated by characters who feel wasted or out of sync with the times.

The protagonist of the first story titled 'The Stranger' seems to be modeled on this fascination. 'The Stranger' is the story of a man who finds himself unsuited to the modern era. Fashioning himself as an 'old-time explorer' and desiring to inhabit visions and worlds experienced by non-city dwellers, he retires to a small and lesser-known hill town where he finds himself somewhere closer to the ultimate Truth.

If that doesn't sound tropey to you, then what does? What's more, this man accepts that he is just a grown man with nothing to do; a man who might be hyper-aware of the politico-social scenarios around him in one moment in time and be found dozing off in just the next moment. He says,

I envy those men in the procession. . . Do something, I'd thought. But it's already gone and I am back to this—the slow combustion rather than the blazing anger.

It goes without saying, 'The Stranger' was my least favourite story of the collection and the weakest of the lot, in my opinion. The story highlights the limits of Hasan's application of zeitgeist: it falls very quickly into overused tropes, weakening the overall narrative.

Finally, A Day in the Life could perhaps have been a powerful collection if not for a handful of stories; if only the thematic threads were woven tighter and the streams of thought not lost indefinitely.

A Day in the Life: Stories by Anjum Hasan, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House, 2018.

* This book was sent to me for review by the publisher through a review program coordinated by Vivek Tejuja of The Hungry Reader. The views expressed, however, are entirely my own. 

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