The City and I

Vignettes of lives lived navigating the urban experience in Bengaluru

Written by UMA MAHADEVAN DASGUPTA | Published: June 2, 2018 2:04:45 am
A Day In The Life book review Hasan’s prose is introspective, carefully observed, and imbued with more than what is said.

Book: A Day In The Life

Author: Anjum Hasan

Publisher: India Hamish Hamilton

Page: 256 

Price: Rs 599

In ‘The Stranger’, the first story in Anjum Hasan’s new collection A Day in the Life, the middle-aged narrator is a recluse from city life. In the small hill town where he now lives, he meets a 95-year-old veteran of the Second World War. This antique gentleman wants to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the war by hosting a party, for which he wants to borrow Rs 8,000. Moved by something in the gesture, the narrator agrees to lend him the money. Local communal unrest ebbs and flows around the two figures as they walk towards the local ATM. The narrator reflects on what the war means to the old man. “He is barely even a footnote to a footnote in that war and yet it is the great event that, I’m beginning to see, gives him the breath of life.” Here is a man, impossibly old and fragile, a victim of Empire who remembers being kicked by one of the colonial rulers — a memory that still hurts after all these decades. But — and this energises him — he was also a tiny part of the great war that fought fascism and won. He survived the war. In the tiny, frail figure of the person, as well as the grandness of the idea, Hasan seems to be commenting on human relationships with the past: that it is not so much in the pages of history, but in individual and shared memories, that stability, grace, love, and a kind of rough hope — are to be found. However imperfect, clouded over by mists of time or cataract, memories can sustain and give courage at a time when not only physical traces of the past but also a sense of permanence itself seem to be crumbling.

Hasan’s prose is introspective, carefully observed, and imbued with more than what is said. This is a slow, reflective prose of indirection, of startling and poetic images, of characters who are outsiders, standing at the margins, who look at the landscape from an angle, of narrators who have more to tell us than what they say. An old lady in an older house. A young couple who speak of birds as they search for the language of love. A mother who sees in the paleness of the moon, the colour of “the skin in my daughter’s just emptied mug of evening milk.” A 15-year-old boy who reflects on how dogs are “happier than us because they don’t have countries, they are the true universal humanists, they just want love and shrink from suffering.”

The city is at the heart of the collection; every story is connected in some way to the city. Either the protagonist is turning away from the city, or longs to go to the city, or is lost in the city, or searching for someone in the city, or — as in the very lovely ‘Legend of Lutfan Mian’ — literally walks to the city and, once his work is done, walks back home to his village.

The stories also include the precarious livelihoods of bar waiters, domestic maids, security staff, construction labourers, those who live and sleep on strips of wasteland without running water or sanitation. A former factory worker who still weeps into the phone every day, three years later, when he calls the supervisor to plead for his severance benefits. A garment worker who hangs herself with the same string she uses for her job.

Hasan’s gaze is clear-sighted and unflinching as she writes about urban life. Here is the terse description of the end of winter: “The weather, aided by the exhalations of more than five million assorted vehicles, turned hot again.” On women who walk rapidly as they negotiate public spaces: “Slow-walking women are considered wanton, they have learnt.” On inequality in the city: “All I have to offer are a few coins — metaphorical and real — of sympathy. Those coins are not to alleviate. They are a way of saying — lets definitely not look this problem in the eye.”

But all is not lost: for even as a kind of dystopia threatens to dehumanise them, the characters adapt. They form friendships out of chance encounters. They steal moments of laughter and community. They suck on tamarinds and bite into mango slices sprinkled with red chili powder. They remain resilient and fiercely human. They survive.

In one story, a woman in one of Bengaluru’s hundreds of templatised highrises, suffering from a long and unnamed illness, forms an awkward friendship with the brisk cleaning maid who enters her home one morning like a ray of sunlight. In another story, two housewives form a friendship across the apartment balconies where they feed their young children. And, in an affecting story about urban rage, a retired widower resents the family that has moved into the apartment building that has come up on the remains of his old friend’s house — until he is saved by a conversation, a shared meal, and the beginning of an unlikely friendship.

Hasan’s stories are a tribute to the diversity and richness of life in Bengaluru. A finely crafted collection.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru

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