The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Anjum Hasan


By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Anjum Hasan_photo by Bulbul HasanLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because, as Auden said, “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie.”

Tell us about your most recent book or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

The Cosmopolitans, my latest novel, is an inquiry into how it might feel, in today’s India, to be a liberal, introspective person with little material ambition but a great deal of passion for the arts. Qayenaat, my heroine, is something of a Rip Van Winkle. She withdrew from the world late in the previous millennium and went to sleep in the house her father, a Nehruvian civil engineer, had built. When she wakes up she is in an unrecognisable, new, money-obsessed country, and this is what drives the action of the novel, her attempt to make sense of this feeling of estrangement.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I’m constantly amazed by how much can be mined for poetic meaning from what we tend to consider ‘ordinary’. Most of my fiction and poetry, and even some of the personal essays, keep going back to this – everyday Indian reality or really, to be more specific, middle-class lives.

Who are your favorite authors?

One reads new writers all the time and is impressed but some of the writers I keep going back to are Flaubert, Philip Larkin, Raymond Carver, Orhan Pamuk, Amit Chaudhuri and Pankaj Mishra.

Anjum-HasanWhat’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Writing The Cosmopolitans was tough. It took six years and rewrite after rewrite. I was attempting a canvas bigger than any I’ve tried before and the characters and their worlds were new and inscrutable to me. It was a good challenge.

What’s your idea of bliss?

Finishing a piece of writing with some sense of satisfaction.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

To read the news every day, especially here, is to risk being in a constant state of rage. One tries to find ways to be productive despite that. As Auden also said, despite being beleaguered by negation and despair, the prayer is that one can “Show an affirming flame.”

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

At the moment the two fat and engaging books I am reading – Sunjeev Suhota’s The Year of the Runaways and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My husband. And my notebooks if I can rescue them.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

To write a little every day.

Biography:

Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans, Neti, Neti and Lunatic in my Head; the short story collection Difficult Pleasures; and the books of poems, Street on the Hill. Her books have been nominated for various awards including the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction Award and the Crossword Fiction Award. She is books editor at The Caravan.