Anjum Hasan is the author of several books including Lunatic in My Head, The Cosmopolitans, Neti, Neti, Street on the Hill and Difficult Pleasures. Her latest book, A Day in the Life, is a collection of fourteen well-crafted stories that give us a sense of the daily life of a wide cast of characters.
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.
In this special feature written by her, Hasan tells us about her relationship to the form of the short story.
The first short story that haunted me was Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. Till then, I believed that narrative resolution meant happy endings. Rip van Winkle might find, when he wakes up, that twenty years have passed, or Sinbad will see that his only hope of survival after the shipwreck is to hang on for life to one leg of the giant roc, but these disruptions are only delicious means to redress. Whereas all the dark prefigurings of The Bet end in nothing – the hero simply vanishes on the last page.
The story is the case study of a philosophical question – is life imprisonment better or worse than the death penalty? The young lawyer who stakes fifteen years to prove his point does not emerge triumphant from the cell where he has been living out his self-imposed solitude. He decides – following on a decade and a half of the most voracious bibliomania, hundreds of books consumed and discarded – that human concerns don’t matter one whit, and then he slips out of the garden gate and disappears. To where? And why does he forgo all that money, two million roubles, that he is to get for winning the bet? As a ten or eleven-year-old, immune to irony, this tortured man’s strange renunciation and sudden disappearance, not to speak of that unclaimed cash, bothered me. Chekhov, master of enigmatic endings, provides no answer. I had to learn to live with my discomfort, accept the slippery nature of the modern short story, understand that its author might open a wide window on time and then leave it ajar for all eternity.
But the special pang that accompanies the reading of a good – that is essential yet elusive – story remained through the years of my coming of age as a reader. I experienced it with Tagore’s Kabuliwallah in which the unlikely friendship between a vagrant man and a radiant child can, once time has passed, never be recovered – no matter that the author, unlike Chekhov, does provide recompense in the form of a few banknotes to temper our sadness with. I felt it too with DH Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner where money itself is the object of lust and there can never be enough of it. Yet indulge too avidly in this passion and it can turn against you.
Over time I also realised that I wanted to do the same – not so much play with mutability as a literary device as snatch half a moment from the flow and give it life in writing. The short story is the ultimate temporal – and secular – form. There are no earlier incarnations and no hereafter. Now is the sum total of the aeons and this is all there is to the expanse. Anything can be a story and everything actually is. I’m always charmed by that anecdote about the demonically prolific Saadat Hasan Manto boasting that he could write a story on any subject. Someone knocked at the door of his office when he worked at AIR, Delhi, and asked “May I come in?” Manto was challenged to write a play by that name which he promptly turned out.
But this carpe diem spirit means that the older traditions of storytelling with their familiar tropes, their indeterminate locations, their shared myths, have to be put aside. For the short story is also the locus of a progressive imagination, one for which the people matter but the person matters more. In most Indian languages the break from the literature of the past resulted in the flowering not just of the short story but literary movements around it – ranging from the Nayi Kahani writers in Hindi and their championing of interior life to the hard-boiled urbanism of the Manikodi group in Tamil Nadu. Exploring the genesis of the form in his essay ‘The Indian Story’, Amitav Ghosh records its journey from the late 19th century to a good hundred years on. He writes that “the story was the chosen instrument of the subcontinent in the spring time of its nationhood.” But it is no more our weapon of choice, suggests his essay, which was published towards the close of the previous century. The short story has, perhaps, had its day.
This might explain our contemporary ambivalence about it. Modernism has passed some of us by and our paradigms for the short story are still Saki and O. Henry, rather than Manto and Carver. Then there is the growing occlusion of telling of a story with storytelling – not all writers of the short story are aiming to be campfire entertainers in this sense but the tag is hard to escape. One is either a great storyteller or a self-indulgent aesthete; nothing, it seems, can bridge literary pleasure with pleasure taken in literature. One is always tempted to quote Nirad C Chaudhuri to those who insist on the distinction between style and substance. “There is no such thing in literary works as good substance spoilt by a bad style, or poor substance undeservedly accompanied by a good style. To believe in such theories is to have the stupidity which is dead to matter and the vulgarity which is dead to form.” But Chaudhuri himself, precisely because of his English hauteur, the proud certainty of that tone, can seem hopelessly old-fashioned.
We are quick to dismiss values that seem out of date, always on guard against nostalgia in our reading of literature but curiously, because of our growing obsession with specifically Indian narratives and a singularly Indian identity, have taken to refurbishing antiquities in our fiction. We want to retell rather than tell, and our retellings are informed less by ideas about the past and more by the desire to just invoke it. The popularity of these invocations makes me ask if we really have lost our appetite for the here and now. Was it misplaced, this desire we once had to cleave to the short-lived, the fragmentary, the unresolved? Are we in search of the one story that will capture it all – the overarching explanation, rather than the numerous small ones? Is that a genuine need and if so can the short story address it?
I happened to find something of an answer in a marvellously metaphysical essay by John Berger on the nature of time and, thereby, the nature of stories. In older, more religiously inclined cultures, the timeless was a constant presence but this conception of a realm beyond human time has been edged out of today’s worldview, he argues in ‘Go Ask the Time’. And yet, despite this dominant, two-century-old, positivist European image of time, we can’t quite suppress our longing for that which goes beyond it. We’re made that way. “A need for what transcends time, or is mysteriously spared by time, is built into the very nature of the human mind and imagination.”
If we turn away from the European lens we will find a conviction underlying many traditions of storytelling – many discourses – that everything to happen has already happened before, says Berger. This is a realisation that the writer like me, trying to compose that one unique if microscopic narrative, that one telling that has not been told before, wants to stave off. But perhaps the most long-sighted of the storytellers have always known it. Talking about the prose of realist fiction and its gradual seeping into Indian writing, Ghosh in the essay I mentioned speaks of it as “a form of address that creates the illusion of objectivity by distancing itself from its subjects; it is a style of narrative in which the machinery of narration is a source of embarrassment that must always be concealed.” This struggle is still evident in Indian fiction, he says. So perhaps it is this – the embarrassment with the modern rather than the insight into the mythological – that makes us want to go back to a time before realism.
AK Ramanujan, that great theorist of Indian narratives, has described in his ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?’ how till the 19th century no Indian text came without a framing narrative; every story was encased in a meta-story. Berger would have loved, for its effortless scrambling of linear time, one of Ramanujan’s examples. When the Pandava brothers are exiled in the forest, and Yudhishthira is despondent because he has lost wife and kingdom, a sage visits him and tells him the story of Nala. Nala too has had to forfeit wife and kingdom but then he fights his brother and gets everything back. “Yudhishthira, following the full curve of Nala’s adventures, sees that he is only halfway through his own, and sees his present in perspective, himself as a story yet to be finished.”
So it could be that Chekhov’s hero, when he runs away from his cell, is fleeing the paltriness of the short story itself, seeking a cosmic vista that no worldly thing, least of all money, can offer. Chekhov cannot follow him because that is not his business. His writ runs only in that arena where each tiny, ordinary, human detail is so mesmerising a story there appears to be no point asking for more. And that’s where I hope to remain too, in the grip of the strangeness and wonder of this present time.