Big City Blues

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Neti Neti by Anjum Hasan‘Neti neti’, Sanskrit for neither this nor that. It’s a process of rejecting everything in search for that ultimate happiness.” So says Anjum Hasan when talking about her new book. This is in a sense, a continuation of Lunatic in My Head, Sophie Das, who was 8 in that book, is now a cigarette smoking young woman of 25 living in Bangalore and trying to come to terms with the chaos she sees all around her in the big city. Judging by Hassan’s textured descriptions, Bangalore is a lethal city where someone is being squashed on the roads every minute and where cars and auto rickshaws collide. Sophie lives in a state of terror having failed to come to terms with living in what is literally another country, when you compare it with Shillong which she left behind her.

Her landlord is obtrusive, her boyfriend Swami unconvincing and on top of that she has lied to her parents about what she does for a living. The Das family thinks that she works for a publisher editing children’s book whereas she actually works in a BPO, transcribing film dialogues.

What’s she misses about her small town in the hills is the beauty of it, “waking up early on a winter morning, and watching through the frost on the windows two boys in jackets and an occasional taxi rolling out through the morning mist … till the light slowly changed and sunlight transformed the air of ancient sadness that hung over the scene.” Bangalore appals her with its ugliness and she is gradually considering a holiday with her parents when the violence around her jolts her into deciding that for the time being she must leave. The actual event is a murder committed by a friend with a Beatles name, but that somehow seems to lose itself in the chaos that is part of big city life – the many incidents of road rage, the death of a child in a mall, which is presumably a dig at mindless consumerism, and goons collecting unpaid bank loans. In fact, a murder was not even necessary, given the fact that Sophie’s decision to leave Shillong was spurred by a small, almost meaningless encounter on the road, and given the fact that her friends are fleeting glimpses of joints, beer and rock rather than well rounded people.

“What most readers will relate to is Sophie’s sense of loss in the machinery of an impersonal city…”

The image of roads crisscrossing recurs throughout the book – Sophie is always travelling, creating spaces for arrival s and departures within her heart. Around her are people to who she half relates to. The middle class Kannadigas of Bangalore, drawn with gentle ironic humour, and the muddle of their lives set against that of the outsiders who have come to Bangalore looking for futures. Occasionally certain things jar – like Baba Sampige who plays no real role and who graduates from sneering at spilt beer to being a kind of dues ex machine, or the constant violent accidents on the road – Sophie defines hers new self by the fact that she is no longer squeamish when she sees a man squashed to death. There is also a sense of far too much happening at the same time.

Sophie returns to Shillong to find that life there, too, is not what she wants. People have their own delusions about life, not the smallest being a Bob Dylan obsession which gives them the notion that they mean something in an international context. Shillong is in a sense a smaller reflection of Bangalore, centred on internet cafes and westernised values – even Sophie’s parents have had enough of it and want to go their separate spiritual ways. And even the beauty that she misses, the arched bridge in the park, is not enough to console her.

Throughout Sophie clings to three books that have shored up her hopes against the ruins around her – Swami and Friends, Vivekananda: Awakener of Modern India and Madame Bovary. The books do not disappoint – in fact in the end they bring stability to her life and help her find the love and definition that she is scrabbling to find.

What most readers will relate to is Sophie’s sense of loss in the machinery of an impersonal city – an experience that more and more young Indians share, as they leave their sheltered home towns in search of better futures and confronted with harsh realities stop to wonder why they did it. And Hasan’s subtle, occasional lyrical prose too, is an incentive.

Read the interview ‘Anjum Hasan talks to Curious Book Fans’ here…


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Neti Neti (Not this. Not this)
by Anjum Hasan

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Written by Anjana Basu