AUGUST 8, 2017
THE FIRST TIME I explored New York City, I felt like I already knew the place. Every image was overlaid with pop-culture references, from Seinfeld’s diner to Sesame Street’s brownstones. Bleecker Street, I discovered, was not just a Simon & Garfunkel song. I had the same sense when I visited other places that loomed large in my fictional imagination of the Western world, from London’s Underground (where horrors may lurk in the gaps) to Paris’s dancer-filled Moulin Rouge to Los Angeles’s Ventura Boulevard (where vampires roam). With a map cobbled together from books, movies, and songs, I always seemed to know where I was in these cities, even while completely lost.
But like many consumers of Western culture, I grew up outside my own literary map. Whenever my home city appeared in pop culture, it was barely recognizable, either caricatured for its call centers or lost in nostalgia for a vanished world.
Bangalore, India, has no equivalent of Bleecker Street. Any hub of cultural life from the 1960s stands a good chance of having changed names and then bulldozed out of existence, perhaps multiple times. Those signposts of the past that do remain seem isolated from their cultural contexts, aware of their own mortality. Bangalore’s population has climbed from four to 10 million souls in 25 years, riding the wave of India’s IT boom and neoliberal turn. A 20-year-old map is guaranteed to get you lost here, but Google maps may leave you equally perplexed.
I first read Anjum Hasan’s 2009 novel Neti, Neti while in graduate school on the outskirts of Bangalore in 2011, stealing reading time between classes and lab experiments, addicted by the shock of recognition. I had spent 15 years of my life in and out of Bangalore but had never before read a book that seemed to catch the city’s always-shifting soul. Hasan succeeded by introducing an outsider into the city’s chaotic space: Sophie Das, a twentysomething recent arrival from Shillong, India, (Hasan’s own hometown, roughly 2,000 miles away), drawn to the big city by dreams of a career in publishing. What Sophie doesn’t tell people back home is that her dream has fallen a few pegs. She pays the bills by writing subtitles for Hollywood films, while her boyfriend works nights at a call center, saving up for his own dream — a car to navigate the city’s already congested streets.
Sophie wanders wide-eyed and homesick through a city in rapid transition. Her experiences are tied to real events from the mid-2000s: I remember the time when a child fell from a high floor of one of Bangalore’s first glass-walled, multi-story malls. Afterward, that mall always held for me a queasy mix of consumerist frenzy and horror. Sophie bears witness to a city that seems to have lost its story of itself: inexplicable violence follows her, from frequent traffic accidents to murder. Her conservative landlord — who disapproves of male guests — seems to exist in a different world from the city’s Gatsby-esque parties for the absurdly wealthy. Sophie is similar to much of Bangalore’s upwardly mobile younger generation, in that her upscale life relies on a brain-deadening job — outsourced menial labor whose meaning, if it has any, lies on the other side of the planet.
The title Neti, Neti comes from the Sanskrit for “neither this, nor that” — words that capture the protagonist’s rejection of all the conventional narratives life has to offer. Sophie is an outsider wherever she is, be it Bangalore or Shillong, always a bit dissatisfied with the options at hand. That thread of the perpetual outsider runs through most of Anjum Hasan’s writings. Through fiction, poetry, and essays, the author tackles the frequently inexplicable world of modern India by sketching the disquiet of those who don’t quite belong and who cannot help but wander with eyes wide open.
One evening, about a year ago, I sat in the crowded backyard of an aging house in Bangalore while Hasan and her novelist husband Zac O’Yeah engaged with an audience about fictional cities. Traffic noise filtered through trees and smoggy air as the conversation veered easily between the real and unreal: from Bangalore today to Bangalore as we imagine it used to be, to the many Bangalores that exist on the page.
O’Yeah, a Swedish transplant who writes a series of Bangalore-based detective novels featuring a character named Mr. Majestic, was blunt in his judgment: “Cities are fiction,” he said — meaning that cities, even if built of stone, are ever-changing expressions of human creativity. In Bangalore that layer of unreality is amplified, because no matter how fast you write, “you’re always writing history.” To call the city “Bangalore” itself invokes the past, since the name has lately switched to Bengaluru. The famous Majestic cinema hall that O’Yeah’s protagonist is named for was recently torn down. The child whose fall the fictional Sophie Das witnessed at Garuda Mall has been dead 10 years now — an eternity in Bangalore time. Three million extra souls have entered the city since then; expanding towers of concrete anticipate still more.
The protagonist of Hasan’s more recent novel, The Cosmopolitans (2015), therefore finds herself coping with a strange kind of nostalgia: for a Bangalore only 15 years in the past. Middle-aged, never-married, comfortably unambitious Qayenaat is faced with a new money-crazed atmosphere she feels out of step with, and old friends who have adapted to changing times that have left her far behind.
“I’m fascinated by what the memory of a city does to your perception of it,” Hasan said at the fictional cities talk. For those like Qayenaat, which included some in the audience that day, memory means a sense of continuous alienation from the present. Internet groups have sprung up in recent years to exchange grainy photos of Bangalore’s not-so-distant past, talismans against incomprehensible change. For Qayenaat, memory and nostalgia spur her to action, as she searches for meaning — and meaningful art — in modern India, in a village wracked by Maoist conflict half a country away.
Bangalore is not the only part of India (or the world) presently experiencing the aftershocks of neoliberalism and globalization. Neither is India the only country that has witnessed violent backlash in response to those global forces, as nations struggle to build new stories of themselves. All across India right now, rising Hindu fundamentalism and xenophobia in the political sphere fans the flames of ethnic and religious conflict, producing popular nostalgia for a reconstructed past. Times are volatile; Bangalore is not the only place that seems to have lost the plot.
To capture such times with words is difficult enough, but to make them coherent without resorting to tidy ideological explanations is harder still. When conflict over questionably offensive artwork leads to riots in Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans, Qayenaat mourns the loss of nuance that such violence creates — the loss of freedom to see the world from multiple points of view.
Hasan has described “the cosmopolitan” as one who is rootless. The status of the rootless cosmopolitan has often been tenuous, viewed with particular suspicion during turbulent times. It can be a radical act to insist on a bit of rootlessness in India today, which almost all of Hasan’s protagonists do. Always at a slight distance from their surroundings, they resist easy categorization, in a country increasingly prone to black and white.
The consequence is that Hasan’s characters work their way into your mind, revealing new layers years after first reading. There was a time in the late 1990s when I felt as if I didn’t know a single teenage boy in Bangalore not currently learning the opening guitar riff to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” I saw echoes of those boys in Aman, one of the protagonists of Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head (2007), who divides his time between studying for the Indian Administrative Service exams and taking long tea breaks to philosophize about classic Western rock music with friends. In that same novel, a woman named Firdaus leads a quiet, relatively cloistered existence, teaching and caring for her traditional grandfather, while writing a never-ending graduate thesis on Jane Austen and cloistered Regency women. Aman’s and Firdaus’s stories are set against the backdrop of 1990s Shillong, a city evolving to exclude each of them from its ethnic definition of who belongs.
In Hasan’s short-story collection Difficult Pleasures (2012), a young village boy impetuously hops a train to Bangalore, where he loses what is for him (and most Indians) an astronomical sum of money at an upscale Bangalore shopping mall, purchasing a trinket priced for India’s elite. Elsewhere in that collection, a Shillong philosophy professor, fixated on Kant and the higher mind, remains oblivious to the complexities of his students’ precarious, impoverished lives.
These are character-driven tales, avoiding explicit social commentary, but the reader may find that, as they are drawn into the protagonists’ minds, the world cracks open in unexpected ways. If there is a literary map of Shillong and Bangalore to be found in Hasan’s fiction, it’s not a map that lets you know precisely where you are, because nobody in these cities has that luxury. There are a few lurking dragons on this map: shifting boundaries and variable place names, with perhaps an abyss or two for unsteady feet. A pervasive disquiet reigns, without easy solutions. In The Cosmopolitans, Qayenaat remembers her engineer father, part of the post-independence nation-building generation, watching the news on television and saying simply, “Something seems to have gone wrong somewhere.”
“Nations are great empty abstractions before they are filled up with stories,” British-Indian essayist and novelist Rana Dasgupta wrote in 2010. In Dasgupta’s estimation, novels don’t just reflect a nation’s reality; they also create that reality, giving structure to a shifting landscape. That task of tracing the new shapes of a nation through words is a vital one in India right now, as the country whittles down its acceptable range of stories. Media censorship is on the rise, while writers are murdered for promoting rationalist thought, academic papers excised from curricula for recording alternate tellings of religious stories, and the ambiguities of historical research lose out against the comforting certainties of mythical dogma.
I thought I knew New York City the first time I visited it, because pop culture had covered the place so thoroughly. The fact is, I didn’t know the place at all. But I had to let the firm bounds of my fictional maps unravel in order to accept that. Fiction has the ability to map out the world into neatly digestible parts, sketching solid lines where none exist. It is far harder to map uncertainty, to give a literary guide to complexity and doubt. But fiction also has that power: to open windows onto a multilayered world, brimming with more questions than answers. Stories that manage to do so, like Hasan’s, have a way of sticking in the mind. These stories bear witness, with eyes wide open, to the beauty and contradiction of a dark, changing world.