Video: Isn’t it Ironic? A Meditation on the Heroines of Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan, author of the novels Lunatic in My Head (2007), Neti, Neti (2009), a collection of short stories Difficult Pleasures (2012), and a book of poetry, Street on the Hill, is a creator of curiouser and curiouser heroines – from Firdaus, a middle-aged teacher in the middle of a thesis and a defunct relationship, to Sophie, a 20-something professional lost in a sea of Bangalorean yuppies. And then there’s Qayenaat of The Cosmopolitans (2015), her most recent novel that explores the question of art and artists. She of the enchanting name, looking for meaning in a seemingly disenchanted world. Anjum places her in the context of the novel, “She is certainly liberated in many ways, she’s not subject to any domestic or sexual restrictions. But she also feels alienated in 21st century India and this is what the novel is about in some ways, the question of the forms that this feeling of estrangement can take. I’m asking this question in relation to art – how does someone who derives sustenance from art feel about the stickier or more banal aspects of it?”
Papercuts speaks with Anjum about the peculiar heroines she’s interested in and why, what draws her and her women to alienation and irony, and why she prefers Banana Man over Superman…
What comes to your mind when you hear ‘Hero’? And ‘Heroine’?
A need to find the exit quickly. Heroics suggests larger than life, morally superior, big-muscled, none of which compels me. Even in a comic-book sense, I’m more interested, instinctively, in ordinariness than in heroics. As a child, much as I enjoyed Superman, I liked the parodic Banana Man more, the guy who could chomp down on a banana and then take on the world!
Who embodies a classic literary hero, in your view? (I mean, your personal view, not what the canons tell us.) Who are some of your favorite heroes from books and/or movies?
The classic literary hero could be rich, handsome and superior, like Jane Austen’s Darcy, but also rich, handsome and deeply troubled such as Hamlet or Gatsby. Gatsby has all the classic hero qualities from a societal point of view but what makes him interesting is his self-division and anguish. So that end of the spectrum interests me much more than the Howard Roark-like Übermensch.
Are you more comfortable with the term ‘protagonist’? How is the protagonist different from the hero?
In Martin Amis’s novel, The Information, one of the characters is writing a book or wants to write a book called ‘The History of Increasing Humiliation’. It’s about how literary heroes have become more and more insignificant through the ages. At the beginning, it was kings and gods, now it’s the dregs of society. So, to answer your question, it is only possible to use terms such as ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ ironically now.
Firdaus, Sophie, Qayenaat, are all solitary individuals battling in the dark – the urban landscape, the modern Indian’s dilemma – in a way. What draws you to this peculiar energy when you’re creating them?
Yes, they are pretty solitary characters, but my idea was not to make heroes out of them, necessarily, but create a space for reflection, which only seems possible if they are not stuck in some vast joint family or fighting the conventional battles that women in our society and literature have to. I think certain female characters in literature who take on the system and emerge victorious are much more heroic, and that’s a different literary impulse which draws on the idea of female energy. I think I am attracted much more to individualism than heroics and what that might mean in the lives of fairly regular, middle-class people but also those with the capacity and the need for an inner life.
Do you feel that when one writes about ordinary lives as being heroic, then somehow that labels one as a writer with a predilection for the underdog?
On the contrary, I think the whole progress towards modern in fiction is tied up with characters becoming less heroic and more ordinary, even dismayingly ordinary, as Amis suggests. And yet even this movement towards the ordinary can have its limitations, it’s not necessarily the same thing as all-embracing. As middle class writers in India we tend to write about the class we’re from. I read quite a lot of modern Hindi fiction in translation recently, novels from the last fifty years, and realised that even though the underdog has been written about quite extensively by these writers, it is still only with the appearance more recently of Dalit writers telling their own stories that the absolute underdog begins to find a voice.
When does the ordinary lift into that heroic space?
I don’t think heroism in literature, by which I mean modern fiction, is quite the same thing as heroism in reality TV or comic books. We don’t necessarily find the most heroic people interesting in fiction; in fact, such characters may even be morally compromised – Humbert Humbert, Emma Bovary, David Lurie, the narrator in Coetzee’s Disgrace – and continue to interest us deeply.