Five to One
Anjum Hasan is arguably one of India’s most talented contemporary writers. Her first novel, Lunatic in My Head, was short listed for the Crossword Book Award in 2007. Neti, Neti, her second novel (published in 2009), was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and short listed for the Hindu Best Fiction Award. She has a collection of poetry (Street on the Hill) to her name, and her work has appeared in numerous other anthologies as well.
Difficult Pleasures, released earlier this year, is Anjum’s first collection of short fiction; 13 stories about “the need to escape and the longing to belong”. In addition to being an author, she is an avid reader of short fiction. Here, she talks about five of her favourite short fiction authors—
Difficult Pleasures by Anjum Hasan [Penguin Books India; ISBN 9780670086269].
There are so many masters of the short story from Chekhov onwards. Chekhov, as well as Premchand and Gogol, are basic to one’s understanding of the short story as a modern form. They are less favourites and more teachers. Here are my thoughts on a few other short story writers, some contemporary and some not, whom I deeply admire.
Cathedral (1983) by Raymond Carver. [Purchase]
Quarantine (2010) by Rahul Mehta. [Purchase]
Drown (1996) by Junot Díaz. [Purchase]
Raymond Carver is known for his tough, lean style, which has its attractions, but what excites me more is how much of the poetic and the odd he finds in everyday things. His 1984 collection—Cathedral—is a brilliant example of his gifts. I particularly love Feathers, which is about two couples meeting for dinner. That’s about it and yet it’s a totally weird, sad, and unforgettable piece.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Mueenuddin’s debut collection of short stories, is a fantastically true-to-life portrayal of feudal Punjab. Like Chekhov or Premchand, he’s able to firmly locate his characters—whether this be a powerful landowner or a vulnerable servant girl—in very richly-described, highly textured social settings. His characters are shaped by their circumstances but are also proud and eccentric figures who often meet with tragic ends described by the writer without a trace of sentimentality.
My favourite Russian writer. He is well known for his grand, posthumously-published satire The Master and Margarita, but was also a writer of very unique short stories and novellas. His Heart of a Dog is a science fiction story, but a hilarious one, which is rare for science fiction in my experience. It’s narrated in the voice of a dog who has been implanted with human organs. The sensitive Sharik thinks like a man but cries “little dog’s tears”.
Mehta writes stories about young, gay, Indian-origin men in America; narratives that are often about love but rarely about romance. The gruff outlook of his characters is very compelling and there is a harshness as well in the cities where they find themselves adrift, such as in the story The Better Life—from the collection Quarantine—where the character Sanj ends up walking in the streets of New York, lost and without purpose.
Junot Díaz’s American stories about Dominicans, in his book Drown, showed me a whole new way of looking at the immigrant experience. Díaz avoids all philosophising about identity and instead conveys everything through gritty, first-hand experience—the experience of people always learning to “walk the world”. I loved his story Fiesta, which brings together many of the book’s ideas—childhood, displacement, the English language, and coming of age.
Click here to purchase Difficult Pleasures online.