“A letter she mumbled into the bed cover. I should just write a letter telling him that nothing, not the smallest thing could possibly unite us. You, your homeland, your tribe, your love for your mother, your dozens of cousins, your schemes, your beliefs – I share nothing of this. I can’t get onto a bus every second month and go home. There are no people I call my people. I don’t speak a private language. How would you, always enfolded by this mist of connections, carrying it with wherever you go, how would you understand this loneliness.”
In this passage, as in the rest of the book, identity, uncertainty and loneliness are the prevailing themes that shape and reshape the lives of Firdaus, 8 year old Sophie Das and Aman Moondy, an IAS aspirant. The three characters live separate and yet interconnected lives in Shillong – a small hill town in the north-east of India. The town dominates the book and Hasan is able to skilfully communicate its beauty.
“Firdaus found that she longed for Shillong even as she lived there, even though she had lived there all her life”.
And its faults.
“Shillong did that to people... preserved them in its Shillong flavoured timelessness – the same rumours, the same jokes, the same gossip, the same petty jealousies. The scale of the town corresponded to the scale of people’s imaginations.”
Besides her troubled and somewhat clandestine relationship, Firdaus is dawdling with commencing her thesis, ostensibly on Jane Austen. At work, she goes through the motions of lecturing, silently questioning but never altering the subject matter she delivers such as Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea which she can’t understand but must explain to her students. A similar scene plays out much later when she discusses Shakespeare’s As You Like It with her nonchalant and disinterested pupils, using ancient hand me down teacher’s notes. Although this scene struck me as odd, I neither had the perceptiveness or skill to catch the intelligence of the writing; Chandrahas Choudhury points this out on his blog:
“Hasan gives us a sense of how Firdaus’s students are hearing her lecture, and how puzzling it must seem to them. And by showing how Firdaus, while feeling frustration at the sluggishness of her students, is herself not willing to walk with Shakespeare without the crutch of her notes, Hasan has the courage and the confidence to present us with a fairly damning indictment of her protagonist. The most meaningful words in Hasan’s passage are not those that make some sense of what Jacques is saying, but precisely the most superfluous ones: phrases like “In addition, that is withal” and “within brackets anatomised”, which show that Firdaus is actually on the same side of the fence as her students. It is a genuinely novelistic passage, teeming with crisscrossing meanings: as a result of the author’s artful layering, the words point out towards Shakespeare and back towards Firdaus at the same time, and we understand not just the place of the fool in Shakespearean comedy but the feelings of inadequacy felt by Firdaus.”
I found Sophie’s character particularly startling. Hasan subtly renders the insecurities of a pre-pubescent in an immensely complex but believable manner. Sophie’s father is pig-headed and unemployed; her mother is pregnant, hopefully with a boy. Sophie is disenchanted with her family who are so dissimilar to the boys and girls with English names in the books she reads. This leads her to long for a number of counter-factuals including the belief that she is adopted and the desire to be Khasi like Elsa, the Das’ landlady. The tension between Khasi and Dkhar – tribal and non-tribal – is reminiscent of the conflict portrayed in Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and underscores the issue of identity so well articulated when Firdaus thinks to herself “There are no people I call my people.”
Aman, Hasan’s third protagonist, has failed the IAS exam and is studying for a second attempt. He fears not living up to the expectations of his parents, particularly his father, a doctor, who seems to have given up on him. And yet, he idles away much of his time, cultivating his passion for Pink Floyd and hanging out with his friends. In a brilliant scene where Aman has summoned the courage to ask a girl (he’s been perving at for over a year at the library) out for coffee, we see Hasan’s dexterity in layering by finely observing the incongruity between Concordella who talks about finding faith in God again in a sermon on the Book of Job and Aman who desperately tries to connect with her over Pink Floyd.
I suppose Firdaus is the character closest to Hasan’s real self and consequently the best writing in the book is reserved for those chapters that deal with her life. I read this paragraph, which describes the routine that is inadvertently established between Firdaus and her fastidious grandfather, several times before recognising the marvellous writing, the simplicity of perceptive observation and the wonderful layering.
"Firdaus handed Nana his eggs. How had this complex system been established, she wondered. How was it that Nana ate her eggs but fried them in his own ghee, drank milk she paid for sweetened it with his own sugar. What in Nana’s head had led him to establish these conventions? When had it all started? She couldn’t remember. Her grandfather was remorseless. He got his Christian business associate to buy their meat from halal shops if they were inviting him for a Christmas lunch. He did not believe that men had landed on the moon – for reasons that Firdaus could never fathom, this to him antithetical to Islam. He never looked women in the eye. He kept his room scrupulously clean and always wore his clothes ironed. Firdaus realised that he had built up the whole edifice on his existence on the basis of a few beliefs so that now the idea that the eggs should be hers but not the ghee appeared to be as self-evident as everything else about his life."
The only weak part of the book is the gimmicky way in which Hasan tries to bring the three characters together during an earthquake – each saying something insignificant to the other. But, even here, Hasan redeems the scene by the parting the three just as quickly.