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Anjum Hasan: History's Angel

Anjum Hasan

There's also this idea that India has a destiny because it has grand past. It's taken from so many different cultures and made itself into this layered subcontinent. It's got to have something to give the world now, you know?

Anjum Hasan

Against the frenetic energy and colour of Delhi, a Muslim school teacher is caught between his love of history and contemporary India. Anjum Hasan’s work sheds light on the complexities of life, love, writing history, and how national and patriotic myths can be maliciously subverted. 

Author Anjum Hasan’s latest book, History’s Angel, is a darkly funny portrait of one of Australia’s most important neighbours. Mild mannered teacher Alif feels the burden of his own time pressing down, but his wife is focused on a bigger house, his son wants to quit school and strike it rich, and his colleagues begin to question a Muslim teaching Indian history. 

Hasan and fellow Indian fiction luminary, and UNSW academic, Roanna Gonsalves talk about how we understand ourselves, how we reflect on our histories, and drawing inspiration from others in a time of suspicion and indifference.

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and supported by Adelaide Writers’ Week


UNSW Centre for Ideas: UNSW Centre for Ideas

Roanna Gonsalves: Hello, everyone. It's nice to see you all here. I'd like to acknowledge the Bidjigal people who are the traditional custodians of this land. I would like to pay my respects to elders past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are here with us today.

My name is Roanna Gonsalves. I am a writer. I am also a lecturer in creative writing here at UNSW. Tonight we have the pleasure of having Anjum Hasan join us all the way from India to explore her work and in particular her novel History’s Angel. Anjum Hasan is the author of four novels and two short story collections which have been shortlisted for almost every prize. There is the Indian Academy of Letters Prize, the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Hindu Best Fiction Award, the Crossword Fiction Award, as well as being longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many prestigious publications, including The New York Review of Books, Granta, Paris Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others to bring it closer to Australia. Anjum Hasan was the India correspondent for The Book Show on the ABC, ABC Radio National for many years when she was the books editor at Caravan magazine.

And to bring it even closer, Anjum kindly invited me to her home in Madikeri almost ten years ago or more when I was doing my PhD, and she kindly allowed me to interview her in Madikeri and it's a beautiful part of the world. And so it is such a pleasure and an honour to be in conversation with Anjum here in Sydney.

So thank you so much for coming here and spending your evening here with us. I'd like to begin by asking Anjum about Delhi. So a bit of context. I grew up in Mumbai and I consider myself a diehard Mumbaikar or Bombay-ite. I love my city. I love the coastal vibe, hate Delhi. It's aggressive. It's a city that I don't really have much time for.

I've worked there, don't really want to go back, except when I read this book. It made me fall in love with Delhi, and that's no mean feat.


So Anjum, can you tell us how you did that? I think it's a testament to the power of the imagination and to the power of fiction to make a reader love something that they previously hated.

Anjum Hasan: Wow. I've heard some nice things about the book, but I've never heard this one before, so I'm going to take that back home, Roanna. Thank you so much. Delighted to be in Sydney tonight, to be at the university. Thank you for having me at the Centre and all those connections with you, Roanna. That is very, very special. The fact that I spoke to you all those years ago and then you vanished and then I see you again here.

It's really I think somehow I start to believe as a writer that some things just, you know, pop up at the right time. You start to believe in things like coincidence and serendipity. I think you take these things very seriously as a writer because you're looking for those clues to put into your work. You're not following ever any straight path at all.

And I think the fact that I chose Delhi as the setting of this novel is also that kind of accident for me, because I didn't really ever plan to write a novel exclusively about Delhi. It's as much a novel about Delhi as a novel set in that city, right? Because my hero Alif Mohammad is a diehard Delhi wala, as we would say.

He's never been anywhere else. He was born there. He's in his middle forties and he has no intention of ever going anywhere else. Not only that, he's distinctly cynical about people who make too much of moving around, traveling or garnering experience through seeing the world. So he's more than a bit of an anachronism in holding so steadfastly to one place.

And, why did I do that? Why did I set this novel in a city that can be so alienating? Especially for women I think. And I have felt that in Delhi, it's not an easy place for a woman to even visit and move around. And it's a very male city. And I've written a novel about a man in a very male city, but I've had a kind of a strange nostalgia for Delhi as well.

I've never actually lived there for any length of time myself. It's a city that I've visited off and on over the last 20 years. I've taught there for brief periods at a university creative writing, in fact. I visited there for work many times, gone there as a student for holidays, all of that. So it's a city that I know as a visitor, but it's also a city to which my parents belonged.

And so it's a city you start thinking of as somehow having a connection to, and imagining that if your parents didn't move to this other place where you were born, you would have been a Delhi wala. And what would that alternative existence have been like? So that's the personal connection to the city. So it's kind of reclaiming a place that actually I have no claims on myself personally, but because my parents moved to a small, much smaller place called Shillong in the northeast of the country where I was born and grew up, they always had a sort of ambivalent relationship to this place where they had moved for work.

And it always felt like this is a sort of second hand place and the original home is always Delhi. So I started to feel like either I write about it or I remain resentful of it all my life. So it's a way of, you know, making peace with the fact that I don't actually belong to Delhi, but I can write about this city in this vicarious way.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah, well, as I was reading the book, I knew you hadn't lived in Delhi because I have read about your work, I've read your work, I've interviewed you. But as I was reading the book, I thought, ‘Wow, this is just such an intimate rendering of this place’. And I was just astounded that that was possible. And I think, again, that is the power of fiction, but it's also the work that you as a writer has done to bring a city to life, really, particularly Old Delhi, and particularly the Raiganj, that particular place.

And I'd love to ask you if you could share a little bit about how you, as an outsider, brought a city to life. It's interesting that you said it's the city of your parents, and so it's that really interesting.

Anjum Hasan: I think we are, in some ways outsiders to every place we write about. You need that distance. Either you cultivate it or you have it already. I think without that necessary degree of detachment from a place, it's very, very hard to write about it. And I certainly feel that about all the places I describe in my fiction.

I feel that about my hometown. I feel that about Bangalore, where I have now lived for more than two decades. There's always those things that you are looking at with a sort of… I wouldn't say completely detached, but it is examining eye. You are asking yourself what is it that makes the city work? What is it that doesn't actually come together for me in this place?

But all of it, I think, has to be undergirded with love. I don't think you can write about a place unless you love it. There's really no two ways about it. I'm writing right now a book on my hometown, Shillong, and I talk to people who have had very mixed experiences about it and they say, ‘You need to bring out the darker history. You need to talk about episodes of violence that have gone into the making of the city’.

And I say all of that is fine. But unless you feel this core of affection for a place, it's very hard to write about it. And so the way I did it for History's Angel is to show Alif as somebody who has lived in this part of Delhi, which was actually a walled city, it was something that came up about 500 years ago when the Mughals took over North India.

They made Agra where the Taj Mahal is their capital, and at some point the one of the middle Mughul, Shah Jahan moved to Delhi and then Delhi becomes this incredibly important place in the Empire and Shah Jahan is just building crazy. He just carries on constructing wonderful monuments, one of which feature us in the very first chapter of the novel.

It's actually a tomb, as Taj Mahal is. They were very good at making wonderful monuments to dead people. And so Taj Mahal, we all know. Some of you may have also seen Humayun’s tomb, which is a monument raised in the memory of an early Mughal emperor, Humayun, Akbar's father. So, yeah, so Alif is very enamoured of this historical side of Delhi and what is called Old Delhi was actually new when the Mughals built it.

And then when the British took over, they started building their capital outside the walled city. And so that became New Delhi. And this early modern Mughal Delhi became Old Delhi. And now it's very Old Delhi because Delhi has expanded humongously in all directions. And Alif is still holding on to his little house and his life in this old quarter of Delhi and really seeing it crumble. There's actually all the charm that is then Old Delhi is a charm of the derelict.

There's a lot of things falling apart. There's this grand mosque called the Jama Masjid that is not falling apart. So that becomes like a kind of a or an anchor for him. It's like at the centre of his walks around Old Delhi. So all I had to do really is to imagine a character... There's a scene in the novel where he and his son are just taking a walk, a kind of walk that they do almost every evening or every other evening.

They walk out of the house, they walk through these streets. It's the month of Ramzan. People are fasting. They've just broken their fast. And sometimes in Old Delhi people put out food for the poor. Those who may not have the means to break the fast themselves. So they're seeing all that happen and then they just go sit on the steps of the mosque and they hear people talking around them.

It's a very everyday scene, but I am describing it through Alif eyes and I say Alif notices everything because it is ordinary, and his son doesn't notice anything because it's ordinary, right? So for Alif, nothing is ever ordinary. And I think that's because he's a historian, he's a would be historian, who's always seeing what's before his eyes, but he's also seeing what things were like just a little while ago or a few hundred years ago.

There's always that historical eye that he's bringing to things. And I think all of that, the combination of all these ingredients is what I was trying to bring to it and trying to pull off a con in writing about a city that I can’t claim as mine.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah, well, it didn't feel like a con. It felt really fresh. It's a beautiful, fresh perspective of Delhi. It's about Alif Mohammed, who is a muslim Delhi-ites, as you said, a diehard Delhi, but he's also a diehard history teacher. So you will love the book. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Alif Mohammad, the history teacher, and some beautiful things happen.

There are some moving scenes, but some quite violent things happen to him. Maybe violent isn’t… it's emotionally violent, but problematic things happen - those are the pivots upon which the book turns. I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about Alif  Mohammad and the kind of person he is. Yeah.

Anjum Hasan: Well, we've been talking a lot about Delhi. We've described Alif a little bit, but we should also see that I was trying here to write a novel which is very much set in contemporary India.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yes

Anjum Hasan: Very much drawing on the tensions of the moment, the, let's say, political atmosphere of the moment. What does it feel like when things are getting, broadly - and again, not in everyone's experience like I show because Alif has friends from both sides -

But what is it like in a country where the divides between Hindus and Muslims are being reinforced in a political sense, in a public sense? It's not borne out by our lives experience. It's not borne out by the experience of a lot of people, but especially in a city like Delhi, which is also the seat of power, which is also a very, very difficult city to be in because it's where things start often and radiate out.

So the novel is set in 2018, 2019, and things that happened that year that sort of accentuated the tension are mentioned in the novel in passing – they’re on television, people are talking about them in the background. What I wanted to do is not talk about the politics upfront at all, because in India it's so well known. We’re rehearsing it in studio, TV, studio debates and op ed columns. It's too much, in fact, to be told about what's going on over and over again.

We are a society in which politics is discussed ad nauseum, and it's entertainment for us as much as cricket and cinema, right? Politics is fodder for small talk. It's so many things apart from the actual electoral process of electing people to govern us. We are a very political nation and I'm not a political person in that way.

So it can get… it gets interesting to ask myself, So what am I doing here as a novelist? How do I write about this without giving in to the rhetoric, without giving into this polemical tendency that I think even writers of fiction sometimes give in to? And it's difficult. I think it's really a balancing act because I have to show characters to be as lifelike as possible.

And if they are life like Indians, they have to talk about politics. Otherwise they're not going to sound convincing. So Alif is somebody who actually doesn't give a damn about the politics. He just wants to be left alone to do his history teaching. He's a very passionate teacher of the modern history of India, as well as the older history of India, and which is what you know, Roanna, that's the history we grew up in. In any kind of school education, you get the sweep, right?

You start with the Arians coming and you come up to the Indian flag, the Tiraṅgā  going up on the ramparts of Red Fort. That's the history of India. So all of it is there when the book starts. He's teaching his history is doing his thing, and he says the only thing that matters to him at this point in his life is status quo.

He doesn't want anything to change. And of course, that's not going to be possible because this is a time of incredible tension and change and uncertainty. So this is what I was doing. I was taking a character who's very low key, very unambitious, except that he just wants to do a good job of his teaching, live the life that he's living in this old derelict quarter of Delhi.

Not shake things around too much, but will he be allowed to do that, given what's going on? And it's not as if he's going to… he doesn't have any grand historical destiny. I wasn't writing a novel where he's going to change the fortunes of anything, right? But even in an everyday sense, even in everyday situations, there can be challenges.

If you happen to be a Muslim man in Delhi who's teaching history, those are potentially explosive things to be and to be doing. Again, it need not be the case, right? I think personally for me, I have not experienced the challenges that Alif has, but I can't limit my fiction writing to what I've experienced. You need to be able to extend yourself, put yourself in other people's shoes.

And for me, I thought a man, a Muslim, are not anti political but sort of unpolitical sort of figure. What happens if such a guy is sort of put in these, you know, slightly threatening situations? What would he do? So that's the that's the hypothesis of the novel. And then you have to read it to find out what happens.

Roanna Gonsalves: I love what he does, which is to reach for history, again and again.

Anjum Hasan: Exactly. You got the nail on the head. That's what he keeps doing every time he's asked difficult questions, he just reaches for historical examples.

Roanna Gonsalves: And sometimes I wanted to shake him up and say, Say something, you know.

Anjum Hasan: Say something more to the point!

Roanna Gonsalves: Don’t just talk about Nero and Gandhi and Akbah etc. There's this beautiful scene - it's very moving because it feels so real, where he and his wife, Tahira, who are… Tahira is quite different from him. I love the description of her. It's towards the end of the book, but I wouldn't be giving anything away if it's all yeah, if I quote from it.

And this is what Anjum Hassan, the author of this book, the NARRATOR, not Anjum, but the narrator says about Tahira, ‘who is someone who lives in a mixed neighbourhood and follows her religion, wears a hijab and drives a car, reads both moral lessons and marketing texts.’ There are a lot of complications and contradictions in Tahira’s… the way you have rendered to her on the page.

She resists every single stereotype of the Muslim woman. She's also very different from her husband, and she wants different things from what he wants. I was wondering if you could talk about that relationship and the rendering of these two contrasting characters. Also, actually, there's a love between them.

Anjum Hasan: Absolutely. Yeah. When I started out describing Tahira, I was not sure how she would turn out because I was putting all my energies into Alif. He was the guy I wanted to come alive on the page. He had all the angles, he had the richness, the depth, he had the history, and Tahira would just be this foil who was everything he was not.

But in a very obvious way, he's not the guy who's ever going to go... He goes to sit on the steps of the mosque, but he never actually goes in there to pray. He's not an Orthodox believer. He doesn't follow the religion to the letter at all. He is culturally a Muslim, but not… and maybe spiritually as well… but absolutely not in the ritualistic sense.

And he's somebody who was very interested in the history of Islam, but not the politics. Right. So… and I think because he's a historian, he doesn't take anything personally. And everything about the politics now is about taking things personally, feeling personally offended, taking affront at things that have happened to people of your religion, of your ethnicity, of your tribe, whatever.

That's the nature of the politics today. And so Alif is a kind… to me, it's very dear that there's somebody who doesn't always jump up and say, ‘I'm offended because you're doing this to my… to something that I belong to’. And I thought, Tahira is going to be different. She's  obviously be very clear about being a Muslim, but she's also very ambitious.

She's studying to do an MBA. She wants to move up the corporate ladder. She's very unhappy in this little place where they're staying. She wants to move to a better neighbourhood. So in a way, she has what I thought of as sort of typical 21st century ambitions. Right? She's not immune to them just because she happens to be wearing a hijab to work or somebody who knows all the parables to do with, you know, the prophet and the caliphs and all of that religious history.

She has all that, but she's also a modern Indian woman. But then as I started writing her, I realised that she can't just be that stereotype. She's got to have a voice and a life. And I think it came for me in realising that she is much more worldly and practical than Alif. And in certain situations, as you say, he's just completely ineffective.

And so I was trying to create that contrast between, again, I use the term 21st century, and I think it is the century of a lot of political antagonisms everywhere, but it's also the century where you're supposed to be on top of change. You're supposed to be on top of how fast things are moving and move faster than them. Right?

That's the demand on you… especially if you're working in in the corporate world as she is. So to me, that kind of character is very, very intimidating and interesting. But I thought Tahira is just so smart and, you know, Alif has to be on the back foot sometimes with her because she just understands better how to deal with the world and that I can't slight that. I can't look belittle that quality because it is a very necessary thing.

And their child, Saleem, the teenager is already so aware that she is the one he has to deal with. And please, because Alif is just of no account at all. He's… as a parent, is very loving. But he doesn't he puts no challenges in Saleem’s path.. the things Saleem wants to do. Like he wants to drop out of school already.

He's 14 years old and there are things he feels he could do better without a school degree. But he knows he has to convince his mother because she is the one who is, you know, wearing the pants in the family. So that was the contrast that I that I set up. And I think that enabled them to have real conversations and real fights. And rather than she just be this sort of just superficially worldly figure, I think she's a real woman.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah, she's a real woman. And in particular, there's this one scene, which is actually the only point in the book that I felt, ‘Alif, say something!’ It's… so it was a very moving scene for me because I have heard so many incidents like that happening in Mumbai and everywhere in India. In fact, just yesterday, someone texted… someone posted on Twitter, the head of JP Morgan, the head of JP Morgan, went to Gujarat, he’s Indian background - and tried to try to rent an apartment, but was refused because of his caste.

So it's not religion in this case, but caste. But in this… So India is full of you know, challenges like that ongoing political constraints and violence, really. But this particular scene that I would like you to talk a little bit about, at the rear at the flat that they have gone to inspect and that there are the two Hindu men who seemingly… they seem benign.

And Ali's completely, you know, does not see past that facade. But Tahira very quickly realizes that their aim is to humiliate her and Alif. And that was just such a powerful, very moving scene. And I was wondering if you would just tell us about what you were trying to do in that scene and those two characters.

And it's very controlled. It's a very sophisticated kind of communal move that they make. It's not overtly communal and it's not overtly violent. But Tahira senses it, Alif doesn’t. And in fact, Alif somehow also again, reaches for history in that moment.

Anjum Hasan: Yeah. He ends up talking about like ancient India and how during the Gupta era in the fifth century, there were this idea that India was a very rich culture. And this potential landlord is somebody who wants to idealise the Indian past and ask, ‘How is it that we were so well-off?’ People came to India to buy things from us and traded in gold and we had the highest glories of and where did it all go wrong?

So, you know, this romanticisation of the Indian past and Alif actually feels sorry for the guy, you know, because he feels that he's in the grip of this passion and nothing Alif says is going to make it better. And Alif’s own presence as a Muslim, even though he's an Indian Muslim in the 21st century, like centuries passes, those Muslim invaders came and changed the composition of the country so he could hardly be held responsible for that historical shift.

And yet at some point he says he.. if it would make the guy feel better to apologise, he would apologise for what happened a thousand years ago. So I think, again, it's this historical sympathy. It's not just understanding the past and what happened and maybe the inevitability of historical change. It's also seeing how people can start to believe that, you know, these things could have happened in another way and then India would not have been the country that it turned out to be, to feel that, you know, you could have changed the past if things turned out differently, if this set of people didn't come, and then if the British didn't come, and to keep having these historical fantasies.

He's constantly meeting people, having historical fantasies. And if he can't disabuse them of the futility of these fantasies, then the best he can do is to say, ‘I'm so sorry’. So he's so caught in that conversation about this… this Indian past that he doesn't actually pick up, that they also bullying his wife. And they're being, like you said, sort of passive aggressive… there are two of them.

So one is passive, the other is aggressive. And yeah, it is a moment when maybe he should have. He should. So again, that's where I try and show that Tahira’s much more seized of what's going on in the moment. And I left tends to go off into a sort of reverie himself. But I also think there is a sense in which in India we have always lived with some degree of prejudice.

Of course we have lived with so much difference, right? It is a country that's based on difference. And the whole idea, I think, of the founding fathers of the modern nation, the Nehrus and the Gandhis that that you mentioned earlier was like, can we make a sort of virtue out of all this, out of the problem, you know, like… sort of necessity is the mother of invention kind of thing.

So you have to invent the idea of a country where all this difference, all this diversity, all this plurality itself is the point. We are Indian because there's all these differences. So they cobbled together this idea from just this impossible continent. And to me, I think that's still very valuable. And it runs through this novel. The idea that, that was just such a daring creation.

It was a myth, of course, right, as these things tend to be all I think all nations are founded on these large myths. And that was the Indian myth that even though we're all so different, we can somehow come together and imperfectly live together. And I think Alif still believes that there was some value in that, even though it was never it was never going to be perfect.

It was never going to work smoothly. But it did work somehow, in a sense, however slapdash, it did work all these years. And now we're questioning that idea, which even to me is… because I don't know if there's… we haven't come up with a better idea. So all of this is in his mind and he's still far later that, you know, yes, there is aggression.

But then what about the countries around us? How are they treating minorities there? So again, again, he's zooming out and taking the large view. Right. It doesn't help because she's very upset. And, you know, it's a very…

Roanna Gonsalves: She’s humiliated.

Anjum Hasan: She's humiliated. So how do you balance the personal affront with this idea that, you know, that there is there is a larger historical logic that's at work here?

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah. There's so many things that you said that are making me think of a million other things. But I just want to go back to that idea of love and the importance of actually loving a place and loving a character to life. I know I said I wanted to shake Alif up at certain points, but I was completely in his head and seeing Delhi through his world and completely sympathetic to him and moved by everything he was doing.

And I love Alif. And I think that's because you, as a writer have loved him into being. The other thing I love about him is - one of the things I love about him - is the fact that he resists those easy binaries between East and West, between Hindu and Muslim. There are some beautiful lines in this book, including one that says ‘The East is implicit in the West. The West is implicit in the East.’

But I think an even more powerful line is when he talks about the Muslim history of India and he says there is no Muslim history of India, because when you go back far enough, all you find are entanglements. And I have goose bumps seeing those words because it's just so beautiful and so true, so true. You cannot separate the Muslim history of… there's no such thing as Alif says. Yeah.

Anjum Hasan: And I think that characters from both sides who would like to see these things as separate, I don't think it's only people of one religion who are asking for a more sort of clear cut Hindu history of India or Muslim history of India. I think it's coming from both sides to say that.. it's sort of a unpacking, untangling, which, like I say, is just is just impossible now.

But I think basically what we're trying to do is create new myths to supplant those older ones and that all the history. But one book that I think was very important to me as I was writing this, it's spirit more than anything that's directly said, though I do quote from that book as well. It's not the holy book, not any holy book, but what do I call it?

It's of course, it's a book of history, but it's also a very personal account of being an Indian. It's called The Discovery of India by a man called Jawaharlal Nehru, written when he was not the Prime Minister of India, he would go on to become the country's first prime minister when India became independent of the British in 1947, and he wrote it in the years just before. It's written in the 1940s.

He's in prison, starting from the early 1940s, for being part of this anti-colonial movement. In 1942, I think it started. And so he goes off to prison, everything happens and he's still in prison. The Second World War is raging and he writes this incredibly reflective book on just the sweep of the ages as seen from an Indian point of view.

And to Alif is a touchstone, that book, because, I mean, you can just not imagine a prime minister today, I don't know, in India or anywhere in the world writing a book like that..

Roanna Gonsalves: Certainly not in Australia.

Anjum Hasan: … which is so erudite. Right? But that apart, I mean, you're just wondering, how did he get all these books in prison? Where what are his sources? Because does he know all of this in his head? And then I realise, no, he's actually talking to a lot of other Indian public figures who are in prison with him and who also knew a lot.

So it's just a wonderful record of that era, apart from being, like I said, just a book of Indian history and very readable, beautifully written. So Alif as you would have noticed, is often saying, Nehru said this and the discovery of India, and he mentions it passing now and then. But to me, what's also very wonderful about that book is how Nehru inserts himself into that history, right?

So it becomes like not just ‘This is my country’, but ‘What's my destiny as an Indian?’, given that this is this has been the past of this country and this whole idea, like you said, of the West and the East being implicit in each other, it's a very Nehruvian idea, you know, because he talks about how the one civilization that India had most in common with in ancient times is actually the Greek.

You know, they had they had the same ideas of polytheism, they had the same rituals of worship, image worship, idol worship probably even came to India from the Greeks, he says. So there's these just very radical ideas making connections between ancient civilizations that seemed counter intuitive today, you know, So there's all of that wonderful insights. But there's also this idea that India has a destiny because it has grand past.

It's taken from so many different cultures and it's made itself into this layered subcontinent. It's got to have something to give the world now, you know? And so he's leading up to independence and is leading up to the fact that now that we're free, we have to seize this past and use it as our inheritance.

So for me, again, it's… I'm repeating what I said earlier I think. The idea that we have this mixed past is really the most valuable thing. And Nehru, for all his blindspots, I mean, politically… there's no way one can idolise him because there are things he did that just don't, you know, can’t pass muster. But his vision for the country is still breathtaking I think.

So I wanted to write a novel that sort of recalls some of this liberal beliefs about, the country, and to not render Alif or render any of the liberal characters as just, you know, being politically liberal. But more, I think, just instinctively liberal. And I'm so glad you said you like, you love Alif, because for me, it's more important that he's open minded, he's reflective and not so much who he votes for and where he stands in terms of the debates of the day.

Because in terms of the debates of the day, you're always going to be partisan, right? Because the debates are so polarised. So to step back from that and show a character who just wants to make space for people to have their say, or for children to be able to learn history in a more open ended, broad minded way. That's the kind of character that I wanted to write and it's only possible to do in fiction. You can’t do it in any other form anymore. Yeah.

Roanna Gonsalves: Absolutely. In the time we have left, I would love for you to talk a little bit about life as a teacher, a schoolteacher, teacher of history in in this school that actually his reaching for history, his insistence on the East and West not being separate binaries, his reflective stance on everything, everything that's beautiful about him that's really tested.

I won't give things away because there are things that happen in relation to, you know.. there are consequences for the kind of person he is. Would you like to read little bit from your book?

Anjum Hasan: Yeah, I'll just read a couple of pages. So not entirely directly about him in the classroom, but he is in the school and there's a new principal in school, a new headmistress, and he's sort of already, very early days, but starting to have run ins with her because his style of teaching and rather freewheeling attitude to the classroom -taking kids out, he takes them on an outing and he doesn't follow the protocols as he should be doing, actually – And so she is already unhappy with him. And there's a little boy who doesn't get along with - and Alif is very good with children - but this boy is proving to be a really difficult case. And so she's called him to her office to have a talk about this.

Roanna Gonsalves: Because the boy says something really awful to him, which even in his own defence is unable to repeat.

Anjum Hasan: Yeah, he's unable to repeat - and it's insulting and he doesn't know how to handle it. But now this little bit that I'm reading, it's a few days after that and she's invited him to have a talk. Her name is Mrs. Rawa:

“So she hems and haws to begin with, inviting Alif to share her joy at the success of Sports Day and her excitement at what's up next. The once annual but now bi annual play following her project of bringing on a renaissance… “

So she's just doing a lot of activities, new activities in school and trying to change things around.

“Following her project of bringing on a Renaissance, Rawat has discovered another field that urgently requires her attention; the degraded environment. She is gearing up for an extravaganza on the theme of devastated nature and on every wall of her office are posters featuring glaringly overexposed photos and large fonted legends.

Nature's Fury, Why Man should Revear Nature, Musings in the Lap of Nature and Nature Never Did Betray the One Who Loved Her. Alif makes polite noises while taking it all in, glancing too at the glitter on her fingernails and wondering if the lady herself has ever really dirtied her hands with nature. Mrs. Rawat asks if he would like to help with one particular segment of the play teaching the chorus, a Sanskrit song about nature's maternal qualities, him being a historian and all that.

He should be able to dig out the appropriately Vedic sounding verses. Alif apologises at once, says he cannot sing and knows no songs. ‘Please don't joke. Alif sir’, she says. ‘We are depending on you.’ And then she gives him a breakdown of the planned performance. The bandits dressed in black will represent the evil excess of carbon we produce that has messed up the ozone layer and the angels dressed in white to stand in for all the innocent icecaps that are melting because of our wrongdoings and so on.

‘Sounds nice’, says Alif, trying to make his voice sound, if not nice, then at least neutral. ‘And before I forget, I wanted to let you know that Ankit of class for C, she interrupts him swiftly. ‘Ankit came in just now, crying. He must have said something very, very naughty for you to scold him yet again’. So he's beaten him to it.

Alif looks at a square, heavily powdered face, the lips painted a sticky pink, and he wonders if he will ever be able to penetrate this armour and have a genuine conversation with her. He misses Mrs. Bunt, a rational woman free of make-up who had occupied this chair when Alif joined the school, and then being ensconced in it for many years prior too. Directing the development of this little place, urging on the students, fraternising with the teachers. She would have left it Alif and Ankit to sort out this minor altercation and get on with more important things. ‘Mr. Alif Mohammad’, says Mrs. Rawat.

She's been fiddling with her keyboard and now gives him a stern look. ‘What exactly happened at Humayun's tomb? I hear Ankit was lost. You left him behind and went around with the others and then  on the way back, you attacked him, threatened to throw him out of the rickshaw’. The facts are fast losing their relevance, Alif explains how the kid deliberately mistook the tomb for a mosque, how he decided to dislike it without really even looking at it, and then ran away and hid himself.

‘I pulled his ear. I admit I shouldn't have done that’, he adds with a weak smile. ‘Won't happen again’. And you threaten to kill him, sir? ‘Of course not. Of course not. No such thing’. ‘It's against the rules in the school, sir. Touching a child.’ Alif wishes she would cut out that condescending, ‘sir’. He does not want to repeat what Ankit said to him.

He just cannot bring this into every discussion. This damn disjunction Hindu, Muslim Muslim, Hindu. All that matters is detailing the child's corruption and owning up to his mistake. ‘He was harassing me’, says Alif. ‘Then he took off to spite me, and I had to deal with the cops who also harassed me. Harassment, you see’. ‘And why could you not discuss this with me instead?’

‘He's a tough kid, a sportsman, not one to break down so easily. Children need to be handled with care’. Alife is not about to say anything out loud. He never messes with authority, however annoying the colour of their nail polish. ‘Yes, of course. But Ankit is blasphemous. He condemns history. That's the only serious thing that happened. ‘You are into history and so on. But I have heard you don't teach it the proper way. One day you are telling the children about Gandhi, Nehru. The next day you have jumped to Harrapa at Mohenjo Daro. Third day you are on to go Gol Gumbad Bijapur. What is the system? Why don't you follow the order of the textbook? You are confusing them’. ‘I want to surprise them. Pulling things out of the pages of history, showing it to them not as something that had to happen but contingent.

Do you know, madam when an event becomes historical? By which I mean of historical value? When we are able to remind ourselves of its unexpectedness.’ ‘And when the exams come, they don't seem to be doing any better than kids from other schools only because their teacher is jumbling up the whole story.’ ‘I would like them to see India says Alif, ‘not as any one thing with any one obvious destiny.’ ‘India?’ asked Mrs. Rawat with the sudden alertness of one who counts herself among the nations guardians.

Roanna Gonsalves: That's just bitingly funny, but also really heartbreaking if you read what happened before. And then as the book progressed is because Alif is really one of the few people in the school who actually cares about children in the truest sense of, you know, that teacher kind of vocation and sense of nurturing. And there are some beautiful scenes where he sees his children and he says, this is all he knows what to do. Just really gorgeous. But I could go on and on. But I think it is time to open up to questions from the audience. We have some questions coming through on Slido, but there are some mics up here and if you have any questions, feel free to come up to the mics and we will have the time for questions.

There are a few questions here on Slido. ‘What thematically do you want to write about next?’

Anjum Hasan: What am I going to write next? Yeah, like I mentioned, did I mention already that I'm working on a book on my hometown? Yes, I did. So I grew up in a part of the country that's considered a little remote from the rest of the subcontinent. It's in the north east. A lot of it is quite hilly, topographically, sort of sub-Himalayan, culturally very different from either mainstream Hindu or mainstream Muslim.

A lot of it is Christian or pre-Christian tribal faith. And I grew up there with sort of mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage. But inner city, that was like a very, very important colonial centre for the whole of the region. It was the capital of Islam for 150 years. It's called Shillong. So it has a very fascinating history to me because very much a centre of colonial activity, a lot of missionary activity from all parts of the Western world.

I went to a school that was started by Irish nuns and they were still around in my time. And so there's that. But there's also the culture of the people native to the city, which is still very much part of its character. And I just am fascinated by Shillong. I've been fascinated by it even as I grew up there and I've written fiction and poetry and essays and novels set there, but I'm not done with it yet.

So this book that I'm writing actually is the first time I'm trying my hand at nonfiction, and it's an attempt to do something like a people's history of a city. Not as ambitious as like, you know, a true blooded historian's people history. I don't have the skills to do that, but I have the novelists, hopefully the novelists skills.

So I'm just finding people who are willing to talk to me at length and just bringing their voices and creating a portrait of the city through the voices of very different kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds. It's still not done. I'm not even halfway there. So but that's what I'm hoping, fingers crossed. Next time I'm here it will be with that book. Yeah, that's what I'm trying.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah, that's great. So a couple of questions about India. ‘What is it about India that you most want non-Indian readers to understand and what troubles you most about India today?’

Anjum Hasan: I think the idea that there's something you must understand, or countries present these riddles that have to be somehow cracked… Well, I'm not sure I really subscribe to that idea because I don't understand India myself. And it's not… I don't know if there's any one way to understand the country. I think for me, any culture, any country is really about experience.

You know, how do we experience it? And as long as you're open to varieties of experience, that's wonderful. That's as good as it gets for me. And most people who come there as travellers, as long as you don't just I mean.. even if you just come and sit on a beach in Goa, that's fine, if that's what you want to do.

I don't think there is any prescribed way of understanding a country. But the fact is that, okay, the beach in Goa is great, but if you do then start to explore the country. You will find that there are many ways in which to experience it. And that's all really the openness to the fact that it's many different things, the country.

And it's really like… somebody said, I think it was a historian, I don't remember her name. It's often quoted that ‘Anything you say about India, the opposite is also true’, you know, So there's no way you can sum up… you can reduce the country to any sort of, you know, digestible capsule. So yeah, so that's the question about understanding. And what was the other one?

Roanna Gonsalves: But in terms of understanding this is just a beautiful, beautiful rendering of the complexity of Alif Mohammed’s Delhi. I strongly urge you to read this book. It’s just… I was born and raised in India and I learnt so much about resisting stereotypes about cities and about people… and just a gorgeous rendering of a particular version of Delhi. Thank you for writing the book. What troubles you most about India today?

Anjum Hasan: So many things. my God, I think we could have better pavements because here and just sitting in in Sydney, I'm just like, I could live on the side.. what do you call them? Sidewalks or pavements here?  My God, neither: ‘Footpaths!’. Yeah, we could have better footpaths. Let's start with the basic. Let's start from the ground level.

Right. Because both my husband and I, both my husband and I like to walk in the city, but it's getting so hard to walk in a city is because I have to be. The footpaths are there or they are broken or they are taken over by people who are selling things from them or living on them. So it is it is difficult, but you still feel there should be a way in which the basic just walking from point A to point B is possible. It doesn't feel like a challenge. I think I would just leave it at that because it would… I think it would take hours to get into everything else that needs to be fixed. But footpaths, we need footpaths.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah, that's a beautiful response because in order to fix the footpath you need to abolish inequality and poverty.

Anjum Hasan: There's also corruption, corruption and also mediocre engineering skills. So many things need to be bettered.

Roanna Gonsalves: Was there a book you read which inspired you to become a writer?

Anjum Hasan: That's very hard to answer because I think I wanted to be a writer almost before I knew I wanted to be a writer. If that makes sense? It was already somehow in my subconscious just because I grew up in a very bookish household and was always a bookworm. So it all almost felt like very, very unpremeditated. And I think everything I've read in some ways has gone into that ambition.

Even things that I read that I don't take to or like, teach me something about the writing. So I can't say it was any one book. But yeah, I think what you, what one reads in childhood does stay with you for a long time. So yeah, I remember reading Thorn Birds, Is that a thing in India?

And it's Picnic at Hanging Rock also. Yeah. So all these Australian things from the school library, I don't know if people read them anymore, but I think there was a long period in India up to when I was a child at least, I don't know about you Roanna, where everybody was reading the same things from for a very long period, and then everything suddenly changed.

I think maybe in the 1990 or the 2000, and partly because Indian publishing itself picked up and there were more things you could read from the country. But we grew up reading a lot of things from outside. So and I think even people much older than me up to even maybe my mother's generation, if they went to the same sort of school, would have read the same things. It's incredible.

Roanna Gonsalves: You had a question. Do you mind coming up to the mic? Thanks.

Audience 1: I worked both in Bombay and in Delhi before coming to Australia and grew up in the south. And so I've been here for 30 years. I'm all over the place. So I love both of the cities, but I grew up in Mysore, which is what I love most. My question was when I went to college in Mysore and then in Madras, also in Delhi at some point. Anyway, when I was a student and I was growing up in India, you know, this level of politics or this level of, you know, the polarity, if I can call it, did not exist.

You know, like even in.. either politically or even in life. And like for instance, when I when I was in college, there was only one lady who used to wear the full burqa. And any of us who wanted to run to a movie without our parents knowing would borrow the burqa. And then we would wear it and go see a movie and it was all like.. it was a burqa that went around.

And there was it was just that… there was nothing more attached to it. My question was, you know, did you.. I haven't read the book, so I'm definitely have bought it and I'll get it signed by you. And I’ll read it, of course, but a generation ago I have I get the feeling because I grew up there, this kind of thing was not there.

I grew up on Discovery of India. My father thought that was the Bible, which we all had to read in India. So that was in college. I it was like it was my thing. And of course, Thorn Birds and Atlas Shrugged and all those things. I grew up on all of that. But like the one generation before, like my generation, we didn't see I mean, it was there, but it was never really this kind of thing.

So is that something that you have encountered or explored or feel that it has changed now than it was before? Because I live you know, I grew up in a convent, and when my father got transferred, I lived with the nuns in Mysore. Then I went to Haiti and then I my neighbours were Muslim. So we lived. I grew up without that.

Have you seen the transition and have you explored that or I mean, it is disturbing for those of us who have seen that part of India where this difference was not there. So are you exploring that? Does it, you know, from your parents’ generation? Is that something that you plan to explore or does it play a part at all in today's India?

Anjum Hasan: Great to hear that you're from Mysore. That has actually got footpaths. Good footpaths. If there's any city that has good footpaths, Mysore. So and it's a beautiful city as well. Yeah, there is definitely a change. I think there's also a reaction. It's a lot of people are behaving in a reactionary way. So we're using the symbols of our religion, whatever they are, whether it's in dress, it's in worship, it's in food habits, much more explicitly, much more loudly, you know, and I think it's happening across the board.

And I think people who are in a minority feel that they have to do that to assert something about their faith, because they feel, I think, on the back foot. So what does one say about it? That is the cultural moment. That is the political moment. And there is a discussion about it in the novel actually, where a character, Alif’s mother does not feel sympathy for people who want to dress in a particular way. But his wife, on the other hand, does proudly wear a hijab, and there's no argument against either character. I think they're both right in their own ways, and they're never shown actually having an argument about it because they stay out of each other’s, they stay out of each other's paths.

But yeah, I don't know. I mean, I don't wear a burqa and I'm never going to do it. But if the next person wants to, I can't see a reason why, you know, they shouldn't. It's more like the history of, how have you been brought up and what does freedom mean to you? And there are young women who say they feel liberated wearing a hijab.

And I think if that's your experience, that's very credible. So… but yeah, the novel does show tensions between different ways of looking at this. So if you if you read it, you will find something.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah. Different and different ways of being Muslim that completely resists all stereotypes that you hear in the public discourse. That's often the Hindu perspective.

Audience 2: Um hello. I’m Lychee, I'm a student here at uni.

I just wanted to ask, have you always made like real-life locations a character in your works? Or have you like, more so focused on people, or have you always had this thing where you wanted to make the world itself as much of a character as your main character?

Anjum Hasan: That's a good question. And I was just asked last week by a student the same question in Bangalore where I live. I did this talk at a college, and that was the first question from the audience. And they actually study some of my stories. It's on the syllabus. Some of my short stories which are.. happen to be mostly set in Bangalore.

One is set in Shillong and they're like, why? Why are the places so important? Are they are you thinking of them as characters as much as people? And I didn't realise that I'm doing that. I mean, I don't think of myself as consciously doing that, but it's just… I think to me, the fiction that I love tends to be very specific to place.

You know, you can't imagine the classic 19th century novels without their settings, right? How can you take away London from Dickens, Wessex from Thomas Hardy or, you know… and the Russians? I mean, how can you take away, not just the cities, but that whole social paraphernalia  and still have those stories? Those are so important. And I think while there's no way I could ever write with that much knowledge about a middle you, to me that still remains the model.

And so place is very important to me, and I don't think places are interchangeable and they do affect the way the characters move and think and eventually how things turn out for them. And I also, I think, tend to write characters who are at an angle to the places they find themselves in. So they're also asking themselves, ‘What am I doing here?’

‘What's my feeling for this place where I've just arrived or where I've always lived?’ like Alif is doing with Delhi. So there's also that going on. The conversation is not only about their own lives, but also their relationship to where they are. That's part of the story. So yeah, yeah, it's a bit of both.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yeah. Good question. Can you explain how you chose the title of your book? And you know, if the most important tools for a young fiction writer to learn, what do you think they might be? Sorry. I snuck in. Two questions. Made them into one.

Anjum Hasan: Yeah, I'm going to just answer the title of one I think. So the title is from an essay, one could call it an essay, but it's really a series of small little reflections or meditations by the German philosopher, historian, writer Walter Benjamin thesis on the Philosophy of History. It's a very well known piece of writing by Walter Benjamin on the idea of, basically what is history good for?

What do we do with this knowledge of the past? And he's coming from a very left-wing Marxist take where his whole thing is, it's not enough to know the past as just information or as just the setting of what happened, or as just the ground for a projection into the future. We have to use the past for revolutionary action.

We have to seize that image from the past that will make us act. And the inspiration for the essay is a painting by Paul Klee called The Angel of History. And it's quite a disturbing image of an angel looking figure who has his face turned in one direction. But it seems like his wings are propelling him in another direction.

And it's this idea of being against your will, thrown into the future. But your instincts, your sympathies are still with the past. There’s something in the force that's still holding you back. So I thought that would be a nice resonant title to use for Alif because.. partly he himself is that kind of figure.

Roanna Gonsalves: Very much.

Anjum Hasan: He's sort of caught, but it's also he's also somebody who knows that essay. He's somebody who would know that essay and is often quoting from it and thinking about that critical sort of moment in the history of Europe when just as the Nazis were taking over, Walter Benjamin is thinking about history and what it can do. So those were the thoughts. But it also may have meanings if you don't know the essay, because I don't really mention Walter Benjamin..

Roanna Gonsalves: No.

Anjum Hasan: …upfront. So there's also maybe little things that you can derive from the title if you're reading it against Alif’s story.  That was the hope.

Roanna Gonsalves: Yes - and on that note of hope, please join me in thanking Anjum Hasan for this beautiful conversation..

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit And don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan is the author of four novels and two short story collections, which have been shortlisted for the Indian Academy of Letters Prize, the Sahiya Akademi Award, the Hindu Best Fiction Award and the Crossword Fiction Award, as well as being longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in New York Review of Books, Granta, Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, among many others.

Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves is an award-winning writer and educator with an interdisciplinary practice. She is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of short fiction, The Permanent Resident. Her series of radio documentaries about contemporary India, On the tip of a billion tongues, and her social-satirical radio essay Doosra: The life and times of an Indian student in Australia were commissioned and broadcast by ABC RN. She works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at UNSW Sydney.

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