Shillong, farewell

Anjum Hasan explores the excitement of big-city life

The Knowledge
The Knowledge

When Anjum Hasan moved to Bangalore at the age of 26, she had a degree in philosophy from the North-Eastern Hill University, two suitcases and a desire to experience the world beyond Shillong. But the journey came with its own baggage – a sense of dislocation. ‘I felt doomed for a little while because after the excitement of the city, you can no longer go back and re-enter the boredom of the small town, and yet you miss it in a completely irrational way,’ the author tells Time Out.

It’s been 11 years since Hasan moved to Bangalore, but the memories of that transition echo through Neti, Neti, her second novel. Like Hasan, the protagonist of the book, Sophie Das, was born in Shillong and grew up there. And like Hasan, Sophie is ambivalent about her adopted home.

Still, Neti, Neti isn’t just another story of a small-town girl in the big city. You may have encountered Sophie Das before. She was a small girl in Shillong in Hasan’s first book, Lunatic in My Head. In Neti, Neti, she’s subtitling Hollywood movies for an outsourcing company and trying to find a reason to stay in the big city. Sophie attaches herself to Swami, ‘the first boy who understood the essentially s****y nature of her job and held her hand when they crossed roads’. Despite this, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Ribor, who she left behind in Shillong. Faced with this conflict, the grown-up Sophie is always turning corners and searching. ‘Each time she thinks she’s found it, it turns out she hasn’t,’ Hasan explains. ‘So neti, neti – not this, not this. Sophie is really looking for some kind of cultural underpinning, a kind of peg upon which she can hang her identity.’

Sophie’s sense of disillusionment starts to grow when she goes back to Shillong, only to discover that her home town is becoming like Bangalore. ‘It wants the same things,’ says Hasan. ‘They’re building call centres and bringing in the international brands. People are talking the language of money.’ North-easterners have an ‘increasing sense of familiarity with the rest of the country, but at the same time there is the awareness of, and even the need to establish distance from, mainland India,’ says Hasan. This ‘push and pull leads to curious results’, she says, such as when Sophie returns to Shillong driven by her love for Ribor and his remoteness from her new world, only to discover that he, too, is looking for a job in Bangalore.

The narrative of Neti, Neti emphasises the unsaid over the spoken as it explores big-city life through a self-involved protagonist. ‘Fiction is, almost by definition, psychological – it lives inside its characters’ heads,’ says Hasan. ‘As EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel, the difference between a real person and a fictional one is that you have much greater access to the inner life of a fictional character.’

Hasan offers readers an all-access pass to the inside of Sophie’s head, with all its paradoxes. With her family, Sophie is ‘conflicted between a jealous regard for her own freedom and concern about them’. Toward the moneyed classes, Sophie has a horrified fascination. Hasan explains: ‘I’m not interested in stereotypical reactions, but in the grittiness and unpredictable outcomes of human interactions across class and background.’

Sophie lives out her life mostly in her head. Calling two places home but feeling like she belongs to neither, Shillong and Bangalore, Ribor and Swami, the old and the new are divides that cause conflict for Hasan. ‘She often does notice the moral laxness and violence around her and she often tries to intervene, and often her interventions fail. So all of this just reinforces her helplessness – it’s messy out there and it’s messy inside.’
Neti, Neti is published by Roli-IndiaInk. Dhs25, available at

Book of the week

The Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer Michael Mansfield

Bloomsbury Dhs130 Available to order from Magrudy’s
Michael Mansfield QC labels his book a memoir, not an autobiography. So you won’t learn a lot about his private life. What you will get is an in-depth insight into the skills that make an outstanding barrister. He emphasises that the secret is in the three Ps: preparation, preparation, preparation. It’s all about mastering detail in order to understand fingerprint evidence, chemical analysis and medical opinion. Pretty unglamorous stuff, but Mansfield’s willingness to learn more about expert evidence than the experts themselves has enabled him to expose many dodgy theories and destroy the evidence of even dodgier witnesses.

The roll call of his cases is awesome, a passing parade of turbulent times in Britain and the seminal incidents that shaped them. The Birmingham Six, Bloody Sunday, Jill Dando, the De Menezes inquiry, the Diana inquest and the Stephen Lawrence inquiry are all his, along with IRA suspects galore. What a workload! But he is generous in praising the role played by the solicitors who instructed him, and he also lauds the tireless campaigning abilities of mothers such as Eileen Dallaglio (whose daughter died in the Marchioness disaster) and Doreen Lawrence. The former helped to create the legal doctrine of corporate manslaughter, the latter to reshape the culture of the police following the Macpherson Report and its finding of institutional racism.

Mansfield is refreshingly lacking in pomposity – surprising in any barrister, let alone a successful one.
Arthur Davidson QC

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