Difficult Pleasures

Posted: August 22, 2012

Anjum Hasan’s Difficult Pleasures is a collection of short stories that deal with the sheer essence of human life – emotion.

Review by Rashi Goel

Difficult Pleasures is a compilation of 13 short stories – each about different people feeling completely different emotions as they live out 13 absolutely different situations and lives. But they have two emotions constant – anger and sadness that go deep but are visible starkly on almost every page of this book. 

The emotions of married couples – each one’s anger and bitterness at war with their great love and caring; the innocent yet adult and coherent thoughts of children with respect to parents; the struggles of a young photographer and the triumphs of an old artist; the dreams of a village boy and the ideals of a philosophy professor – Hasan takes us up and down not just through various parts of the world, but also through various parts of our minds. As you read, you feel contradicting emotions – at times you want to support the protagonist and at times despise them. This is what makes this book so special.

Anjum Hasan’s characters are ordinary people and yet far from ordinary – the antipodes. Most of them have a simultaneous fullness and emptiness in their lives – they take the simple situations they’re in and turn them into a complex mess. They are us. They could be any one of us. They are strong. While the normal tendency is to head for the familiar and the known, these characters want to be lost for a while and then perhaps head towards uncharted territory. We can learn a thing or two from them. These characters breathe life into their stories not through their words but through their thoughts and subtle actions thereby leaving a lot to the readers’ imagination.

Personally I’m not a fan of open ended conclusions – they leave me feeling nervous and unsettled but Hasan has a way of lending a hopeful note to the ends of her stories. The kind of writing present in this book is rare – subtle yet hard hitting entwined with irony and humour. The ‘open end’ of the stories leaves you to ‘complete’ it in your head. For this reason, it took some time for me to let Hasan’s writing style grow on me.

I would have to say my favourite stories in this book are ‘Hanging On Like Death’ and ‘Birds’. Both stories depict a child’s emotions towards a parent. While one little boy Neel desperately seeks the approval of his father, the other little boy Samir tries to deal with the death of his mother. The author has portrayed the emotions of these children beautifully. Neel, his maturity, his strength and this last line of the story – “Looking up at her with an eight year old’s solemn pride, he says ‘My Father’.’”-  all moved me to tears.

In certain places Hasan’s writing style is so crisp that she expresses the most complex and confusing emotions with such ease in a single line. She is most definitely an author who has taken the time to study people and understand them as one would understand family – “…our habitual wanderings create grooves that we can comfortably slip into” is a line from ‘The Big Picture’ which is so small and simple yet so profound and full of wisdom.

While I wouldn’t put Difficult Pleasures down in my list of ‘Favourite Reads’, I would recommend it to those who don’t mind a slow read with open endings. If you’re okay with letting the book grow on you and building a fantasy at the end of each story, then this one is for you.

Publishers: Viking

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