Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head

Lunatic in My Head is one of a kind story written by Anjum Hasan. It is set in Shillong of the 1990s. The novel is an interwoven story of three main characters: an English college lecturer, Firdaus Ansari; an IAS aspirant Aman Moondy, and an eight year old, Sophie Das.

Firdaus is caught between her teaching and her wish to pursue an MPhil to safeguard her teaching post at the convent she teaches in. She is also caught between her colleagues’ personal affair dramas and her very unhelpful, lecherous potential supervisor, Thakur.

 

The novel begins with Firdaus on an April afternoon when “pine trees dripped slow tears,’ (a line that hooked me to the book immediately for its visuals) and as she walks down a street, the opening page itself gives a sweeping view of the multicultural composition of the city, from the Khasis, to Bengalis, to Goans, and to Firdaus herself, who is from Bihar but born and brought up in Shillong. Her sense of being rooted there in Shillong yet being seen as a dkhar, which is the Khasi word for non tribal or foreigner, is another of the conflicts she is entangled in.

 

Aman Moondy is studying for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams for the second time, having failed on his first attempt. His first love, however, is Pink Floyd. He and his friends, Ibomcha and Ribor, even formed a band, ProtoDreamers and played Pink Floyd’s covers for several small occasions. Aman lives and breathes music. He compares everything around him to music, including his infatuation for Concordella. He is also on the other hand, someone who dislikes the smallness of Shillong and wants to leave. This is also why he decided to give the IAS exam a shot or two. For him, it meant a window to the outside world.

 

When we first read about Sophie, she is sitting in class and wondering how the baby in her mother’s belly will come out. Sophie herself is a product of an intercultural marriage, her father, Mr. Das, being a Bengali whereas her mother a northerner. Sophie loves to read and is fascinated by her neighbour, Elsa Lyngdoh, and her house, which was the only place she was allowed to go by herself. She has strange conversations with Elsa and even stranger ones (and perhaps a touch too creepy) with her son, Jason as well. Elsa, an old Khasi woman, and an eight year old, Sophie, made for an odd couple whenever they went together for an excursion outside the house.

 

Interspersed through these main characters are stories of other eclectic characters too such as Aman’s friend, Ribor, whose brother is a thug or Mr. Das’ struggles to get a job; or Nivedita, Firdaus’ colleague, who is dealing with her husband having an affair; or the strict Mother Gertrude, the principal of the convent and the eccentric beauty parlour owner, Sharon, who is ‘a quarter-British, a quarter-Assamese of the tea planter variety and half-Khasi.’

The set of characters the novel explores itself portrays the ethnic composition of the city and one of the themes the story portrays is the tribal versus non tribal issue that still rages on. The spotlight on it is subtle, something that lurks behind seemingly routine things of life such as when a migrant, Sarak Singh, an aloo muri vendor, was threatened by three boys in leather jacket or when Sophie felt utterly ashamed of herself amidst a Khasi gathering with Elsa or even Aman who always feels the duality of belonging and not belonging.

 

Anjum Hasan gives no straightforward answers because there are none. The novel ends from where it began – Firdaus teaching Hemingway. The closing is not grandiose but an affirmation of change (even if unremarkable) and making peace (however tenuous) with your own sense of identity.

 

Although first published in 2007, Lunatic in my Head is still relevant to today’s India, as it is riddled by extremism and hatred for the other, for the outsider and where your identity is increasingly being attached to fixed, political categories, leaving no space for any fluidity and understanding of those who do not fit in into neat compartments.

 

A final literary tidbit: The title of the novel comes from Pink Floyd’s song, Brain Damage, which makes one wonder whether similar lunatics, having an identity crisis, run through all our heads as well!

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A Pitch for Love by Kartik Kompella

It’s been a while since I read a light-hearted fiction. My bookshelf is laden heavily with serious subjects that I used to feel embarrassed when someone wanted to borrow a lighter read. So, when I picked ‘A Pitch for Love’, it was a welcome change, especially after letting myself drown in Franz Kafka for a week. Just as I began to read, I knew I should thank the author for two things. One, the book wasn’t Mahabharata retold from Adhiratha’s point of view or Ramayana rewritten in Sumitra’s perspective. Two, the language, which used to be one of the important reasons I prefer not to read the so-called best-selling contemporary Indian authors.

Karthik Kompella has been a successful non-fiction author and editor with five books to his credits. ‘A Pitch for Love’ is his seventh book and debut in fiction. The book is a tale of office romance but Kartik’s female protagonist, Prachi, is no ‘damsel in distress’. She is the kind of career woman every girl aspires to be. She is smart, independent, and wildly successful. She reigns as the advertising queen. Drona, the male protagonist, on the other hand, reminded me of Vijay Devarakonda, the new prince of romance. On one hand, Drona is reckless and carefree and on another, he is sensitive and responsible. Either way, Kartik makes him look adorable.

Drona and Prachi, literally meet by an accident and, Drona gets employed by Prachi. The rest of the story is about whether these two found their way to each other’s heart. Before they get there, they had to deal with a lot of rivalries, office politics, and setbacks. And then there are Janaki, Ganapathi, Hizmout and others who remind you of the different kind of people you meet at any workplace. Since the story unfolds in the unconventional world of advertising, you get a sneak peek into how pitches are conceived and won amidst cutthroat competition. The chapters where Drona and Prachi work to win a tough client or deal with an extraordinary situation are quite creative and exciting. The book is also full of wittiness in conversations making it a ‘peppy’ read.

The author is also founder of a Brand consulting agency and that should explain the frequent mentions of brand names like Verna, Enfield, Jimmy Choos, Diesel Jeans etc. in the first few chapters. It was indeed distracting, but this problem seemed to have fixed itself in the later chapters and Kartik lets you ease into the story. One other thing, which I could have preferred otherwise, is the too much detailing of how a character looks, especially the female ones. While it might build the interest initially, it also becomes a drag after a while. Irrespective of all that, the book is a page-turner and the author successfully will convince you of Drona’s charm that you almost forgive him for all his amorous conquests.  Although a good part of the story happens inside the office premises, the events that happen beyond the office are the truly romantic ones. Prachi unwinding with her friend from past, Prachi’s dates with David, Drona’s adventure with Parvathi, Janaki’s time with Drona etc., and last but not the least, the Guy Fawkes day celebration etc. make a delightful read. So, if you are looking for an unconventional read in romance, ‘A Pitch for Love’ is a good choice.