‘When will it all end?’
And from somewhere in the jumble of non sequiturs that was her mind, Killer Queen drew out a miraculously logical answer. ‘It will end on the last page’.
“Neti, Neti” expands to “Na-iti, Na-iti”, the Sanskrit for “Not this, not this” literally. More semantically it is meant to mean “Neither this, nor that”. Metaphorically, it is Sophie Das’ search for Home – her own Shillong and the bigger and glitzier Bangalore. Which one will it be? Where will she fit in? Where can she fit in?
Feeling lost, having been kicked out of one’s own childhood, struggling to settle into the mirage that adulthood is. The story of everyone in his/her 20s. Can you go back to your Home when adulthood doesn’t work for you? That job that you did not like, or was kicked out from? That relationship that did not work out? Will that “home” still be there for you? Will it still be “home” for that matter?
This is a bildungsroman, tracing the growing up of Sophie Das, the same Sophie we see in Lunatic in my head as an 8 year old, troubled and confused over her parents, who are dealing with their own crises. There was Firdaus, who was the Sophie Das of NN, Aman, struggling to figure out what comes next after college. Indifferent, absent parents.
And there was Shillong. A small town, standing in the background, which everyone hates, and wants to leave, but struggling to get used to anywhere else. “It’s hot and dusty in the plains. And they call us Chinese.” They come straight back Home.
And there is Bangalore in NN, the stand-in for the big, bad city that lures you in with its promises of riches, of its happily ever afters with cars, apartments, movies and a Life. Except that it’s a chase all over again. For the US, for the UK, for Australia. For a different Happily Ever After where you don’t have to struggle so much, or deal with the dust or traffic or the cops who speak their own language. Some promised land where you can belong. Or just a ceaseless aspiration for something better? Feels like your 20s?
There is a restlessness about the way Hasan writes that makes you feel claustrophobic. Shillong, with its wetness, its coolness, and with its trapped residents. Some having moved in to escape their lives in the plains, now unable to leave. Those who grew up here without ever having a claim, the dhkaar. Then the locals who belong, but struggle to come to terms with the changing facades. “There is no hope here.”
Then there is Bangalore. Fast moving, stuck in a state of perennial movement, unable to stop. Cars, apartments, places to live, the next promotion. Things to constantly lure you on, to keep you on the treadmill. How do you stop? How do you get off? What happens when you do that?
Hasan’s description of Bangalore is chilly, sterile, like the glass buildings that dot the city. Yes, there is the tendency to pitch in as many tropes as possible. The traffic, the language issues, the taps running dry, the pseudo gurus. But there’s an interconnectedness that she tries to show, which fails to come off. In a city where you can go years before seeing someone you know on the street, it is hard to believe that the same characters keep bumping into each other and someone seems to know some other character through some connection. And most of them stand in for some bashing about the city.
But the alienation stands out. You’re on your own most of the time. There can be some help from your friends, but do not count on it all the time. It can be as claustrophobic as a small town and the only way to escape is to get on the treadmill and run with the rest.
There was C.K Meena’s “Black Lentil Doughnuts”, another excellent take on alienation in Bangalore, but eventually coming to terms with it, loving it and making one’s home here. But that was a different Bangalore, a small town of the 80s that we all loved, with the action in Cubbon Park or Queen’s Road, with Koshy’s and Church street as the hangouts. This is the one of the BPO-IT-BT revolution. Faster, glitzier, scarier. Action happening on Airport Road, or Indira nagar, with unnamed pubs in distant corners. But you still have to come to terms with it, and get to love it. What other option is there? Where people wrote books like “Bangalore Calling” and underlined the valueless, money driven nature of the city, Hasan’s Bangalore is a similar beast, but with a lot more sympathy for it. Do we make the City, or does the City make us?
I found the choice of Bangalore interesting. In many ways, this is a truly non-local city. Those who come from outside struggle to make sense of the city as much as those who lived here and grew up here. Only difference is that we, the latter, keep searching for the city we grew up in, in place, finding some hidden vestiges until time takes those too. Others go Home for their holidays and perform the same search in their changing towns. Where is the constancy one can hold on to and say “this is it, this is it”?
That feeling of being in your 20s, of feeling unmoored, looking back and seeing Home drift away, at once wanting to go back, and then also wanting to escape from what it all means. Going home again, to want to leave again. To want to develop roots elsewhere, while knowing that you left them elsewhere and can’t grow them back.
NN doesn’t end on the last page. Like life, the search for Home goes on. You just make your peace with what there is, and call it one. Until the next calling or the next shove.
LIMH ends with a degree of peace. A pause from the vagaries of life. Before they take off again. There is no ‘THE END’. Only an ‘Until next time’.