“You have the soul of a cyborg”: An Extract From Anjum Hasan’s A Day in the Life

15 April, 2018

Anjum Hasan, the books editor atThe Caravan, was born in Shillong and lives in Bengaluru. She is the author of the short-story collection Difficult Pleasures, and the novelsLunatic in my HeadNeti, Neti, and The Cosmopolitans. Hasan’s latest book, A Day in the Life, is a collection of short stories that provide glimpses into the daily lives of a range of characters, including newly-weds attempting to keep up with the times, a retiree confronted with modern anger, and a poet father attempting to reconnect with his son. In this excerpt from the story “Yellow Rose,” the protagonist contemplates yet another move.

Gulfam disliked going out. Every day, week by week, she saw a little less of the outdoor world of heat and dust that did not respond to a click or a swipe, that was composed everywhere of odd angles and misshapen silhouettes, that followed no clear laws, certainly not the magnificently simple binary ones that she lived by.

She had reluctantly inhabited that messy and messed-up world for the first twenty-three years of her life but had withdrawn from it in the last two, since she quit her job and decided to employ herself. She rarely looked out at the view. In fact, having moved house so many times, she had more or less forgotten what the prospect from living-room balcony or kitchen window was like. Something would bother Gulfam—a landlord suddenly dictating unreasonable terms from his penthouse somewhere in America; a neighbour in the course of an unwelcome chat, wanting to know the identity of the man who sometimes visited her; the maid inquiring once too often about why she lived alone—and she would give notice, call one of the half-a-dozen brokers she knew, impatiently urge on the movers encasing her meagre belongings with blundering care in bubble wrap and cartons, and leave.

She had hopped all over Bangalore with her minimalist ensemble of futon, sparse kitchenware, a couple of boxes of clothes and her laptop. She did not read, except blog posts and newsfeeds, so there were no books to lug around; she hardly ever went for parties any more and had let go of the fusty heirloom saris and last year’s dresses. She made sure she always had just three pairs of shoes, two wine glasses, one ballpoint pen. Much of everything else she threw away. She was a determined discarder. She promptly got rid of birthday gifts of perfume or filmy scarves, clothes barely worn, any hand-drawn or dog-eared relic of her childhood, the creaky collections of photo albums and spiritual guidebooks her grandparents had left her and the useless decorative mementos her mother always brought her and urged her to put on display so that she, Gulfam’s mother, could find her bearings and feel marginally at home in the many un-homelike, bare-walled, hollow-shelved, empty-balconied flats that Gulfam lived in.

Gulfam dreamed of world happiness bred by a universal conversion to in-the-moment functionalism, played out in a perfectly controlled indoor existence. She loved futuristic movies awash with jargon and sleek gadgetry in which neither human nor physical nature intruded—no erratic clouds moving across the sky, no sudden moods altering the state of one’s existence. Her favourite YouTube video at the moment featured the wedding ceremony of a man and a robot. Her favourite TED talk was by the world’s neatest woman. Her favourite podcast was about how Mars would eventually be colonized by the very smart and the uber wealthy. Her favourite new technology was the flying car. She wished she had been attributed, at birth, a string of numbers instead of a name, that she lived in a post-apocalyptic society of humans with short-term memories and dreamless sleep, housed in prefabricated intelligent homes and needing nothing to live life and enjoy it except their handsets.

Instead she was in Bangalore, a city she could not discard—much as she wanted to—her association with. This was where she belonged: her parents had been born and were still stuck here, she still saw updates from her three school friends who had long alienated her with their enthusiasm for marriage and children, she had been pushed around in this city’s buses to and from office and had had crushes, in retrospect mortifying for their juvenility and misdirected passion, on male colleagues. But she was about as old as the Internet was to Bangalore, and as a preadolescent, engrossed for hours in her father’s laptop, she was already living almost entirely, even if she would not have understood the word then, vicariously. Those days it was gtalk, world-building games and gushy WordPress journals. Now it was online shopping, meme philosophising and virtual consultations with therapists and accountants, when she needed them.

“You have the soul of a cyborg,” Mathew said to her one afternoon as they sat on her futon with their laptops warm from daylong use and their tepid cups of green tea. Gulfam and

Mathew were working on an app for urban home-gardeners. On Greenfingers you could do: the usual. Order products, get advice from professionals, network with other gardeners, sell your produce. They had, just the previous week, successfully finished with an app that enabled you to compare the fees, ratings and curricula of colleges across the country and apply to the one that suited you. Every week, perhaps every day, all over Bangalore, someone in the course of a deadening office meeting or a coffee-shop conversation came up with the one application they believed was unique enough to reshape twenty-first-century existence, or at least make it perfectly simple to order in organic cow-dung cakes. Gulfam and Mathew’s fledgling company received commissions to bring to life a few of those multitudes of banal ideas.

Gulfam took his remark seriously. “If I were rich I would emigrate to where they’re fitting office workers with microchips in their wrists so they just have to wave their hands to open doors or pay bills.”

Mathew sighed. He wouldn’t mind being rich too. “I’ll do this,” he said to the strings of code that filled his screen, “till I am thirty and then you wait and see.”

“If I could get five crore somehow, I’d retire and live on the interest. And spend all my time volunteering for experiments in cloning and artificial intelligence,” said Gulfam.

“Even if you died or got brain damage?” Gulfam nodded solemnly. “Or even if I became another person. In fact, I would like to become another person.”

“You might go schizoid.”

“I could be. It already feels like it’s not coming together. I need to do something about it right now.”

“You know that farm my parents have—the hundred-acre rubber plantation? I plan to take it over, put in some rocks, grow a forest, get a serious adventure tourism thing going.”

“Okay,” said Gulfam, bored by talk of farms and bored even of Greenfingers.

“Do you want to invest with me? We could move to Kerala.”

Gulfam got off the futon in surprise, clicked her laptop shut, lit a cigarette. Mathew had quit the office job at the same timeas her and they’d drifted into a partnership together—another of those cafe chats that sounded casual and provisional but became the basis, surprisingly, to their parents and everyone else of that generation, of hard cash. He had a girlfriend but wasn’t reporting to Gulfam this past month, as he used to, on her emotionalinstability and permanent office blues. Perhaps there was no such fact as the girlfriend any more, but Gulfam didn’t want Mathew to hit on her instead. She had no interest in Mathew except for his computing skills, and she hoped that all this talk of Kerala and adventure tourism wasn’t his idea of a come-on.

“Um,” she said, opening the living-room window just a crack and aiming her exhalations at it. “I can’t move to anywhere hot.”

Bangalore smelt of sewers and other people’s cooking. She shut the window with a bang.

“Where do you want to go, then?” he asked, flashing his jagged teeth. He didn’t seem offended at her rebuttal. He was always good-humoured, Gulfam realised, and never earnest.

“To the moon, Mathew,” said Gulfam. “As you very well know. Let’s get back to work.”

This is an extract from Anjum Hasan’s A Day in the Life, published by Penguin Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The extract has been edited.