(A shorter, annoyingly truncated version of the following piece appeared in Tehelka a few weeks ago.)

Almost every reviewer calls Anjum Hasan’s novels ‘quiet and well-written’. This is currently a phrase in our literary world that veers between praise, parody and put-down. It is also a description that does disservice to at least one aspect of Anjum Hasan’s books — their rich vein of comedy. Book critic Chandrahas Choudhury, for instance, remembers Lunatic in My Head as a very serious work. “She is someone who cares for language, for the beauty of sentences, for getting the basic units of prose right. Tender and empathetic, but funny?” asks an amused Choudhary. From the broad shock of Firdaus Ansari, the elegant lecturer in Hasan’s 2007 novel Lunatic in My Head, getting bitten in the nose by her colleague to the comic unravellings of several characters’ obsessions in her new book Neti Neti, Hasan’s novels are full of warm humour. So why have reviewers’ approval been awash in such seriousness?

The reputation of an author (or lack) has a way of shaping the reception of her books. The ‘serious’ reviews of Hasan’s work have partly grown out of the sense that Hasan is a writer whose career is to be followed with interest (long before Neti Neti was longlisted for the Man Asian). Partly it is because Hasan the Sahitya Akademi published poet with her self-confessed admiration of gravitas and meticulous control of language can be intimidatingly stern in person. There is Hasan’s explicit and implicit self-assurance in her writing — her choice of publishers has been guided by her desire for as little editorial intervention as possible. This does not come from some unseasonable arrogance. Anita Roy of Zubaan books who edited Lunatic says she has seen few books which needed such light and minimal editing.

Hasan’s books have important insights into the Indian urban experience. So it would be a pity if her books are under-read because of rumours of slowness. Hasan’s strength does lie in her ability in the contemplative but as book critic Jai Arjun Singh says the acceleration of pace from Lunatic to Neti Neti — matched by the city each is set in — is huge. When Sophie Das, one of the three major characters of Lunatic moves from Shillong to Bengaluru in Neti Neti, she also steps into a narrative filled with every manner of incident including a casually conducted murder.

Perhaps readers are miscued because of Hasan’s underexploited potential in her dramatic sequences. Where a David Lodge would have run riot with Neti Neti’s fantastic episode of a Meghalaya election hanging on the arrival of Bob Dylan, Hasan moves her action off-stage. “No, this was not deliberate,” says Hasan smiling a little at the thought of having to ring the bells harder than it is to her taste.

However there is a way in which blurbs will always find it difficult to capture the subversivesness of Hasan’s work. Her standard issue family recurring in both novels — Sophie, Mr and Mrs Das, Mukulika — is a thumbed nose simultaneously at the three-generation family saga and the rootless urban angst. Hasan’s twin books imply that no one is as incapacitated by leaving home as some genres would have you believe. Nor are you as rootless as others genres would like you to think. With her two novels Hasan talks about an almost unexplored but hugely important phenomena – Indians moving within the country to towns far from their homes.This has been the story of Hasan’s family — a Punjabi Hindu woman who fell in love with an east UP Muslim and moved fecklessly to Shillong about which they knew nothing. Bengaluru, its violence and anger and slow growing class rage has been home since she was 26 — the first time she left Shillong. Hasan and her four siblings (including writer and fellow Man Asia longlister Daisy Hasan) have since moved around a lot. With husband Swedish novelist Zac O’Yeah (one of his crime fiction novels features a futuristic Sweden taken over by Indian bureaucrats) Hasan continues to travel. “Europe is addictive. I could never live there but there it is – antiseptic and clean and quiet…,” Hasan trails off acknowledging the seduction of order with a dreamy grin.

Hasan’s characters are memorably awkward. And almost of them are dreamers escaping boredom and non-careers and their own awkwardness through a fully formed fantasy life. Romantic love is only one of the victims of this fantasy life: “Like Aman who thinks if the girl he is in love with likes Pink Floyd, everything will be okay,” says Hasan. Their awkwardness, they themselves may imagine for a while, comes from being an outsider — North Indian or Manipuri in Shillong, Shillong girl in Bengaluru. But the reader eventually realises that the oddballness is inherent.

But Hasan is deeply respectful of place and the successful evocation of landscape, envies Kiran Desai’s capture of Darjeeling. Lunatic is marked by its incredible ability to conjure up Shillong’s rainy, up-hill-down-hill streets, a Flaubertian attention to detail. Neti Neti is just as strongly marked by its absence of description of Bengaluru. Hasan talks of her second home’s proliferation of sameness, its inability to offer epiphany. This inability of the city to feed the imagination is reflected in a cast of characters who are otherwise kind and thoughtful but do not have the intellectual resources – fed by books or music or arts – for reflection. Hasan’s uses various minor crutches in this regard by attributing of a few interests — Aman’s Pink Floyd, Sophie’s Madame Bovary, Mr Das’ Hamlet — to her characters. But the characters’ understanding of these objects are so wonderfully flawed that Hasan does not have too easy a time. As skilfully as David Lodge uses the sentimental tripe of pop singer Jennifer Rush to track romance in Small World does Hasan. And this is where Hasan’s greatest success and bravery is — to write about the inner lives of those deeply culturally impoverished.