The Big Picture by Anjum Hasan
Reviewed by Salini Vineeth
Anjum Hasan’s short story, Big Picture, is about Mrs. Ali and an eventful journey that changes her life. The protagonist, Mrs. Ali, is a middle-aged widow who lives a lonely life. It’s clear that Mrs. Ali has spent a significant portion of her adult life playing the roles of a wife and a mother. Maybe she was so involved in these roles that she cannot imagine an alternate existence. With her husband and children no longer around, Mrs. Ali lives in limbo. She gets through days, terrified to explore the possibilities of her newfound freedom.
Mrs. Ali withdraws herself from social gatherings and leads a reclusive life. She finds comfort and safety in the mundane. But she hasn’t lost her curiosity. She sits by the window of her room and observes life as it happens outside. That’s how she is drawn to painting, something she used to practice as a child and had since abandoned. Even though a late bloomer, she turns out to be a good painter. Mrs. Ali isn’t bothered about the quality of her subjects. She just paints whatever she sees around her. She doesn’t even make a big deal out of painting. For her, it’s just something to fill the vacuum in her life.
Mrs. Ali’s life takes a turn when a European art curator, Frieda, takes an interest in her paintings. Mrs. Ali takes a certain pride in sending her paintings to Europe for an exhibition. But, she is terrified at the prospect of having to attend the exhibition in person. She finds it quite rude of Frieda to make such a demand. Mrs. Ali has no inclination to go on a solo trip to Europe, but her curiosity gets the better of her once again. She wants to see the ‘original paintings of Vang Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Max Ernst’. She decides to take the trip.
Just like she had feared, Mrs. Ali faces many hurdles on her solo trip to Europe. She is stranded in a foreign airport, with her periods visiting her a week early. She feels that everyone is out to get her – the flight steward, the indifferent shopkeeper in the airport, and even the beautiful yet apathetic foreign women in the airport restroom. She feels that everyone is watching her, and the world is waiting for an opportunity to ridicule her.
Mrs. Ali does get to the exhibition city in one piece, and it somewhat surprises her. Now, being in this alien city full of strangers, Mrs. Ali goes through some epiphanies. For the first time, she gets a broader perspective and realises what’s lacking in her life. The new environment helps her see the ‘big picture’.
Hasan’s story explores the themes of fear and freedom. Interestingly, the protagonist is always addressed as Mrs. Ali, her first name never revealed. This gives an indication that ‘being Mrs. Ali’ was the essence of her existence. When she no longer has to be Mrs. Ali, she doesn’t know how to transition into a new phase. Even though the protagonist has the agency to embrace a more exciting life, she just shuns herself into a locked room. The story raises some serious questions. Why so many of us cannot embrace the excitement of life, even if we have the freedom to do so? Why we find solace in mundane existence when we can go out and explore the world? Just like Mrs. Ali, many of us are terrified to transition into a new phase. The story also provides a possible solution to these questions. It’s Mrs. Ali’s curiosity that helps her move forward. She would have spent the rest of her life locked in a room if it weren’t for her curiosity. She was curious to see what people were doing outside her window. The curiosity prompts her to take up painting, almost unintentionally. Her curiosity prompted her to take a trip to a strange city, even though she was terrified. Most of the events during her trip substantiated her fears, but even then, her curiosity to see the ‘original paintings of Max Ernst’ pushed her forward.
The story is narrated from an intimate third-person point of view. Readers are privy to the most intimate feelings of Mrs. Ali. By not using the first-person point of view, the writer gives an illusion of distance between Mrs. Ali and the reader. But at the same time provides a close look at her thoughts and feelings. The choice of the narrative voice is just right, which also conveys the personality of Mrs. Ali. Another impressive point about the plot is the dry humour. Even while Mrs. Ali is in the most unfortunate situation, the third-person narrator manages to pull some laughs. The reader laughs and bites her tongue. The feeling is akin to laughing when a loved one falls down; it’s sad yet hilarious. In a nutshell, ‘The Big Picture’ is a universally appealing story that explores people’s qualms about transitioning into a new phase in life and how curiosity helps us overcome those fears.
#Premise features writer, and Out of Print reader, Salini Vineeth's review of Anjum Hasan’s ‘The Big Picture’.