Anjum Hasan’s third novel begins with an art show celebrating the return of Baban Reddy, an erstwhile nondescript Bangalore-based graphic designer who is now a successful artist resident in the USA. Perched atop a stepladder placed next to Nostalgia, Baban’s “humungous” living room installation, is Hasan’s protagonist Qayenaat. Fifty-three-years-old, once married, now unattached and living alone in Bangalore, a woman who at twenty had dropped her last name (Gupta) because of its ordinariness, art aficionado Qayenaat is the novel’s narrative, emotional and intellectual centre.
Baban and Qayenaat had been companions once, eager novices at Dumb Friend, a pet care magazine. Though she has moved on in ways considered uncharacteristic for women even today, the mix of emotions aroused by Baban’s return makes her edgy, irritable, evasive with her former partner Sathi and her good friend Sara. Sathi, the son of her father’s boyhood friend, had moved into their life in Sir MV Nagar (named after Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya or Sir MV, who had been knighted by King George in 1915) and become a part of it. Unpretentious, determinedly “rustic” in some ways, frequently skeptical of Qayenaat’s choices, Sathi remains her bedrock even after they go their separate ways. As does Sara, an art collector backed by “a lifelong interest in art… good taste and… old money.”
The web of art, dance, relationships, the sham, and the authentic is structured through Qayenaat’s varied ruminations in what has been described as a “novel of ideas”, making her a “Spectator” almost, in the neoclassical, non-judgemental Addisonian sense. Surveying Baban’s artwork and the milling crowd (the “Cosmopolitans” one assumes) intent on guzzling wine and stuffing their mouths with creamy canapés for example, she suspects that “Baban, not Nostalgia, is the exhibit…”, that the impact of his work is one of “Scale”: at normal size it would have gone unnoticed, but “by blowing it up… he forces it on our consciousness”. This could well be a reflection on the world we inhabit wherein the Diaspora mystique has increasingly clouded our better judgment and everything from the creative arts to FMCGs are judged in accordance with the media hard sell or lack of it that heralds their launch.
Qayenaat is a delightful anachronism someone of my generation could relate to. She is positioned between the Nehruvian worldview which moulded her father (an engineer employed with the Public Works Department) and the crass consumerism of the post-liberalisation years, and the free market is very much a part of the novel’s discourse. In a season when the economic and industrial accruals and legacies of Nehruvian socialism are regularly rubbished, Qayenaat’s father’s no-nonsense pronouncements are welcome even though one of these had ironically prefaced his abrupt demise. Returning from a public lecture by a Chicago-trained economist, he had termed the blind faith in free enterprise as a cure for all social ills a “travesty of everything we have believed in”. He had reminded Qayenaat of the “poetic perfection of Sir MV’s state-capitalist model of development and the humane tenderness of Jawaharlal Nehru’s planned economy” before telling her it was time he joined her mother, dying before she could even try to help.
Mistakenly believing she is the unflattering subject of an overheard conversation between Baban and Sara, Qayenaat’s sense of betrayal results in an impulsive act of violence. Running away from its unimagined repercussions Qayenaat leaves Bangalore for Simhal in the North to do something she had long wanted: study ancient forms of dance, now allegedly being nurtured at the Modern Nritya Academy there, a move which divides the narrative into a Before and After. If Bangalore had been the melting-pot of cosmopolitanism, small-town Simhal combines tradition, feudalism and modernity in fearful ways, forcing Qayenaat to confront her own inner contradictions. Her emotional surrender to Simhal’s feudal ruler called, simply, “King” comes unstuck in the inevitable clash of two worldviews: hers modern, humane, egalitarian; his embedded in inherited power, its horrific manifestations rationalized through the dubious discourse of noblesse oblige. Qayenaat’s dramatic escape from King’s captivity and her return to life in Bangalore call for a willing suspension of disbelief, made possible by Hasan’s deftness in narration. Hasan covers a vast fictional and ideological terrain. Artistic freedom and its accompanying responsibilities, money, itellectual and artistic pretensions, sociocultural intolerance, the resurrection of brutal practices in the guise of “tradition” – all these find their way into her comédie humaine. The result is a novel that nudges the reader with familiar if uncomfortable questions and innuendoes. The flip side is an occasional sense of too much being said, a superficial skimming over themes and issues worthy of closer scrutiny. She is at her best when ideas and exchanges flow into one another without lengthy preambles: “I think you left him because you have money for yourself,” says Malti (Qayenaat’s newfound friend in Simhal) about her break-up with Sathi, and Qayenaat’s protests are submerged in her realization that she is well off at least metaphorically: “She had English, she had freedom of movement, she could love men and discard them. All of these things were a form of currency.”
Hasan is under-stated, ironic, but unsparing in her portrayal. Though good sense eventually prevails, even Qayenaat is momentarily seduced by Sathi’s outrageous suggestion that they stage a theft of one of her paintings so that she can claim its insured value, seeing it as poetic justice for the life insurance she had been cheated of when her father died. The Cosmopolitans is an unusual read in the ways it holds up a mirror to contemporary India but, despite its low-keyed satire, it is not an easy novel. It reminds us of too many things we should address but would rather let alone.
Vrinda Nabar is an author, cultural theorist, and former Chair of English, Mumbai University