BOOK EXCERPT

The woman with only one name and the strange painting on her wall

An excerpt from novelist Anjum Hasan’s latest work, ‘The Cosmopolitans’.

Qayenaat had only one name. At twenty she had dropped her last name simply because it was Gupta and there was no way to reconcile the ordinariness of Gupta with the sublimity of Qayenaat. So, braving passport officials and census takers, strangers on trains who insisted she reveal her religion, caste and clan, and boyfriends who wanted to know her second name before they kissed her, she stuck to Qayenaat, joining the company of people she quite liked – Plato, Akbar, Garfield – not to speak of the hordes of single-named, pseudonymous Urdu poets out of respect for whose language her father had named her Qayenaat in the first place.

If asked to trace the roots of her break-up with Sathi, it would come down to this: he did not know how to pronounce her name.

She loved being Qayenaat; she thought it was grand: to be called the world, hailed by the noun used to describe all of god’s creation. It was just that pronounced with its vowels compressed instead of undulating – so that it ended up rhyming with “Why not?” – her name became ridiculous. This mispronunciation felt like a mockery of her claim to that realm of beautiful words from which Qayenaat originated, a claim guaranteed to her only by her father. After he died she would get even angrier recalling Sathi’s distortion of her name.

Qayenaat believed that it was not accidental – the fact that Sathi Thakur’s thick, eastern Uttar Pradesh tongue destroyed the sibilance of her name. This handicap was of a piece with his general disregard for the delicate; he was apt like his hero, the Mahatma, to view the Taj, for instance, as nothing but an embodiment of forced labour. His heart was with the statistics regarding malnutritioned babies, deaths due to drought, and corruption among government officials. He insistently calculated how many children could be sent to school for how many years with the grand sums that Qayenaat’s artist friends burnt up making rubbish.

Once she had loved Sathi for this very reason – his black- and-white ethics, his grass-roots point of view. When she first met him, his sincerity had felt charmingly old-world, unlike the anachronism it seemed today. They’d eventually gone their separate ways, but unlike she and Baban, she and Sathi were still sort of kinsmen if no longer kindred souls, for Sathi was from where she was.

He’d moved down south at the start of the millennium to take up a job as Karnataka correspondent for a Hindi newspaper published out of Hyderabad, and had immediately sought out her father, Sailesh Gupta. They had roots in the same soil. Sathi’s father and her own had been childhood friends, gone to school together, drunk the same water and breathed the same air, eaten too many litchis one litchi season and fallen ill at the same time, had similarly strong teeth, teeth genetically designed to tear out strips of the rock-hard sugar cane that grew in the fields around the dusty Uttar Pradesh town to which they belonged.

Yet these two almost-brothers grew up in entirely different directions. Sathi’s father had stayed back and kept up the feudal traditions of the family. Her own father was the son of a small-time shopkeeper who had decided the boy would be an engineer and in pursuit of this ambition Sailesh Gupta ended up moving very far from home. It was love of his job as a Public Works Department employee that characterised him, not his belonging to this or that place.

And so Qayenaat, child of a modern outlook, had no connection with the provincial world her father was born into; she had never even visited the homestead.

Her attraction to Sathi had been partly this – he so solidly belonged to a culture which had always seemed out of reach and ephemeral to her. And yet their break-up had been partly this too. She stopped finding his rustic accent quaint; she grew tired of his mockery of the cosmopolitans. She decided one day that they had nothing in common, but it had taken a long time to convince Sathi.

And now here he was, settled in the same corner of the sofa that he favoured when he’d lived in this house with Qayenaat and her father. He asked her questions as he’d done over the past week, and as she tried her best to dodge them, she noticed that he kept staring with unusual interest at something he had seen countless times before – the painting on the wall.

Nur Jahan had painted a bedroom scene, a woman lying undressed on a bed, and a man sitting on its edge, his bare back to her, their lovemaking clearly over. The rich oils had done justice to the sweaty sheen of the man’s skin, the nose ring glinting on the woman’s face, the flowers printed on the curtains, the brass of a doorknob. The bodies were correctly proportioned and the colours pleasingly muted – brown, cream, a dash of brick red, olive green. It was called The Painting of a Sorrow and Qayenaat had given it pride of place in her living room largely because of its poignant, Shakespearean name.

And yet the picture was completely dead. The woman’s face had the vacuous expression of a studio model’s; the man’s profile was as wooden as a toy monkey’s. Their bare limbs were too carefully arrayed to convey either lust or love or, indeed, the mysterious sorrow that the title referred to. And yet, and yet, and yet. It was interesting that the artist, however ingenuously, had tried to claim nudity for herself, rediscover it. When people saw such a work of art – people like Baban’s girlfriend or the men in the mob – they saw a Muslim woman painting a taboo subject and they were either approving or enraged. They missed the individual choice.

Excerpted with permission from The Cosmopolitans, Anjum Hasan, Hamish Hamilton.

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