After my MA, I chose to shift out of my department, Literature and Culture Studies, to this new school which had only just come up in JNU. Everyone was saying how edgy and radical it was: the School of Arts and Aesthetics.
It was housed in a beautiful building, for one. The second floor was an open space with tasteful grey curving walls and could be used fluidly – as an art gallery or a performance space – depending on the day. There were tiny classrooms around it with expensive projectors. The students were all painters or directors or arts activists, all fierce critics.
You know the type. They liked to read scripts for pleasure, analyse film posters, discuss the Ram Lila of Ram Nagar for hours sitting cross-legged on carpets. If they wore Benetton T-shirts – and they did – they were being ironic. Many of these people would grow up and cross over as it were to the world inhabited by one set of characters from Anjum Hasan’s latest novel The Cosmopolitans.
How not to keep score while dancing
One of our professors was a dancer who had trained as an anthropologist. In the MPhil paper she offered on World Dance Traditions, she told us an interesting story. She had travelled to the hinterland to research Chhau, and was living and working with the tribals of Purulia. In the course of her documentation project, she would often sit unsuspecting people down and take notes based on the conversations that ensued.
On one occasion, she asked the villagers to tell her who the best dancers were so she could interview them. Her quarry did not understood the question in the beginning; and then, upon elaboration, burst out laughing. Best dancers? What did she mean? Dance was a way of life. How could you say who was “better” than whom? Could you say x was better at living life than y?
The stylised, the lived and the shadow
The Natyashastra, which Hasan’s characters reference once or twice in the novel, describes two broad systems in the classification of art: natya-dharmi and loka-dharmi. Art as stylised praxis, which is the glamour of natya-dharmi, as opposed to art as life, lived and breathed in situ, with the naturalness of leaves sprouting and flowers falling and seasons turning. (Though the Natyashastra purportedly talks of drama, its theories have often been extended to encompass other media.)
While the first can easily travel, the nature of the other is bound so closely to its context that any attempt to carry it out of its origins results in distortions. But every now and then, a sense of such futile sterility descends upon the cosmopolitans, whether practitioner or auditor, who look to the former for sustenance, that they rush to the authenticity of the folk, the loka-dharmi. It is as though only the blood of the old can revitalise the new.
Yet, what can characterise that encounter but failure? For between the attempts of the modern state to “save” the folk and the politics of funding it generates, and the cosmopolitan, who needs the blood without the bloodshed, falls the shadow. Anjum Hasan’s ambitious novel is an exploration of this very dichotomy, a deep, ultimately moving reflection on this shadow; for this scope alone, the novel is worth a read.
The protagonist of The Cosmopolitans is Qayenaat. Once upon a time, she had a surname. But “[A]t 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.” Once upon a time, she had harboured ambitions to be an artist. She’d spent six years in art school in Bombay and had been on the verge of exhibiting her work to the public – “fifteen medium-sized acrylic paintings” – but that is a chapter now long closed; her life has come unstitched from bourgeoisie certainties like success and youth.
Today, at fifty-three, in a charming if shabby Art Deco house built by her late father in a quiet Bangalore neighbourhood, Qayenaat spends her days in genteel poverty, on the outskirts of the art world, sometimes sipping wine at gallery openings, sometimes protesting on street corners against censorship, sometimes writing one or two pieces on art to eke out a precarious freelance existence. There is her Gandhian ex-lover Sathi with whom she might hotly debate the point of art. There is her rich art-collector friend Sara, whose pride and joy is her original art collection. Qayenaat lives the quintessential life of a cosmopolitan antevasini, an oxymoron of sorts.
Literally a child of the modern Indian state – her father was an engineer in the PWD and spent his life constructing “modern” structures, dams, airports, in former greenfields in far corners of the country as they became “developed” – Qayenaat’s journey out of the cosmopolitan condition, to the heart of India where the wilds shape an alternate kind of art and revolution, and the fallout of this encounter, is the subject of the novel.
The agent of change is Nostalgia.
Nostalgia was big.
Grainy black-and-white news played on a gigantic vintage TV set. The plain ceramic vase on the round-cornered square coffee table and the dinner-plate-sized roses in it looked as if they’d been stolen from a giant’s lair as did the ten-foot-high, old-fashioned rattan chair facing them. The news on the TV, focusing on the indistinct face of the newscaster as she mouthed statistics about death in the jungles and government scams, was not new.
This magnified piece of artwork, this humongous living room installation was Nostalgia – Baban Reddy’s latest offering to the world. World meant world in Baban’s case. Nostalgia had premiered in Venice and, after stops in major Indian cities, would travel to Shanghai, London, Los Angeles.
Baban Reddy has returned to Bangalore after a decade-and-a-half. Fifteen years ago, he and QT (as he calls Qayenaat) had worked in a minor magazine called Dumb Friend (it was about pets) and flirted with each other over endless drinks and butter toast in a dim bar called Koshy’s. Baban, fifteen years her junior, was besotted by QT. Then, one day, he had left for the US, and Qayenaat settled down in a relationship with Sathi, the earthy north Indian with dodgy English (I am a little confused about the ‘h’ in his spelling since his Gangetic belt background is so decidedly sketched).
But Baban’s return sets in motion a strange chain of events that unravels the skein of Qayenaat’s quiet urbanity, bringing her first to the shady neighbourhoods deep inside Shivaji Nagar where minor crimes are plotted, then to a moment of intense rage that culminates in an act that re-balances in her own eyes her complex feelings for (modern) art as well as for Baban.
Simhal (might have spoilers)
While Book 1 is entirely set in Bangalore, Book 2 is almost entirely set in Simhal. Qayenaat’s journey to Chhatisgarh is powered by the same impulse in cosmopolitans that has been sending them, again and again, with notebooks and cameras and the highmindedness of anthropologists, to the deep countryside. (I have been one of these notebook-wielding idiots in my time.)
In the journey out of the city, Hasan has created characters of exceptional power: whether minor ones, like Das, the pompous Principal, the dance master Uttam, and Jha, the optimistic singer, or major ones, like the glue-sniffing accountant Vipul Singh and the Raja of Simhal, known mostly as simply King, with whom she has an intense love affair, though it is curtailed, ultimately, by the inability of Qayenaat – and perhaps metaphorically, of her ilk – to overcome the urban conditioning of being a modern Indian. “It is hard work being a modern India,” the King says, twice.
Qayenaat is, in several ways, an extraordinary protagonist. I can’t recall anyone quite like her in the world of Indian Writing in English, which necessarily casts fifty-year old women in a certain fashion, as though the only things worth escaping from are domesticity or unhappy marriages. Qayenaat’s relations to Sathi, to the artists and art critics in Bangalore, to Malti, the tribal girl, and finally, to the noble dancer-King of the tin pot kingdom, are entirely unique. However, it is these characters who appear more and more luminous, and Qayenaat, by the end of the book, is paler by contrast.
This book reminded me, obliquely, of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, where the protagonist Dr Marina Singh had travelled to the Amazonian rainforests in search of her colleague, a scientist, who had disappeared there. While the context in Patchett’s novel was science, and the complex morals of drug companies, and Dr Singh’s was the gaze of an outsider, what is common to both books, in addition to the obtuse nature of that primordial world which reveals itself and yet does not reveal, is the motif of one tribal child who crosses over. I wondered about it then; and I wonder about it now. I remain uneasy about the ending.
I read Anjum Hasan’s charming debut novel Lunatic in My Head when it had first come out, and I’d been mesmerised by her prose. Eight years later, if I think of Shillong, I instantly think of Hasan’s description of the rain. If rain is what I would retain of Lunatic in My Head (that is not to say the characters were not engaging; they were!), and the city of Bangalore of Neti Neti, to me The Cosmopolitans will always evoke dusk, a sort of recurring obsession in the book, whether in Bangalore or Simhal:
As dusk fell, a sheen of magic replaced Shivaji Nagar’s unkempt streets, tired faces, and dusty shop-wares, the rutted lanes and muddled traffic, beggars with attenuated limbs sitting languidly in its midst, the green domes of mosques, the filigreed iron of mobile phone towers, and the dirty blue-plastic-sheathed shells of high rises in progress. It was the month of Ramzan. Soft sodium street lights, blinking fairy lights strung across the lanes, the headlights of scooters and rickshaws nosing their way into every last corner, the glow from minor businesses – all crowded out the darkness and gave the night a festive air.
The Cosmopolitans is an intellectual novel, and punctures with sophistication the eponymous quiet cosmopolitanism of its nature and structure, with several clever surprises. It is written in competent prose. At points, it seems like narrative non-fiction – whether the conversation with Shahrukh Bhai or some of the exegesis about dance. The sub-plot about Nur Jahan blundered, sadly, into the territory of cliché. But ultimately, these are minor quibbles. The book will make one think of art and the land in new ways – and therein is its success.
As for my major disagreements with Qayenaat’s choices – my disenchantments with her world?
They remain. The book is only richer for the confirmations it offered.
The Cosmopolitans, Anjum Hasan, Penguin Books.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, The Vague Woman’s Handbook and The Weight Loss Club. Her most recent book, co-authored with spouse Saurav Jha is The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, the story of an eccentric journey across India on a very very tight budget.