“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” Jane Austen wrote right before she began working on Emma, her fourth novel, published in 1815. The eponymous Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich” with “very little to disturb or vex her” could perhaps be described in words that DH Lawrence once rather uncharitably used for Austen herself: “English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word”. Privileged, meddling and prone to debatably well-meaning delusion, she mercifully distinguishes herself from that symbol of Austenian aspiration, Elizabeth Bennet, and propels what is arguably – Persuasion aficionados are also encouraged to step up and make their case – Austen’s best novel.
More than two centuries after its publication, Emma continues to be mined for its literary riches, despite a frequent contention that was best articulated by Austen’s Scottish contemporary Susan Ferrier: “There is no story whatever, and the heroine is not better than other people.” It’s why she thought it was excellent.
Ania as Emma
In Polite Society, his third fiction outing, following a short story collection and an earlier novel, Mahesh Rao plonks Austen’s matchmaking heroine far from the fictional village of Highbury, into the rarefied heart of present day Lutyen’s Delhi. Ania Khurana is in her 20s, attractive, lives in a mansion on Prithviraj Road and has known no life other than one ensconced in wealth – the good, old school kind. With no real compulsions other than a carefully curated social life, Ania is working on a draft for her debut novel – her main character is a “less beautiful and more philosophical version of herself” – and occupies herself with a range of causes, mostly involving posting selfies at animal shelters and forcing cheer on the patrons of Delhi’s most sought-after oncologist.
Buoyed by the success of an efficiently orchestrated pairing of her middle-aged aunt with a retired colonel (his several mountain properties and only one deceased wife making him an ideal candidate), Ania considers it her altruistic duty to do the same for her newly acquired friend, Dimple. It should be a simple enough task. After all, doors don’t just open for the only heir to the Khurana empire, they’re practically flung off their hinges.
The polar opposite of Ania, Dimple works at a PR company that specialises in startups, comes from a small town, and possesses none of the social capital that her self-appointed benefactor does. Expected to be thankful, she grudgingly humours her wealthy friend, who is determined to set her up with TV journalist Fahim. That Dimple has already expressed a romantic interest in Lajpat Nagar shop owner Ankit, an appallingly unambitious choice of partner, is hardly a deterrent for Ania.
The two women share an unambiguously unequal relationship, much like that between Austen’s analogous characters. Dimple, puzzled but grateful about somehow having garnered the affection of one of Delhi’s uber swish set, puts on a brave face and has a go at attempting to comprehend it, even as she notes that the Khurana house has a Chola bronze that probably costs more than her apartment building.
Dimple understood that there were fine gradations in the lustre of objects, that some kinds of dazzle were far more acceptable than others. But she worried these nuances would always escape her...This business of rightful shine seemed to extend to almost all areas of life...She supposed she would learn.
A Delhi of riches
The Delhi of Polite Society may be known only to a select few, but Rao recreates it in vivid detail, demonstrating an uncanny flair for creating a sense of place that was also on display in his first novel, The Smoke Is Rising, set in Mysore. He shows us the champagne-fuelled, orchid-festooned bubble that (most of) his characters inhabit with a deliciously sly eye for the subtleties that those at the intersection of economic, social and cultural wealth pride themselves on. It’s a world where wedding anniversaries are celebrated with galas in St Petersburg, “low key” weddings take place in London, opera singers are flown in for highly coveted dinners from Slovenia, and guest lists are pored over with the assiduousness and gravity of international land treaties. It’s a Delhi twist on the perversely magnetic appeal of accounts of the obscenely wealthy, whether it’s The Great Gatsby or Crazy Rich Asians.
This Delhi easily slips into the role of one of the main characters, in much the same way that Highbury does in Austen’s classic. “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” she wrote in a letter to her niece who wanted advice on being an author. It may be a city of millions, but Rao may as well have been listening to Austen while creating this microcosm. The political events affecting the rest of the country show up in brief glimpses – demonetisation, a rising Hindutva wave – but barely touch the rich who know how to remain unaffected and broker deals that keep them immune.
A dark tint
Still, for a novel so strongly rooted in Delhi, Rao’s most sublime writing is reserved for the end of his first act, in a location halfway across the world, when Ania is invited to a residency for writers in Italy and finds herself in the company of a much-revered literary hero. With a remarkable lightness of touch, Rao reveals, through the inevitable and heart-rending disappointment that follows, his true intention for the novel – to peel back the charmeuse silk and expose the rot beneath.
Virginia Woolf, a deep admirer of Austen, once wondered in an essay how the Victorian era writer’s books would have evolved if she had lived a few more years and tasted a life of success. “She would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered...Her satire, while it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe,” she wrote.
In this much more unjust world of two centuries later, Rao veers sharply away from the gentleness of Austen’s satire and actually unveils what hides under the gilded surface – ageing millionaires in the thrall of godmen, albeit urbane ones, dwindling fortunes, and duplicitous suitors who prey on gullibility. It’s not an easy feat to pull off however and Rao’s path is not always smooth.
A risky gamble
In the first half particularly, the two novels within a novel occasionally grate against each other while attempting to simultaneously achieve perceptive seriousness and light-hearted campness (the latter is of course a decidedly worthy goal polished to perfection in an Emma adaptation that one should refuse to hear a word against, through Alicia Silverstone’s career-defining turn in Clueless). But Rao slips into fine form soon enough while dismantling his carefully-constructed world, switching back and forth between multiple characters, once again in sharp contrast to the book that inspired his.
While Austen, contrary to her prediction, impossibly succeeds by the end of Emma in making her heroine likeable by telling the story firmly from her vantage point, Polite Society’s altered motivations require a multitude of perspectives – from Ania’s multimillionaire father, Dileep, to the icy Nina Varkey, a gossip columnist desperately clinging to her crumbling social and financial standing.
It’s an assertive rejection of the tedium of a direct adaption of story and structure, while also being a slightly risky gambit. The unrelenting minutiae, particularly given the need to flesh out so many characters is sometimes dizzying – a too-rich dish that can fill you up too soon. But it pays off, saved by a sparkling humour and pointed accuracy. The vagaries of this exclusive world are in fact, most vividly told through the two characters who do not belong to it, negotiating a prickly desire to find a seat at the table they haven’t been wholeheartedly invited to.
While Dimple, who once harboured dreams of becoming a flight attendant to escape the objurgation of a politically conservative mother, tests the waters gingerly and with caution, Fahim, the equivalent of Austen’s ambitious vicar, Philip Elton, rips at the seams with an all-consuming desire to enmesh himself in it. But this is a microcosm that does not welcome outsiders easily, and never without extracting a price. When nothing is quite what it seems, you have to be careful what you wish for.
“The thing I love about Jane Austen is how socially precarious her characters always are,” a friend said to me some time ago. “But people often seem to miss that in her books.” With Polite Society, Rao doesn’t just topple the carefully-balanced facade with humour and piercing insight, he also creates a novel that is very much its own.
Polite Society, Mahesh Rao, Penguin Random House India.