Reviewed by Nandini Dhar
—Anjum Hasan, ‘The Cosmopolitans’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2015)
Anjum Hasan’s newest novel ‘The Cosmopolitans’ drives home, once again, something familiar to all careful readers of novels, namely the importance of the narrative backbone upon which all good novels rest: conflict. This is the fact that our lives are lived at the intersections of the big and the small, the systemic and the intimate, the structural and the personal. The novel’s protagonist – Qayenaat, a middle-aged art lover – embodies these intersections in ways which provide us with an intimate, embodied history of the development of the Indian state and the social antinomies of its post-independence existence. Hasan’s novel, much like the other sprawling “global Anglophone” novels of our time, can be read as a skillful (albeit confused) commentary on class and capital, art and its public circulation, ideologies and the lives they touch, and commitment and abandonment.
A thoroughly “modern Indian”, Qayenaat is also a child of the Nehruvian state. Literally. So much so that as a child she personified the government as a parental figure, as she moved from one town to another with her civil engineer father, who worked for the Public Works Department. Her father, in turn, found his own identity within the post-independence public sector, rather than in his village of origin in the feudal backwaters of Uttar Pradesh. Qayenaat herself represents a muddled trajectory of development. In her, there is a bedrock confidence in a modernist developmental trajectory, exemplified in her attachment to her father. Yet hers is also a puzzled and fractured inheritance, as evinced by the bureaucratic complexities which literally prevent her from having access to her father’s savings after his death. In a concomitant development, she is not blind to the violences of the development projects which her father proudly contributed to. As the novel informs us, “Qayenaat had kept her doubts to herself regarding not just the engineering but also the underlying vision – that beautifully monochrome socialist-industrialist dream.” It is consequently no accident that, like many of her generation, Qayenaat harbors something within herself which she considers untainted – the “folk”, the feudal. When she attempts to redefine herself, she moves away from the city, seeking refuge in an art form which she thinks resides beyond the urban, beyond the “forward-looking” modernity of her father as well as the somewhat synthetic art-world of her friends.
The irony in Qayenaat’s life is that she is a “loser”, a word that has lost its charm “in the drawing rooms of free-market India.” In other words, Qayenaat, despite possessing all the requisite skills, has not been able to eke out a tangible form of living for herself in neoliberal, urban India. She represents the figure of the classic Indian autodidact, who could have accomplished ever so much – but never did. Qayenaat could have been an artist, but never did. She could have been an art critic, but never did. Even as a lover and a wife, she fails. Yet Qayenaat survives. She survives at the edges of the art world. She survives at the edges of a revamped, neoliberal economy, the causes of her failure remaining as intangible as the lack of a tangible source of livelihood in her life.
It is also no accident that Hasan set her novel in Bangalore, the city that has come to exemplify neoliberal growth in India. Qayenaat survives in the crevices of that growth, making her living from the odd jobs generated by an essentially neoliberal creative cultural economy. Indeed, Qayenaat is the antithesis to another kind of literary prototype which has emerged in Indian Anglophone writing in the recent years, the young female protagonist of the new chick-lit. To take just one example, if the protagonist of Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy’s ‘You Are Here’ survives on the unfailing optimism that “everything was changing so rapidly,” wherein old theaters are giving way to new malls and there are “a million acceptable career options apart from the doctor-engineer-civil servant triangle,” Qayenaat embodies the grim reality of those who eke out a living within the dark underbelly of such “lucrative” career options.
There is, then, no bubbling optimism about the restructured Indian economy in Hasan’s novel. Instead, there is a kind of fumbling pessimism that tries to find its own political language, and ultimately fails to do so. In failing, it embraces a profound form of alienation. If anything, Qayenat’s status as a “loser” can best be understood as a manifestation of such forms of alienation. It seems fitting that it is within the underbelly of the so-called creative economy that Qayenaat and the now successful New York-based artist Baban Reddy meet each other for the first time – fifteen years before the novel opens.
When the novel opens, Baban has come back to Bangalore, to hold his first exhibition in the city. Aptly (and ironically) titled Nostalgia, Baban’s installation consists of a “gigantic vintage tv set” in which the news of “death in the jungles and government scams” plays, a ceramic vase, a coffee-table and a rattan chair. The ensemble is meant to be a commentary on how “we are victims of today, hostage to tomorrow, and nostalgic for yesterday.” It turns out that Baban, fifteen years younger than Qayenaat, has always been drawn to her – indeed, so the novel informs us, there had always been a deep connection between them.
The connection is so deep that Baban’s arrival in the city, with his Indian-American girlfriend in tow, leaves Qayenaat more flustered than usual, and leads to a series of events which ultimately prompt her to examine her own life. Hasan’s writing of the characters comprising the city’s art-world is astute. The dialogues, often exploring complex debates on art, life, society and politics, never become overly didactic. Yet as a reader, one wishes we could actually witness the spark supposedly existing between Baban and Qayenaat on the printed page.
It is only her decision to burn down Baban’s exhibit that reveals the depth of Qayenaat’s emotions for him. The fire, which also accidentally kills an art critic, leads her to flee to a village to study a “folk” dance form, and ultimately to a series of explosive events. As Qayenaat continues to explore the surroundings of the village where this form emerged, she ends up in a futile relationship with the erstwhile king of this region, a relationship which also ultimately prompts her to confront the vapidness of her own feudal nostalgia.
In some ways, Hasan’s novel joins a long line of Indian Anglophone novels written in the shadows of Naxalbari, which flirt with the abstract notion of Maoism but do not attempt to depict India’s radical-left subjectivities with any degree of artistic or political complexity. In a narrative move that reminds us of Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing of heteronormative romance as a mediating restraint on the otherwise explosive class antagonisms of Victorian England in ‘North and South’, Hasan uses Malti’s son to recast Qayenaat in the role of adoptive maternity. All too predictably, Malti’s son accompanies Qayenaat back to Bangalore to be educated in a city school, while living at Qayenaat’s place.
In doing so, the novel ends up reinforcing both a classed and a gendered status quo, where maternity and domesticity (however tenuous they might be) ameliorate the grim realities of an ongoing class war. Yet in a strange kind of a way, it is precisely Qayenaat’s embrace of this tenuous domesticity which reveals the vacuousness of her fumbled pessimism and the contradictions of her class and ideological position. Hasan’s novel makes space for us to witness that contradiction, and by doing so, also compels us to confront the inanity of our own classed existences.