“Being a modern Indian is hard work,” a former king tells Qayanaat, the protagonist of Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans. If this is true for the King, the dispossessed monarch of fictional, small-town Simhal, it’s certainly so for Qayanaat, a 53-year-old single woman who lives in Bengaluru, subsisting on the diminishing material wealth of one man, her deceased father, while trying to manage her excess of emotions for another, the artist Baban.
Had Hasan chosen Baban—a character who recalls certain real Indian artists, such as Subodh Gupta—as her protagonist, The Cosmopolitans would likely have been India’s first Künstlerroman set in the contemporary art world. And Baban, triumphantly returning from New York to launch his large-scale conceptual work, ‘Nostalgia’, in Bengaluru, would have been a rich character for Hasan to use to pick apart the tensions she explores: between modernity and tradition, aesthetics and ethics, art and profit.
Instead, although The Cosmopolitans opens with the inauguration of ‘Nostalgia’, Hasan sets about painting a portrait of Qayanaat, a character on the periphery of the art world, but at the center of this ambitious, yet intimate, novel of ideas. Qayanaat neither makes art, nor collects it, and her place in the wider world is unclear as well. She is hopeless with money; her quietly bohemian lifestyle, surrounded by her garden and a few works of art, is only enabled by the house that her father left her. By conventional benchmarks, she is something of a failure. This makes her an appealing and important character in a country obsessed with success.
The first half of the book describes Qayanaat’s life in Bengaluru, as a drifter on a sleepy art scene populated by a cast of familiar figures. There are the Bengalis, both elderly intellectuals and young, eager creators; Baban, the maverick hotshot with his NRI arm-candy; the aficionados and the aunties, the patrons of various means. Hasan deftly sketches her characters and has fun fleshing out the stereotypes. Baban, for instance, “reared on curd rice and Charminar, now sought after by the world’s leading galleries and collectors”, or Sara, Qayanaat’s “vivacious, art-loving friend, her jingle-jangle jewellery and swishy skirts”.
There’s no snappy sentence to describe Qayanaat’s slippery existence in this milieu. While Baban calls her QT, her ex-boyfriend Sathi’s mispronunciation of her name (which comes from the Urdu and Arabic kainaat, or universe) is one reason she gives for breaking up with him. Later, the King calls her Mandakini. For her part, Qayanaat is too busy attempting to live as a modern Indian to try and analyse such an existence, least of all through an aesthetic lens:
When among her artist friends, she always withdrew from conscience-stricken conversations about Who Was to Blame and What Should be Done. Hell, she would think. What happened to experience? It seemed to have been replaced by hot air. If we can’t be out there, eating grass and fighting the Indian state with rickety rifles, we could at least shut up and look to our own lives. Karma, she would think. Wasn’t it supposed to be the guiding force once, the idea that every action, however minor, has consequences? So she would go back home and water the flowers and then sit in silence, looking at the garden of trees her father had planted. Almond, frangipani, pink tabebuia.
Eventually, Qayanaat’s passive retreat turns into an impetuous offensive against the seriousness and conceit of the art world. The impulse that drives her must be familiar to many of us who, standing in a gallery sipping wine, have felt the urge to to do something drastic, something that would puncture the solemnity and the casual conviviality of the occasion, to rub out the hallowed glow emanating from the artist or artworks, so robbed of their own power to rupture the mundane.
Book One culminates in just such a moment of rebellion, which ends in a disaster that Hasan treats as almost more comedic than tragic. In order to finance an escape from the repercussions of her actions, and her guilt, Qayanaat sells an old painting she owns by ‘Nur Jahan’, a sort of artist-in-purdah whose nude paintings have gained notoriety and appreciated in value due to the political controversy surrounding them.
Book Two shifts aesthetic gears significantly, from visual to performance art, from avante-garde to tradition. “I’ll go into India,” Qayanaat decides, to learn about the dance-theatre of the town of Simhal. But between meeting the King, with his odd mix of conservative and worldly views; Vipul Singh, a local tout and wannabe tough; and Malti, a widowed tribal woman; Qayanaat finds “India” perhaps a bit more than she bargained for.
The cheek that makes the first half of The Cosmopolitans so enjoyable to a reader familiar with the metropolitan art world retreats slightly in the book’s second half. As Qayanaat finds herself out of her element, she is less capable of passing judgment upon a world in which she is truly an outsider, as are we. If this transition makes Hasan’s book a little less fun, it also make it a more robust portrait of the angst of being a modern Indian. There is slight frustration in watching Qayanaat bridge her experiences in the countryside with her life in the city by way of maternal instinct, but – typically of Hasan’s art – it is only because it imitates life all too well.
Sonal Shah is a journalist based in New Delhi