Qayenaat floats on the edge of the contemporary art scene in Bangalore. In her early 50s, her own artistic ambitions long forgotten, she ekes out a living as an editor. Her name signifies “all of God’s creation”, or the world. Her father, a public works engineer, brought her up to be secular, educated, modern. Qayenaat identifies with no religion, caste or creed and is divorced, childless and self-sufficient: “She had nothing to weigh her down, which was liberating, but she had nothing to fall back on either.”
A young man from her past, now an internationally famous artist, returns to Bangalore with a new artwork and a beautiful and irritating girlfriend in tow. His arrival sets off a chain of events that prompt Qayenaat to leave Bangalore for a dusty little town that is the home of a traditional dance that entranced her years earlier when she’d seen a performance of it by chance. The highly satirical description of the Bangalore art scene in the first part of the book will be familiar to all “cosmopolitans”: the art critic who writes “with the denseness of a clogged toilet pipe”, the artist whose only happy topic of conversation is himself, and the wealthy patrons disproportionately excited by the fact the artist has been commissioned to design a handbag for a fancy French label. The second part, where she journeys to the country, flings her, and us, into strangeness.
The head of the town’s dance academy is overseas, leaving his second-in-command, a thuggish and only intermittently articulate glue-sniffer, to look after her. The dancers are divinely brilliant artists but most, it seems, would just as soon have a regular job. There is an ongoing war between rebels and government, but it’s hard to tell who’s on what side; some appear to be on both. And there is a king who lives in a decaying palace and technically rules over nothing, but is abhorred by some and revered by others.
As action-filled and rompy as Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans is, it is also a novel of ideas. What is art? What is love? Are tradition and modernity compatible? How should we live? Qayenaat’s yoga teacher posits that we need other people “so that we can be kind to them”. But some cruelty, she discovers, is accidental, incidental, and even intertwined with a sort of kindness. If Hasan suggests a path to redemption, it is neither straight nor narrow. CG
Brio, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 27, 2016 as "Anjum Hasan, The Cosmopolitans". Subscribe here.