In our political discourse and while listening to the sermons of economists we are told that there are two Indias: One that is rising and shining and the other which is backward and drowning under the debt and violence. ‘The Cosmpolitans’ by Anjum Hasan sees through the given artificial binary, to move beyond it. It becomes the story of many Indias- Bangalore, Benares, Simhala, Ispatnagar, Dharti. In the story we see those many Indias through the eyes of an ‘almost’ menopausal woman, Qayenaat, ‘Qayenaat, meanwhile, came to believe that the world is divided into people who performed their lives and people who were audience for this performance; she with her shyness and her patchy history fell, naturally in the second category.’ Though she believes that she falls in the second category, she is the most important performer.
Anjum in a recent interview for a daily was asked about the life around art, as according to the columnist, the given novel is about art. Her response was that ‘it’s hard to say with absolute certainty what you’re trying to express through the novel.’ That’s the beauty of ‘The Cosmopolitans’ as it touches many dimensions.
Certainly it is about art…there is dance, nostalgia– a humongous room installation, paintings and the life around art, but there is more to it. Not sure whether other readers have observed or will notice the fact that novel is also about ‘news’. The narrative begins with the news and throughout the story, to my understanding, news remain a common thread. The indifference to the news and becoming a part of news is the path which protagonist Qayenaat keeps traversing unknowingly.
In my adolescent years, I read almost all novels written by Punjabi novelist Dilip Kaur Tiwana. She is still my favorite author. The sublime themes like firm belief in ideology and rituals, demise and tyranny of royalty, banality and at the same time intensity of human relationships were part of Tiwana’s early works. ‘The Cosmopolitans’ takes a similar route. This is why at surface level it may come out as a work of an English speaking Indian author, but if ploughed a little deeper it smells or reeks of vernacular landscape which extends from Shivaji Nagar, Sir M.V. Nagar in Bangalore to an architectural disaster (as described in novel) Modern Nritya Academy in Simhala. There are references to resurgent temples of modern India- Damodar Valley Project, Farakka Barrage – idealism of a bygone age and visit to neoliberal avenues like Whitefield, Yeshvantpur. ‘A woman alone on a train (in an auto) concealing a dark secret’ is crisscrossing them. For many reasons, novel has a strange resemblance and at times the pace of a recent Bollywood movie ‘Dedh Ishqia’.
Metaphors like ‘denseness of clogged toilet pipe’ and ‘anxiety bubbling through her like a tablet taking its time to dissolve in a glass of water’, makes the banalities and secretiveness of the story more intriguing. Worth reading over a weekend with a cup of tea!