In­dia’s past and present rub shoul­ders in a

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Qayenaat is the un­likely hero­ine of An­jum Hasan’s lat­est novel, The Cos­mopoli­tans. Grandly named after the Urdu noun used to “de­scribe all of God’s cre­ation”, she is 53, un­der­em­ployed, a failed artist, a hip­pie drifter af­flicted with see­saw­ing high blood pres­sure, rest­less, and rak­ing over the coals of a still­born ro­mance from decades ago.

A mar­ginal player in the glit­ter­ing, febrile art scene in Ban­ga­lore, in In­dia’s south, Qayenaat sees her­self as one of the last of a dy­ing breed.

A ded­i­cated art lover and in­tel­lec­tual who loathes the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of art, she scratches out a liv­ing as a free­lance ed­i­tor and writer, liv­ing alone in her late fa­ther’s house in a scruffy neigh­bour­hood while she dreams of love and art and mean­ing­ful work.

In this cu­ri­ous shapeshifter of a novel, we first meet her loi­ter­ing around the edges of a loud, wine-fu­elled art launch cel­e­brat­ing the re­turn of New York-based art world su­per­star Ba­ban Reddy to his home town with his lat­est in­stal­la­tion work, Nos­tal­gia. The much younger Reddy, it turns out, is that one great love from Qayenaat’s past. As she eyes him from a cor­ner, we learn she hopes to rekin­dle their long-ago spark — and per­haps re­cap­ture some of the po­ten­tial and dreams of her youth.

Co­a­lesc­ing around this odd pair are a range of quirky, richly sketched char­ac­ters, from prag­matic so­cial cru­sader/jour­nal­ist Sathi and rich art col­lec­tor Sara to the pompous art critic Gyan Pai and the mys­te­ri­ous Mus­lim artist Nur Ja­han, whose story we fol­low obliquely un­til its har­row­ing end.

Qayenaat’s search for her­self takes us through a suc­ces­sion of worlds. From the In­dian con­tem­po­rary art scene, filled, as else­where, with the usual com­ple­ment of pre­ten­tious art crit­ics, breath­less syco­phants, preen­ing artists, thick-headed busi­ness­men, dilet­tante gallery own­ers and wealthy art col­lec­tors, we jump to the In­dian un­der­world of goon­das and pyra­mid schemes where the pen­ni­less Qayenaat is per- suaded by ex-boyfriend Sathi to go along with a plan for in­sur­ance fraud.

Sathi, it ap­pears, has crim­i­nal con­nec­tions who will break in and steal a highly valu­able Nur Ja­han paint­ing she owns. But fol­low­ing a sud­den — and slightly im­prob­a­ble — art gallery fire in­volv­ing the ob­nox­ious critic Pai, Qayenaat flees Ban­ga­lore to pur­sue an old pas­sion for In­dian folk dance in the wilds of ru­ral north In­dia, set­tling in an area redo­lent with wood fires and goat shit, torn by tribal wars and ruled by a charm­ing, pos­si­bly mad king, Prince Mohan, the last of his kind in post-monar­chi­cal In­dia.

Here, a sec­ond love af­fair blooms for Qayenaat as she wan­ders about chat­ting up the lo­cals, giv­ing ad­vice to a young tribal woman (and even­tu­ally semi-adopt­ing her young son), spar­ring with young, glue-sniff­ing thug Vipul, earnestly in­ter­view­ing dancers and their gurus about fast dis­ap­pear­ing clas­si­cal dance tra­di­tions, mak­ing var­i­ous an­thro­po­log­i­cal ob­serva-

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