India’s past and present rub shoulders in a
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-