Quirky skewering of art world
tions about rural Indian life, and doing the deed with the king in his decaying fairytale castle in the novel’s only nod to any kind of eroticism.
What, then, to make of The Cosmopolitans? It’s a mixed bag. It’s a lively, entertaining read, with much to enjoy, particularly in the awkward, lost figure of Qayenaat, a rare older female protagonist; so too in the bluntly spoken Sathi and his sly puncturing of art world pomposity. However there are perhaps too many story spurs that, enjoyable as they are, end up taking you away from the main story of Qayenaat’s search for herself.
Bangalore-born Hasan is the author of the novels Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in My Head (2007), the short fiction collection Difficult Pleasures (2012) and the book of poems Street on the Hill (2006).
She has some keen insights to share on the mercenary nature of the art world, the intersection of culture and capitalism, the artist as conman, how we judge art and the meaning it gives our lives, and India’s own battle to keep its rich, ancient classical artistic traditions alive while engaging with Western artistic trends. India’s young artists need to create their own Mona Lisas, is Qayenaat’s battle cry.
There is a sobering sideline in the impact of religious fundamentalism on art, centred in the tragic figure of Nur Jahan, whose nude paintings lead to nationwide riots and her savage murder at the hands of a mob that Hasan describes as “an ambidextrous animal — its right hand and its left, its Hindu and its Muslim, went about its work in the same way”.
Also interesting are her insights into modern India, especially the divisions between the idealistic Nehruvian post-independence era, represented by her civil engineer father and his love of socialism fed by industrial progress, to the highly commercialised India of today, all “mammoth malls, [and] high streets of international fashion and global entertainment”, Bollywood culture and shallow art trends.
She peeks into the morality of India’s rich liberals (“should you buy Versace when people toiled in hardship knotting carpets so that you could buy Versace?”) and examines changing Indian attitudes to the West: “her parents’ generation read foreign novels out of reverence, her own listened to the music of Western liberation and dreamt … and then there was Baban’s generation for whom the West was no longer a big deal; they could suddenly stand up one day and announce they were going to be artists, ready to take on the world”.
Throughout, we hear a hymn to nostalgia, to an innocent India of Fiat and Ambassador cars, nylon polka-dotted saris and great dam-building schemes. The past and the present rub shoulders uneasily in Hasan’s novel: as mad Prince Mohan says more than once, “being a modern Indian is hard work”. Australian. is an arts journalist at The
Anjum Hasan offers keen insights on India