Anjum Hasan, the books editor at The Caravan, was born in Shillong and lives in Bengaluru. She is the author of the short story collection Difficult Pleasures, and the novels Lunatic in my Head and Neti, Neti. Her third novel, The Cosmopolitans, was published earlier this month. A character in the novel remarks, at one point, that “Being a modern Indian is hard work.” In this excerpt, the protagonist of The Cosmopolitans considers one part of the challenge.
Money. Something had been happening since the turn of the century to render everyone well off except Qayenaat. Let alone the elderly uncles and aunties clinging to their bungalows and their club memberships and the rich young hipsters with everything in their pockets, even the carefree drifters of her own generation who seemed, once, to have bypassed the idea of money—by having regular careers and raising regular kids, or living with their parents till they were forty-five and adapting themselves without loss of soul to any hack job—had proved, once the new century dawned, not to be so retiring after all.
Qayenaat discovered this late. It was as if they’d all just been waiting for Pears soap and Italian pasta to hit the shelves before they disowned their alleged poverty, grinning sheepishly as they abandoned the swadeshi delights of their youth—the polka-dotted nylon saris, the low-roofed Fiat cars, the striped yellow packs of glucose biscuits, the synthetic orange juices, the bottles of royal-blue Chelpark ink with which one filled fountain pens to write letters to faraway friends and with which friends filled their pens to write back.
How was it that everyone except Qayenaat had been lifted to safe ground by the deluge? There hadn’t been time to investigate; she’d spent most of her energy just trying to keep her head above the water. Qayenaat had, seemingly, done everything. She’d taken on freelance writing, taught schoolchildren, worked for a ridiculous magazine, edited academic tomes. After twenty years of doing this shit there was nothing to show for it, of course, but then again, hadn’t that been the point once? That you weren’t supposed to care? Once,it didn’t matter what you did as long as you weren’t showy; now it no longer mattered what you did as long as you were. Qayenaat had tried to preserve her dignity but it wasn’t any good.
Back in the previous century, when she and Baban were friends, Bangalore had seemed innocent of pelf—no tales of software entrepreneurs making it big, no luxury apartments calling out from the hoardings, no sedans gliding down every second street. Then he left town, and the roar of this material world grew louder around Qayenaat. Shehad resorted to people like Sathi for whom wealth was a form of crime, and Sara who was able to remain indifferent to money via money.