“Being a modern Indian is hard work”: An Excerpt From ‘The Cosmopolitans’

22 August, 2015

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.

Sara came from a rich Kashmiri family that had for generations been into carpet manufacturing. Both her grandfathers, her father, her brothers, her uncles, her male cousins—all the men in her single-minded family were into carpets. Sara’s rebellion from the carpet world took the form of marriage to a non-carpet man. Her husband, Sardar Rai, was some kind of don of car dealerships, having set up several across the country. To Qayenaat the difference between cars and carpets did not seem that remarkable but Sara’s father had apparently been furious—she’d not only married outside the extended family but chosen a man who wasn’t into carpets. Let alone carpets, he wasn’t even Kashmiri. And forget not being Kashmiri, he wasn’t even Muslim.

The rebellion, however, turned out to be not much more than a frisson. A reunion had been deftly negotiated by a sympathetic aunt and Sara was accepted back into the carpet fold. She’d treated her relatives with amused indifference ever since, but it did not hurt that she came into a handsome inheritance, in the shape of an old bungalow, when her parents passed away.

At some point in her marriage, Sara decided that she’d had enough of the workaholic Sardar, who apparently conducted business negotiations even in his sleep and who adored Sara but always put his cars first. She trained her maid to pack the right shirts for his business trips and give him breakfast on time. When they actually met, which was two or three times a week, Sara and her husband behaved towards each other with the friendliness of colleagues working in different departments of a mammoth enterprise—politely curious about the goings-on in each other’s wings but aware that to them it made no difference. Sara wasn’t really bothered about how the money was made as long as she was given enough of it, and her husband didn’t really care what she did with her time as long as she stayed his.

Sara was the first person Qayenaat befriended from that world in which you spent money you hadn’t earned. She had grown interested in how the mind of the rich worked, not just the moral side of it—should you buy Versace when people toiled in hardship knotting carpets so that you could buy Versace?—but the psychological. She, who had spent so long trying to render money irrelevant and suffered from her failure to do so, was fascinated by Sara’s composure. She had realized, over time, that because Sara’s wealth was hereditary, this composure was genetic. There was no way Qayenaat could aspire to it.

Nevertheless, they were friends. Qayenaat told Sara everything just as Sara told Qayenaat everything. They met once a month at Koshy’s to drink gin and tonics and pore over the details of each other’s lives. Qayenaat remembered reading in a novel whose name she’d forgotten a metaphor for two friends coming together. They met in the middle of a desert and opened an umbrella between them. That was Sara and her.

Sara radiated enthusiasm. Qayenaat watched her now as she wove her way through the tables packed with the usual, early afternoon black-and-white congregations of lawyers, and retired loners reading Perry Masons with their coffee. It wasn’t just how striking she looked, with her close-cut, snow-white hair and her huge kohl-rimmed eyes that appeared to swallow the rest of the sweet, small, inverted triangle of her face. She was also a miracle of self-regard. Qayenaat would say that the only thing that could shake her up would be falling in love with someone who didn’t love her back, but Sara laughed at the stupidity of the assumption that love just dropped out of the sky one day when you weren’t looking and crushed you. Nothing like that could ever happen to her.

The Cosmopolitans (400 pgs, R499) is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was released on 17 August.

Anjum Hasan is the author of several works of fiction. Her latest book is the collection of stories A Day in the Life. See more at www.anjumhasan.com.