A conversation about ‘The Cosmopolitans’, Anjum Hasan’s new novel, between Anjum and Rajorshi Chakraborti.
‘The Cosmopolitans’ is available at Xoum Books.
Anjum Hasan is one of India’s leading contemporary writers, as well known for her novels as she is for her poems, stories, essays and literary criticism. Her books have been nominated for various awards, including the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction Award and the Crossword Fiction Award. Two of her novels, Lunatic in my Head and Big Girl Now are already available in Australia, and we’re talking today about her new novel, The Cosmopolitans, published in September 2016 by Xoum Books.
Before we begin, by way of a (very simple) introduction, The Cosmopolitans has at its heart the story of a woman who is devoted to noticing, looking for and cherishing experiences of awe and beauty, above all in the various art forms that she loves, but also in lived life and in her memories. Where Qayenaat’s curiosities, her longings, as well as other motives—some visible, others submerged—take her, we readers also follow, and in doing so, we journey across a great span of contemporary India, from one of its most dynamic, globalised cities to an especially troubled and exploited part of its heartland. And along the way, we encounter—vividly, movingly, and convincingly—a king, armed rebels, Indian aboriginal people, contemporary artists, crooks, critics, traditional dancers and ordinary villagers, alive all together, in Anjum’s very own Gruppenbild Mit Dame, to borrow the title from a Heinrich Böll novel.
R: Anjum, art, its place in the central character Qayenaat’s life, as well as its place and possible meanings within various locations and levels of Indian life, is one of the most sustained and wide-ranging explorations in the book. Tell us a bit about how your thinking progressed and what you kept discovering as the writing moved in different directions.
A: I started writing The Cosmopolitans at a time when I had just come out of working in an arts foundation for a decade, constantly meeting artists or those researching the arts, and dealing with their meltdowns and their obsessions. Much of the learning and conversations of those years went into the novel. I felt like an eavesdropper on Indian art. So I wanted to see if I could bring that into a novel—not a history but exploring how someone might experience dance or visual art today. Why would a painting in a gallery put people off? Or why does sexual explicitness in art cause great hostility and lead to public violence? There is also the obfuscation around art – the big words and the hot air—which was fun taking apart. Lately, the narrative around Indian art includes money—the glamour of new wealth. Then there is dance. I have my heroine, Qayenaat, thinking about the classical dances which can sometimes feel so dressed up and artificial, and this leads her to wonder about cultural heritage and what a modern Indian’s connection to it might boil down to if we step away from sanctimonious pronunciations about its nationalist value.
R: Speaking of dance, a related aspect that I found myself admiring at many points in the narrative was your effort to bring to life several different art forms and art works, but in each case (obviously) solely through the medium of words. (I had to look up the word ‘ekphrasis’ to be sure that’s what I was thinking of.) To evoke the dance form from Simhal, for example, and what Qayenaat sees and how she is moved by it, or Baban’s huge installation Nostalgia at the start of the book, or the work he plans around water.
Will you talk a bit about the challenges of attempting such evocation in words, and perhaps also about how your own enjoyment of different art forms connects with and nourishes your practice as a writer? (Zadie Smith’s new book on dance and dancers also comes to mind in this regard.)
A: I loved the challenge of trying to write about art without assuming an insider knowledge on the reader’s part and without really being an insider myself. I think the principle I wanted to work with was pleasure, which is why Qayenaat does not have a professional relationship with art, only a personal and emotional one. We have some really excellent writers on art—from the recently deceased KG Subramanyan to Girish Shahane—and I also happened to read, while working on the book, other Indian novels about art—Shanta Gokhale’s compelling Crowfall and V Sanjay Kumar’s very funny Artist, Undone. But art can also prompt some really pompous writing. And then there is the hyperbole in which we sometimes talk about our artists, especially those working in the traditional forms, or the patronising language in which folk forms are often discussed. Qayenaat is just someone who enjoys looking at art. It gives her solace and it was this subjective but significant experience that I wanted to put into words. Obviously it requires some learning, and she is someone who has spent most of her adult life immersed in it—she knows why Marcel Duchamp is important and when Tagore started painting and who Henri Rousseau was. But she’s not looking to prove anything—except perhaps Schopenhauer’s idea that because life is meaningless the special meaningless of art acquires resonance
R: As you mention these artists and philosophers, it reminds me that another thing I loved about the book were the many echoes in its course of other admired writers and books, although this would of course vary from reader to reader. So for example in my case, in following Qayenaat, I moved from recalling Mrs Dalloway at the start to Naipaul’s ‘A Bend in the River’ when she arrives in Simhal, and then even ‘Heat and Dust’ a little bit as her relationship with the King develops. But then I wondered if you had a completely different mental picture of certain writers close to you, perhaps reading with enjoyment over your shoulder, as you wrote.
A: Curiously, I haven’t read any of these novels! Though Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas has always been a presence for me because of its incredible funniness and empathy. And I’m always inspired by Woolf’s essays and always meaning to get to her fiction. I’m not trained in English literature so I haven’t read it in any organised way. But I have read quite a lot of contemporary Indian English fiction, and I think that influenced me, or at least inspired me to get started—especially the novels of the 1990s and early 2000s. I’m not quite sure who’s looking over my shoulder—perhaps someone who’s a combination of EM Forster, Saul Bellow and Amit Chaudhuri! I am also inspired by writers who I don’t, or can’t quite, emulate—JM Coetzee’s tone of moral seriousness, for instance.
R: One word that kept coming to me in the course of reading The Cosmopolitans is that it’s a spectrum of so many things – of people, locations, backgrounds, perspectives, classes, experiences—and, as Bakhtin would enjoy, a greatly ‘dialogic’ spectrum at that. There is space within it to meditate on the drainage problems of Sir M V Nagar, and Malti’s worries about the rebels near Dharti taking Chota away in a couple of years, and so many other spaces and histories that are shown to be contradictory, yet co-existent and intersecting. Throughout the book, very different people shaped by their differing lives frequently clash, argue, and also discover. Did this sort of great range organically evolve as the story grew in your mind to take in more people and locations? How enjoyable was that challenge of letting all these voices go inside your head, and finding a way to give them all their due validity?
A: I am so glad you noticed that. There is nothing better than fiction for noticing the everyday —it is the great form in which you can write about drainage in a non-boring way, or try to. And, actually, nothing is mundane for me. What we call Indian reality is constantly weird and surprising to me—there’s a horrific, thirty-year-old civil war going on in the middle of the country, while champagne flows at lavish art gallery openings in the metropolises. The stupendous contrasts have become a cliché but I wanted to take apart the cliché, see if this great mess could become part of the experience of one person without it becoming a Forrest Gump kind of narrative.
Also, I have to say that I don’t find enough of this sense of all of life in the Indian novels I read. It amazes me that, given how living in this century here feels like being in a giant, deafening concrete mixer which you can’t get out of, there isn’t more fiction saturated with the zeitgeist. There is so much to write about! I worry it is slipping out of our hands while we busy ourselves with campus romances, faux mythology and self-help books.
R: I love that description of “being in a giant, deafening concrete mixer which you can’t get out of.” But alongside that truth, one of my favourite parts of the book is when the narrative, usually through Qayenaat’s eyes, cherishes what she sees before her, as well as what she remembers. To me, it brought out wonderfully how the novel form can not only be the ground for great dialogic debates on art, politics, and the past and present directions of the nation, but also this incredible storehouse of small, lost or fleeting things, such as the sections about Qayenaat’s childhood in different homes, her friend Kamna, the objects in Blanche that evoke her parents, the view at dusk sitting by the river. Trying to turn this into a question, do talk a bit about what you found yourself drawing on, or inventing from, especially for those wonderfully evoked periods from Qayenaat’s childhood.
A: That’s really a great observation. I think I am inspired by the Russians in this, those expansive narratives by Turgenev or Tolstoy where something of great historical significance can be taking place and yet the pattern of the wallpaper or the specific emotional colour of a moment is also present on the very same plane as it were. I like the word “cherish” and I think I’ve had to learn how to do that as a novelist, and even as a person. How do you give value to your own experiences? It’s not easy if you’ve grown up imbibing a lot of western culture as most of us have. This is not an autobiographical novel and Qayenaat’s itinerant childhood is very different from my own very static one. I enjoyed creating a past for her—rather than just providing her with a bio-data. She is the child of a government servant, and her father’s energy shaped her childhood but also resulted in its disappointments and regrets.
R: Finally, perhaps returning to the “deafening concrete mixer” image, I’d love for you to speak a little about Qayenaat’s relationship with the ‘bigger’ aspects of present-day Indian life, which is also a theme looked at from various angles right through the novel. Money, for example, or the rapid rate of change in contemporary Bangalore, or politics as manifested in various forms of inequality and social struggle. Are ‘poetry, painting (and) performance’ Qayenaat’s “only hope”, as she says at one point, and do they form an escape for her from these other unrelenting parts of everyday Indian life?
I was also struck in this regard by the number of times Qayenaat notices and seems to long for visions of apparent harmony, such as when she wanders through Simhal and it appears to her that everyone here ‘had their place’. In a similar way, the king’s certainties about the traditions and beliefs that have formed him and who and how he must continue be, also exert a pull on her. What tensions did you sense, and explore, within Qayenaat about “the hard work” of “being a modern Indian” the more time you spent with her?
A: I think all of us middle class Indians have found ways to resist the pressure of reality, mostly through the paradigm of success we follow—the numbing obsession we have with making money and marrying the right people and having the secure job and keeping our feet dry, as it were. So for Qayenaat to turn to art in this apparently functionless way is a minor resistance. But, yes, she is also always aware of her outsiderness or homelessness in relation to the great swathe of real India. I’m trying to see if someone like her—liberal, secular, English speaking—has any relevance left or if loneliness and guilt is all. In an earlier time that sensibility seemed more at ease, confident about its role in Indian society, as you can see in the case of her cheerfully forward-looking engineer father. Today, this class is more confused about its role, finds it sense of entitlement slipping away from it, and Qayenaat embodies some of those confusions.