Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ comes to Delhi’s ‘Polite Society’
Mahesh Rao’s latest novel navigates the sparkle and sordidness of Delhi’s high society with wit and acuity
There is an underlying skein of darkness which expands the scope of Mahesh Rao’s latest novel, Polite Society, beyond a simple re-imagining of Jane Austen’s 19th-century comedy of manners. It is Emma in its essence, and yet it is not. It holds up a mirror to the lives of Delhi’s high society of the funhouse variety, one that reveals every last distortion despite the perfect coiffures, crisp, uncreased silks and exquisitely manicured fingers. Rao gouges out the fault lines of urban India, all the while casting a humorous look at its foibles and charms.
Money and marriage are interchangeable and key concepts in the novel, different steps leading either up or down the social hierarchy among the “polite society”. Austen’s Emma gives Rao the perfect framework within which he can explore these concepts as well the machinations that keep the cogs of this world turning. “Emma encapsulates these themes relating to money, marriage and social mobility, but with a wonderfully intricate plot, hilarious set pieces, and a fascinating central character, who engages the reader at every point, in spite of her unreasonable and presumptuous behaviour,” says Rao on email. “The other crucial aspect of the novel is that it offers plenty of points for departure, places where I could deflect the narrative or transform characters. I think these departures are important acts of forgetting. The last thing you want is a plodding, predictable, hugely inferior version of the original novel,” he says.
Divided into three parts, the novel maps the lives of major and minor characters, diving in and out of the champagne-soaked evenings in the living rooms of Lutyens’ Delhi, the glittering mansions of south Delhi, the lavish soirees of south Bombay, salsa nights in rural Goa, an idyllic lakeside writer’s retreat in Italy, fading palaces of erstwhile Indian royalty, and a millionaires’ resort in St Tropez, among others. For Rao who “read, reread and loved” Austen’s novels since he first encountered Pride And Prejudice at the age of 17, the Austenian world captures the various faces of civilized society and is perfectly suited to pithy social commentary. “I’ve always found that each rereading uncovers a new facet, whether as social satire, comedy of manners or a peerless analysis of power relationships in her world,” says Rao.
Money, the presence or pretence of it, shapes Delhi’s rarefied echelons and is always a factor that determines the actions of the characters in Polite Society. These include Ania Khurana, Rao’s Emma, who, despite being born into a life of gilded privilege, has her heart in the right place. Yet, her sheltered existence leaves her rather clueless about real life and human frailties as she tries to play saviour to men and women, who, according to her, need emotional and financial saving.
Then there are characters like Ania’s aunt, Renu Khurana, the “infamous socialite” Nita Varkey, and Serena Bakshi, a woman with a chequered family history—single, divorced, or widowed women made vulnerable by middle age and uncertain social standing. For them, as with the 20-somethings, husbands are stepping stones to security, a bastion against the loneliness of old age and sometimes the only way out of a future mired in debt and penury.
“Above all, her (Austen’s) novels are about money: the security it provides, the deceptions it facilitates, the fickleness it engenders. I could see that these themes of money, marriage and social mobility lent themselves especially well to a novel set among the elite circles of Delhi,” Rao says. “There continues to exist a rigid hierarchy in this society, where behaviour is governed by a complex set of class and caste codes, and access to patronage or favour can often seem like the only route to success.”
So, while the action meanders through other geographies, the Capital remains the centre of it all. This is a departure for Rao, who has so far steered clear of writing anything that could be called a Delhi novel, which, he feels, is “over-represented” in Indian writing in English. However, for this book, the setting just couldn’t be any different. “I think there isn’t another city in India—or more specifically, a quarter within a city—which is as self-obsessed as Lutyens’ Delhi and this really suits the novel’s purpose,” he adds.
Wealth rarely acquires a well-worn patina in Delhi, a city of enterprising migrants and those who are always in the process of reinventing and up-cycling their lives and futures, leaving their inglorious pasts far behind. It is a world of upstarts and nouveau riches, who are accepted as long as they fit in with the right set. A simple observation by Anja’s friend Dimple, who is an anomaly in this polite society, brings this home:
“This business of rightful shine seemed to extend to almost all areas of life. There were saris and belt buckles and curtains and mobile phone cases and pen tops and earrings and table legs, all of whose sheen had to acquit itself in an appropriate manner.”
Rao’s insights are surprisingly spot on for a man who has lived outside India, in Kenya and the UK, for most of his life and he puts it down to “fortuitous experiences”. One of the ways, he admits, he can get the context, is by opening himself up to people. “Even if you arrive here as that most dreaded of beasts, the NRI, completely confident in the ways of the country, it soon becomes apparent that you have to unlearn much of what you thought you knew. The main thing is to keep your eyes and ears open and let others do the talking,” he says. Ask him about the research that went into creating the palette and language of this world, and he says, “I’d love to say I talked my way on to a super yacht for the summer and sat on one of the decks taking notes diligently. But I suspect I’d mainly have been planning ways to disembark. I’ve been fortunate that the privileges of my education and some of the work I’ve done in the past have allowed me access to places where society is anything but polite. Often, in these circles, as a writer you’re considered a creature worthy only of a little compassion, and certainly of no consequence, which is hugely valuable when lurking around people’s drawing rooms.”
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