Title: Polite Society
Author: Mahesh Rao
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 304 pages
Money is an important measure of man (and woman) in a Jane Austen novel. It decides who is invited to the grand balls, and for whom the wedding bells toll. It allows an Emma Woodhouse the autonomy of her airy fancies and teaches Charlotte Lucas to not always trust the ground beneath her feet. It is the hard husk of reality, and acknowledging it, among other things, is a part of the unsentimental education every Jane Austen heroine must go through.
In his second novel, Polite Society, Mahesh Rao chooses to transplant Austen’s Emma in crazy rich south Delhi. And that does seem apt. Money — its undeniable, unbridled energy — courses through the tiny, independent Republic of Lutyens’ Delhi, where, as in an English village, only a handful of families matter, and where citizenship is awarded only if you understand “the fine gradations in the lustre of objects, that some kinds of dazzles were far more acceptable than others.”
Our Emma of Prithviraj Road, Ania Khurana, is introduced to us in a delicious opening chapter. It catches Delhi at a particularly vulnerable mix of pretentiousness and perplexity, amid fibre-glass elephants and cowpat installations at the India Art Fair, as buyers and curators try to spot “the emerging artist who would lead to their own canonisation”. Ania is handsome, clever, and very rich, the only daughter of the old-moneyed Dileep Khurana. Fresh from the success of rescuing her aunt from a life of spinsterhood, Ania will now do whatever it takes to dissuade her new friend Dimple from the misfortune of falling for a resident of Lajpat Nagar — and nudge her towards Fahim, an ambitious TV journalist hustling for success.
Both Dimple and Fahim have clawed and crawled out of their limited small-town lives. They are, as yet, unaccustomed but dazzled by the excess and affluence of Ania’s world — “in the Khurana household, they always ordered four of everything”, Chola bronzes lying around cost as much as entire apartment buildings and low-profile weddings are held in London. Unlike in Emma, where Austen allows us only the muddled viewpoint of the flawed heroine, setting up a close identification with her, Rao lets us slide into the consciousness of minor, but striking, characters.
We feel the sting of anger in Fahim as his schemes for success are thwarted; we watch Dimple being smothered by Ania’s saviour complex; we chafe, with Dileep Khurana, at the passing of youth and glory. If anything, Ania is the weakest of Rao’s characters. Why the ditsy, gossip-loving aspiring writer of the early part of the novel (she who believes her shiny presence at an oncologist clinic is a public service commitment; also she who dreams of literary excellence with a character named Ludmila) had to turn to a tamed, bewildered — but not really tragic — woman of the later half remains a mystery.
There is much that might seduce us in this novel — the writer’s creation of Delhi, all surfaces and shine, flecked with equal parts eyeroll, regard and irony; the ease and elegance of his language; the sly, stylish wit. But one suffers from the fatigue of being dragged through too many pretty destinations, too lovingly detailed, even as the novel becomes a slow, anxious revelation of a society crumbling under its own contradictions.
Of course, fidelity to Emma’s comic arc, where marriage signifies a restitution of social and moral order, a promise of continuity of family and property, is not Rao’s aim. (There is no marriage at the end of the novel.) The cracks are more visible in Polite Society, so that the darkness can get in.
The novel as a genre was born out of an encounter with capitalism, and it carries within it an important conversation about the moral challenge that money and social mobility pose — think of the burden of Pip’s great expectations, for instance. Polite Society appears to suggest that there is no order to be restored in a city so overwhelmingly in thrall of wealth and so restless with the urge for more; but even the amorality of its characters appears to be all surface, a glamorous, striking pose. It is reflected in the abandonment of Rao’s two most interesting characters, Dimple and Fahim, who are given no substantial battles to fight. In the absence of a real conflict, or a countervailing force — neither love, nor morality — Rao’s novel, enjoyable on many counts, remains an oddly dissatisfying experience. To mangle Henry James, “I liked much of it, just not the whole thing.”