‘The barriers are as strong as ever': In conversation with Mahesh Rao on his novel ‘Polite Society’

About a book that takes off from 19th century England but lands perfectly in 21st century India

Updated - December 09, 2018 12:20 pm IST

Published - December 07, 2018 03:31 pm IST

Class act: ‘Literature is something I wouldn’t be able to live without.’

Class act: ‘Literature is something I wouldn’t be able to live without.’

We meet in a quiet pub on a leafy street that overlooks Ulsoor Lake. It is one of Bengaluru’s more beautiful bits, perfect to quieten traffic-jangled nerves. Mahesh Rao, who moved from Kenya to India about a decade ago, now moves between Mysuru (his hometown), London and Delhi. We are in Bengaluru to talk about his book Polite Society , but talking about the book actually means talking about India, about the class system, about privilege and entitlement. And how Delhi is an amplified reflection of these phenomena. Polite Society is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma , but to Rao’s credit he has taken the book way beyond that, to make it uniquely of this country and of these times.

I am curious why you would pick Austen and Emma .

For a long time I had wanted to set a 19th century novel in India. The scope, the themes, the conflict between tradition and modernity lend themselves to modern-day India so well. And I was fascinated by Emma, she is such an unlikable character. You could view the novel through the mores of its time, the snobbery and the real distance between the classes. Or you can look at it through modern lenses. The challenge appealed to me.

The snobbery and distance between the classes hasn’t gone anywhere, has it?

No, but we feel it should have. In Austen’s days, there was no expectation that the classes would intermingle. Emma would do acts of charity for people in the lower social classes, but life would be very much lived with people of her own class. Now, we expect social mobility, fluidity. We expect barriers to come down through education, etc. But they have not. The barriers in India seem just as strong as ever.

Austen is astute about these differences, these power relationships. She has an amazing eye for the subtleties. And that is basically what making your way in India is all about. What caste, what class, what position you belong to. India and the U.K. are possibly the most class-bound societies. And here you have the addition of caste. I think Indian society lends itself very well to being viewed through that Austenian prism.

But you leave caste out of your novel entirely.

Because people of this class [upper class] very often are completely oblivious to caste. Even the so-called enlightened members will say ‘oh but we never talk about caste, we don’t see caste’ without realising that the reason why they don’t see caste is because they don’t have to. I think they think that acknowledging caste in some way makes them complicit. Caste is really very distant from anything in their everyday lives. So I chose to leave it out.

Despite Emma’s unlikeability, one does end up liking her. You don’t give your heroine Ania that escape route. Why is that?

I didn’t want to let her off the hook too easily. I think it’s a really serious issue. I didn’t want to tie things up with a transformative ending. I think perhaps the reader is left with the idea that this is the beginning of change. Hopefully, she will go further. I honestly think it’s going to take a lot more to transform someone like that, with that kind of insane privilege. We have to be mindful of the time we live in. There were many excuses to be made for Emma — she never travelled or schooled widely. But Ania Khurana has had the best things that money can buy; she has no excuses really.

But I must tell you that it’s interesting how people from privileged backgrounds tell me, ‘Ania isn’t so bad.’ Or, ‘Oh she could’ve been a lot meaner.’ Even reactions to Nina are coloured by people’s own backgrounds.

That’s interesting. A book on class is received by people according to their class…

Well, it really goes so deep, you know, this defensiveness about the class tribe to which you belong. There’s a huge defence always, about merit, about privilege, about how you’ve made your way in the world.

Your book observes the minutiae of posh Delhi society so accurately. How did you do this? As an outsider or insider?

Completely as an outsider. But again that’s a function of my privilege. I don’t come from this class, but you can very easily get a pass because of your own privileges. I grew up abroad, I went to the right schools and universities, I speak a certain way. So it’s been relatively easy to gain access to people and places… When I moved here a decade ago, I barely knew a soul. But once my first book was published it’s not been difficult. It’s not about some intrinsic talent, but because people judge you on certain criteria and I pass.

That’s a cynical observation… is it especially true of Lutyens’ Delhi?

Yes. If I had grown up elsewhere or if I sounded different or if didn’t have the cultural or social references they do, it would be difficult or impossible to gain access. But you are casually thrown invitations… (chuckles) there’s a limited cultural cachet to having a writer at these parties. But also, I am of no significance; I am not politically or financially important. You can have me around and people don’t really care about what they say. I am of no consequence to them.

There are some keenly observed people in the book. Are they real?

Some are, some are amalgamations. But I am really grateful to people who have talked to me. Actually, people are desperate to tell you stories. And the thing I’ve discovered about Delhi circles is that people generally loathe about five people, and within about an hour of meeting you, they will very often tell you about the three or four people they loathe. This has been a blessing to me — these riches have come flowing.

Speaking of cultural cachet, your book’s Art Fair scene has a line that goes: ‘Art is like religion. You don’t have to understand it, you just have to show up.’

(Laughs) Well, it is quite similar. When you don’t believe something, when you don’t have the confidence of your faith in the beauty of this art or in the power of religion, you just have to show your face. You’ve got your VIP pass, you’ve shown yourself, then you move on. It’s immediately apparent. A lot of the people who are there are there to be seen. It’s just something that’s on the roster of cultural events — to be ticked. You go to the Art Fair, you go to JLF. They go to be seen, to network. The art is sometimes a very tertiary part of it.

In one place, Dilip’s sister is compared to a piece of good, antique furniture. Is this how Delhi evaluates people?

There is always a reckoning. Of where you are in the grand social scheme. People have to place you. In the U.K., it is done by the accent; as soon as you open your mouth, you are slotted. Here, there are other signifiers. They all come into play as soon as you meet. It’s not just a Delhi thing; it happens everywhere, but it is kind of heightened there. In Lutyens’ Delhi, there’s this intense focus of being in the political centre, there’s all this money swilling around. Of course, it’s there in Mumbai and other cities, but it’s Delhi’s confluence of financial and political and cultural power.

The book has a great paragraph on the gradations of lustre — gleam, sparkle, dazzle — and Dimple doesn’t know which is socially “acceptable”. I read it as a metaphor for social strata.

It works on both levels. As a metaphor but also literally. For someone like Dimple there are all sorts of bewildering pitfalls and markers. Taste and sophistication is very allied to the idea of class. How you relate to the world around you marks people out. These complex codes can include or exclude you — this is just how class operates. It infiltrates all sorts of things. From what you would order in a restaurant to whether you appreciate a piece of art to the lustre of your belt — is it too shiny or shiny enough?

Dimple’s boyfriend Ankit is comfortable in his own skin. Is he your stamp of approval on authenticity?

I would like him in real life; he doesn’t pretend to be anything he is not. He is sensitive and caring; he stitches a tassel back on his sister’s pallu. He is not ‘macho’. It’s nice to be able to write about a man like that. That scene wrote itself….

Do your characters often do that? Write themselves?

Very often. It takes a long time; you get to know them, day after day. But they do arrive, and incrementally they reveal themselves. I know that sounds mysterious, but it’s actually just true.

How did today’s politics influence your novel?

You are never far from these issues — it’s a polarised society. It’s almost as if the first person you’re talking about is referring to people as Modi supporter or leftist or liberal. You can’t get away from it — there’s your Hindutva uncle on Whatsapp. Or a classmate on Facebook. Dimple’s mother is a Hindutva supporter and rams it down her throat. Dimple wants to escape the mother and the claustrophobic small town she grew up in.

‘Ambitious girls did not fall in love with garment shop owners from Lajpat Nagar. This is Delhi’s most undeniable truth.’ Your comments?

This is Ania’s world view — she assumes a lot of things in the statement. For Ania, it is inconceivable that one wouldn’t want to be important in the circles she moves in. But actually many of us are very happy not to be. Also, it’s the prescriptive nature of it. Her enormous arrogance and entitlement come through. For me, it was the darkness and hollowness of — in many ways — those who are still the ruling classes.

Of course, this is all shifting. These are interesting times — now people who are enormously powerful politically don’t necessarily have the same class cachet. So we are at this very interesting time where you have people with enormous class capital but they find that their political capital is ebbing away.

Towards the end, darkness explodes in the book. Whether Nina or Ania, they are in a way responsible for it themselves. Are you saying this social set sort of eats its own?

Yes, this society as one that is eating itself. It was also a comment on the fact that very rarely do these people suffer the consequences of their actions in reality. There is always enough pull or money to escape. I’ve often found this — this big scandal but it then just disappears. In this novel, I wanted to explore what could be the consequence, when people do suffer the consequences of their actions.

When I interviewed you in 2015, you’d said that you found it alarmingly easy to do the voice of the spoilt, rich girl for a story in 1.3 Billion . I find the same ease with Ania. Are you really a spoilt, rich girl in disguise?

That’s such a horrifying thought! (laughs) But I must be honest — these voices did come to me relatively easily. Someone said something interesting to me — that it’s harder to write from places of intimacy, it’s easier to adopt an identity. It’s harder to confront something deeper within yourself. So perhaps that’s why it was easier for me to do the rich girl… (pauses; laughs) Anyway, that’s my escape route!

Ania chooses literature over art. Which would you?

Oh literature any time! It’s something I wouldn’t be able to live without. I wouldn’t be able to live without art either but yes, I definitely think in words. And language. Rather than in colour and images.


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