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‘Polite Society’ review: The terribly sweet things of Prithviraj Road

Mahesh Rao’s second novel and third book of fiction is advertised as “Jane Austen’s Emma meets Delhi high society”: this description, like the book’s title, is a partial truth that is also a misdirection. As an adaptation of Emma, Polite Society is faithful to the core of the original plot, but not at the expense of its own narrative requirements. Rao never strains for fidelity in the way that Alexander McCall Smith did in his recent modernisation, for instance, by making Miss Taylor a “governess” despite his novel being set in 21st-century England.

Polite Society’s Miss Taylor is Renu, unmarried aunt to Ania Khurana, who is Rao’s Emma. Every other significant character has their analogue — Mr. Knightley has Dev, an academic and close family friend of the Khuranas; Harriet Smith has Dimple, middle-class and a migrant to Delhi, and so on.

Darker territory

The “polite society” of the title refers to Lutyens’ Delhi, and within that geography to the tiny set of “old money” families that are unaffiliated with the government but have lived for decades in bungalows in the Lutyens’ zone, and interact as little as they can with the metropolis beyond. Ania Khurana “considered herself a native of Prithviraj Road, rather than Delhi.”

Ania is in her 20s, an aspiring if somewhat dilettantish novelist, and a passionate matchmaker. Her combination of family wealth and physical attractiveness have led her to take male attention for granted: now she hopes to find the right match for her aunt Renu, at risk of dying a spinster, and for Dimple, whom she sees as unable to satisfactorily navigate Delhi society.

‘Polite Society’ review: The terribly sweet things of Prithviraj Road

This is the Emma set-up, and as the novel proceeds and as Ania succeeds with Renu — who marries the genial Colonel Rathore — and fails calamitously with Dimple, readers familiar with the original will find themselves nodding along with pleasurable recognition. Not that any of this feels stale or predictable: Rao is an exceptionally assured storyteller. In its third act, the narrative departs from Emma altogether, for much darker territory. But we know much earlier that this is not an Austen update but a novel that uses Austen’s plot for very different ends.

This is most evident in Rao’s narration. Jane Austen was, in formal terms, an unheralded revolutionary whose impact on the English novelistic technique may have exceeded that of Joyce or Woolf. She introduced individual psychology to the realist novel, usually in the form of the consciousness of one female protagonist. To achieve this effect while writing in the third person, she developed what we now call the ‘free indirect style’: third-person narration that takes on the quality of an individual perspective. This style has become a cornerstone of the third-person novel.

Coolly omniscient

Rao’s method could not be less Austenian. While Austen typically grants psychological depth only to her protagonist, Rao changes perspective freely, with minor characters portrayed just as sympathetically as Ania is. And where the core of her narrative art is individual psychology, and the construction of reality through an individual filter, his style is coolly omniscient, and chiefly interested in the external.

Austen’s fiction is notable for its relative lack of sensory detail: Polite Society is full of vivid, specific images, sounds and smells, given to us by the omniscient narrator. Rao only fleetingly inhabits the individual characters’ minds; as for free indirect style, he abjures it altogether.

As the third act reveals, his choice of method is driven by the needs of his particular narrative. Emma, for all its comedy — it may be the funniest of Austen’s novels — is fundamentally a coming-of-age novel, tracing Emma’s moral and intellectual journey from smugness and naiveté to mature self-knowledge. Elements of this journey might be off-putting to a modern reader: Mr. Knightley, her eventual husband, is a prodigious mansplainer avant la lettre. But its effect depends upon sympathy between reader and protagonist.

No such sympathy is possible in Polite Society, which is much less interested in Ania Khurana as an individual than in her social world, its falsehoods and hierarchies of power. When Emma breaks up Harriet’s developing relationship with the farmer Robert Martin, we feel her naiveté and good intentions, because we experience it closely from her perspective; when Ania does the same to Dimple and Ankit, we see only the cruelty of her snobbery. But the distance Rao introduces between reader and protagonist allows for greater sympathy elsewhere. Austen’s comedy is often dependent upon caricature: think of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, or Emma’s hypochondriac father. There is no broad comedy at the expense of individual characters in Polite Society. This is not, then, a straight adaptation of Emma. Nor is it a conventional account of elite Delhi society. Here Rao introduces a different kind of distance, but one related to his avoidance of free indirect style: one of register.

Gazelles in parties

Delhi, as those who have lived both there and elsewhere can attest, may be the least Anglicised of Indian metros. Even those who grow up in Lutyens’ Delhi attend, for the most part, CBSE schools, and use plenty of Hindustani in their English. The linguistic distance between Delhi and Britain has never been greater — millennials like those of Ania’s generation, tend to be much more influenced by the U.S.

The characters in Polite Society refer to each other as “terribly sweet thing” and say “I jolly well hope so” and “in loco parentis”. And the third-person narration, when conveying thought, is at a further linguistic remove from the characters. Here is Dimple — who presumably grew up speaking Hindi — thinking about herself: “There was no convincing reason why Fahim would be attracted to a woman like her, obviously provincial, still at times cloddish, when he had the pick of those sophisticated gazelles at media parties.”

Some readers may protest that with the possible exceptions of Shashi Tharoor and Karan Thapar no one in Delhi speaks like this. But, as with his approach to his source material, Rao isn’t going for simple mimesis. Why shouldn’t the characters in a novel speak more elegantly than their theoretical real-world equivalents? And, as the revelations pile up in the third act, the genteel quality of the characters’ thought and speech only underlines their hypocrisy.

The writer is based in Delhi.

Polite Society; Mahesh Rao, Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, ₹599

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 11:14:14 PM |

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