Cosmopolitans in Indian Fiction

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

“What does it take to stop dreaming of alternative lives?” Two versions of this question from Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans speak to challenges now faced around the globe. First: what would it take—in India, in America, anywhere in 2016—to stop dreaming of alternative political systems and pathways for migration, of alternatives to poverty, scarcity, inequality, environmental degradation, global finance capital, fascism, fanaticism, and fundamentalism? By that same token: what happens if we lose our capacity to dream of alternative lives, to understand and imagine the lives of others?

Hasan’s novel poses these questions through the story of Qayenaat, an urban Indian art aficionado, and her encounters in provincial India. Another recent novel from India, Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans, approaches them through the narratives of Indian Americans, caught between the seemingly irreconcilable alternatives of their Indian and American lives. Despite these different settings, both novels test the limits of the global imaginary by testing their subjects’ openness to lives other than their own.

In Hasan’s novel, the test of Qayenaat’s openness occurs in a two-horse village in north India called Dharti, where the “King”—an effectively powerless heir to a ruling dynasty dating back to the 17th century—is seated on a wooden cart being pulled, not by a horse or a bull, but by a rapturous man of the tribal Koyla caste, with “primitive-looking iron hooks … embedded in [bloody wounds in] his lower back.” Qayenaat, who has escaped from urban Bangalore “into India” (read: the provinces) in search of absolution after committing involuntary manslaughter, is horrified. “But we’re living in the twenty-first century,” she protests. For her, the Koyla’s reenactment of historical debts is a form of feudal false consciousness. The King, by contrast, views the Koyla’s self-sacrificial performance and the village’s retention of the anachronistic ritual as “nothing less than a miracle,” given the “grotesquerie” and “great emptiness” of the “industrialized, godless” culture being exported to India from the West.

Hasan’s novel asks: if art calls for “an act of engagement” with alterity, then is the outlawed cart ritual a form of unpardonable “bestiality,” as Qayenaat argues, or “something precious,” as the King avers? Is it torture or craft? In the first half of the novel, Qayenaat herself sets fire to Nostalgia, a major installation by art-world celebrity Baban Reddy, and a bystander suffocates to death in the ensuing smoke. She does not make her protest from a position of firm moral authority. Rather, by rejecting the cart ritual, Qayenaat also rejects the romanticization of otherness in favor of a moral certainty that the King deems at odds with her self-professed cosmopolitanism.

Colloquially defined as the condition of being “at home in the world,” “a global citizen,” or a “citizen of the world,” cosmopolitanism in academic discourse is typically assigned one of two genealogies. First, there is the philosophical cosmopolitanism of Immanuel Kant and his (sometimes surprising) heirs, including Jacques Derrida, who critiques Kantian cosmopolitanism’s privileging of the right of visitation extended by sovereign states while nevertheless arguing that “hospitality is culture itself … ethics is hospitality” (emphasis in original). This mode of cosmopolitanism undergirds arguments about state-guaranteed rights to asylum and the necessity of accommodating political refugees. Postcolonial and post-national modes of cosmopolitanism, in K. Anthony Appiah’s words, “value the variety of human forms of social and cultural life.” Some critics charge that in prioritizing cultural difference qua difference, these new cosmopolitanisms capitulate to forms of liberal multiculturalism that are less about ethical hospitality than about the state’s accommodation and regulation of difference as diversity: the observance of Black History Month alongside the expansion of the carceral state; the celebration of Muslim American Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad alongside calls by some US politicians for a ban on Muslim immigration. At their best, however, both kinds of cosmopolitanism are open to otherness.

Who are “the cosmopolitans” of Hasan’s titular provocation? The Cosmopolitans begins and ends with talky encounters in a Bangalore art gallery, where Qayenaat and her friends discuss the temporality of modernity, the value of art, and the putative “Indianness” of Indian cultural artifacts like painting and dance. On the one hand, these glitterati—from the art manager Tanya, returned from the US, who coos in a heavy American accent over India’s “amazing ancient culture” (emphasis in original), to the critics who speak of M. F. Husain and Marcel Duchamp in one breath—are conventionally, legibly cosmopolitan. On the other hand, the novel unfolds as a series of challenges to that definition. Qayenaat’s cosmopolitan and “secular outlook”—her belief that “time always move[s] forward, nothing [can] in the true sense ever be repeated”—is tested first by Baban Reddy’s desire to create work “modeled on the world’s great and timeless art” and then by the King’s capitulation to feudal barbarism.

F. N. Souza, <i>Balzac Etcetera</i> (1971). Wikimedia Commons

Fifty-three years old, single, childless, and without a steady job, Qayenaat is a self-described “rasika,” the Sanskrit word for one who is capable of experiencing the “rasa” intrinsic to a given work of art. Qayenaat herself defines “rasika” as “a lover of beauty,” but “rasa” (which we might provisionally describe as a fully realized aesthetic essence) has a more complex etymological history than that gloss suggests. What distinguishes the rasika’s experience of rasa from the spectator’s experience of beauty is what performance theorist Richard Schechner calls the “empathetic feedback” between artwork, artist, and rasika. The rasika is not merely affected by the performance in question; she is “doubly affected: by the performance and by the performer’s reaction to her own performance.” In contrast to one of the privileged figures of literary cosmopolitanism, the flaneur, whose encounters with others often reveal his detachment and alienation, the rasika is the original cosmopolitan: open to the other, and able to identify with figures, beings, and modes of expression that transcend her.

When the novel opens, Qayenaat is attending artist lectures, demonstrations, and “posh” gallery openings where “similar people, similarly drinking wine … comment” on works that have themselves traveled around the world. Contemplating such works, Qayenaat seeks to replicate the experience of rasa she had once before while watching an “unknown rural troupe” of dancers from Simhal, which she later describes as “just one more small, forgotten patch of ex-grandness on the crowded map of [India].” When her Bangalore life literally goes up in flames, Qayenaat travels north in search of the troupe and their promise of aesthetic singularity, a pursuit that takes up the novel’s second half.

At first, Qayenaat finds what she seeks: “self-contained” art that seems to have “no purpose other than itself.” As the novel progresses, however, her quest becomes a sign of the urbanite’s romanticization of provincial India:

 

She found herself wishing that she was the first cosmopolitan to sleep on that aged mattress, to sit on the stones by the river, to share the meat of a freshly slaughtered goat with the King. Whereas she was no more than a tourist, travelling long distances to experience a supposed novelty no matter that a thousand people had done it before.

 

The self-consciousness of this passage starts to redeem Qayenaat’s touristic sensibility. More significantly, it makes clear that what sometimes looks like a cosmopolitan ethic is really just a desire for a cosmopolitan experience of “pleasure from the presence of other, different places that are home to other, different people.”

To return to the novel’s pivotal scene: one reason that Qayenaat rejects the cart ritual is that she derives no pleasure from the difference of the Koyla’s pain. This rejection also has a larger significance, given the current clashes in India between state-sanctioned Hindu nationalism and champions of free expression. Hasan, an editor at India’s premier journal of politics and culture, The Caravan, and the author of four previous works of fiction and poetry, has herself argued that “a terrible insecurity” is now growing in India: “We seem to be wondering who we really are, culturally, and this uncertainty expresses itself as a hollow aggrandizement—a recourse to orthodoxy, and a silencing of the alternative view, enforced through violence.” It is fitting, then, that her latest novel queries tradition by exploring a cosmopolitan sensibility that is not identical to secular rationality.

Hasan’s and Viraraghavan’s novels depict the cruel realities and intolerances that belie assumptions about an interconnected contemporary world.   

If cosmopolitanism in Hasan’s novel is undergirded by the opportunism of the pleasure principle, it still seems a more principled ethic than the anti-cosmopolitanism of many of Chitra Viraraghavan’s characters in The Americans. Named for the most provincial of global figures, The Americans begins on an airplane, in which Tara, a textbook writer, meets C. L. Narayan, a retired teacher; the two are traveling from Madras to visit their families in Louisville and the Chicago suburbs, respectively. The novel unfolds in short chapters alternating between the stories of a dozen US-based characters, including Narayan’s daughter, Kavita, and Tara’s sister, Kamala. The cast of characters is unwieldy. Kamala has two children, an autistic son and bratty teenage daughter, who warrant their own sections, as do her Israeli housekeeper, Tara’s multiple friends from India now living in the United States, and her former student Danisha, whose voice is captured in a 1997 reading journal kept as an assignment for a composition class Tara once taught at an unnamed Boston college.

Viraraghavan’s Americans are primarily Indian Americans living in various degrees of unsettlement among their fellows. When Narayan and Tara emerge from the plane, they find that their families in America have become awful, offering nothing like hospitality, never mind a cosmopolitan embrace. “You had to be careful around [Non-Resident Indians],” Tara muses. “Any slip-up, and you were a bumpkin, fresh off the boat.” Narayan’s daughter, Kavita, is so cold and calculating that she discourages her visiting father from interacting with her young son, Sunny: “Appa, no point in [Sunny] getting close to you. It’s not like you’re going to be living here or anything.”

It quickly emerges that the Americans—they of the “foreign land” that most Indians can only dream of—are the real bumpkins. There is no rasa in their lives. Narayan is excited to visit Kavita and her family, who have been living in the United States for over a decade, but he finds them distant, silent, and, most importantly, incurious. He initially tries to make excuses for them: “Maybe this was how Americans lived their lives … owing an explanation to no one.” Later, however, he befriends a white American woman, Anne, at the local public library who, unlike his own daughter and son-in-law, engages him in conversation and takes him to see some of Chicago. “I think you Americans have a far better sense of family than we do,” the appreciative Narayan tells Anne. “You seem to treat each other as people, you don’t play roles. Roles tend to lapse.”

Narayan’s reflection proves to be an unsubtle commentary on the other relationships the novel explores. Tara’s niece, 15-year-old Lavi, is a caricature of an ugly, spoiled American; she resents even having to speak to her aunt, whom she views as “some stranger.” “Besides,” she says, “people from India were—weird.” Lavi has no relationship to or knowledge of India, and yet ideas about her family’s putative Indianness characterize all of her reflections: “She hated going to [the Indian parties] … All the kids competing like horses on the Downs … forget the humanities as a career choice”; “American parents were much cooler about stuff.” Viraraghavan strives for character development by making Lavi an unlikely mouthpiece of American self-reflexivity. “We’re not the centre of the goddamn world!” Lavi tells her mother, Kamala, when exhorting her to be kinder to her visiting sister, Tara. Lavi’s enjoinder is meant to be tender and teacherly, but like much of the novel’s dialogue and plot, comes off as hackneyed at best.

<i>India Square, on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, NJ, home to the highest concentration of Asian Indians in the Western Hemisphere</i> (2010). Photograph by Jim Henderson / Wikimedia Commons

Read generously, The Americans is an exploration of the United States through the eyes of its Indian visitors—a refreshing perspective given the historical predominance of literary and cultural depictions of India through Western eyes. But Viraraghavan substitutes stereotypes about India with equally unfortunate stereotypes about the United States. For example, the reclusive and paranoid Akhil Murjani, who runs a post-9/11 conspiracy-theory website, is attacked by his neighbor’s boorish ex-husband, who offers this stilted parting shot: “Why don’t you go back to the Third World or India or whatever, where you belong, motherfucker.” That is about as convincing as a line uttered by the mother of Tara’s former student Danisha: “I’m not your average black redeemer … try Whoopi Goldberg.”

Is art “corrupted when it travels,” the King asks, or does it retain its meaning “in any setting”? Are Indians in America “Americans” or “Indians”? In 2016, progressives and aspiring cosmopolitans know to think beyond binary formulations of authenticity. We have read the literature on and of migration that shows how cultures gain new meanings in circulation. As Appiah writes, and as both the Hindu moral police and American nativist Right would do well to learn, “cultural purity is an oxymoron.” Today, even small-town, provincial India is “threatened by the market-driven sameness” of the global city.

That said, The Cosmopolitans and The Americans are most interesting when they lay bare the limits of our theories of cultural impurity. The novels depict the cruel realities and intolerances, both brutal and banal, that belie assumptions about an open, interconnected, heterogeneous contemporary world. In The Cosmopolitans, urban Indians can debate the cosmopolitan artistry of fictional painter NJ’s depictions of “average nudes,” but—in events that echo and extend real-world protests against artists such as M. F. Husain, Anjolie Ela Menon, Jamini Roy, and F. N. Souza—they cannot stop fanatic sectarians from rioting in protest and, eventually, hacking the painter herself to death. In The Americans, an Indian visiting the United States can happily buy “parupu podi and pickled sarsaparilla” at the local Indian grocery store, but can’t expect his family to sit with him at dinner.

Hasan gives the King a final word, in the form of a truism he offers more than once in his own defense: “Being a modern Indian is hard work”; “It’s hard work, being a modern Indian.” The excuse might apply equally well to Viraraghavan’s modern Americans, and to cosmopolitans elsewhere, who occupy a world of modern mobility, at once timeless and new, formed not by limitlessness but by political wounds and aesthetic bounds.