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The social network

Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society is a scathing indictment of Delhi’s elite social circles

Mahesh Rao

JANE AUSTEN is famous for her first lines. Her novel Emma opens with a provocative one: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” It was an incredibly blunt way to introduce the central character in an era when women were portrayed as “Cinderella figures, vulnerable, and, in some way, pure”. On the face of it, Emma seems fatally one-dimensional. But she is one of Austen’s most complex creations. That is why adapting Emma into an Indian setting and fashioning a protagonist as nuanced as her would have been so challenging.

In Polite Society, Mahesh Rao does exactly this. His Ania is Emma minus the corsets, the smelling salts and the drawing room balls. The novel opens with an art fair in Delhi where the most discussed installation is a “giant steel frame from which dangled hundreds of ceramic cowpats….” It was a piece that was guaranteed to meet with the approval of the Delhi high society, writes Rao, “because it transported the viewer to rural India without the horror of actually being there”. Rao’s observations about the elite upper crust of Delhi is damning, and he is at his best when darting poison arrows at some of his pivotal characters. Like Emma, Ania thinks of herself as a do-gooder, helping fix the lives of her acquaintances, until Dev, the Indian analogue of George Knightley, shows her the hypocrisy of her endeavours and how it was she herself who needed to get fixed.

Rao, whose earlier work The Smoke Is Rising won the Tata first book award for fiction, says it was easy to adapt Emma into an Indian setting because in both modern-day India and in the Austenian world of the 19th century, social mobility and class played a predominant role. Today, in India, as in Austen’s days in England, “there are these incredibly complex codes and structures that regulate who has access to opportunities,” he says.

He says what fascinates him about Austen is how, despite the smallness of her world—she had hardly travelled, living as the poor relation dependent on her brother’s charity—she was such an astute social commentator with a fantastic grasp of power relations within society. “She was incredibly experimental,” he says, “having invented [writing] techniques that we take for granted today.”

Rao’s Polite Society is a lot more scathing than Austen’s Emma. The observations, while perhaps funnier, are less subtle. Still, it is entertaining. Reading it was like listening to a catty neighbour prattling about the social ineptitude and embarrassing gaffes of a common acquaintance. While being hugely amused, you could not help but be glad that you were not that acquaintance at whom the gun was being pointed.

Polite Society

Author: Mahesh Rao

Publisher: Penguin
Random House

Pages: 312

Price: Rs 360

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