“Mr Modi goes to Washington” was the big news of the week – at least in Delhi recently. Remarkably, the Prime Minister of India had been ostentatiously bear-hugged by the planet’s most powerful man. True, it might still be a stretch to picture Narendra Modi in the role of James Stewart in his breakout picture, but is it now a stretch too far to imagine India, finally, as a big player in global political affairs?
Bangalore-based novelist and poet Anjum Hasan seems to think so. While Modi was being manhandled at the White House, Indian soldiers were facing down Chinese construction crews building a road through a disputed Himalayan border zone. Beijing wasn’t happy, but India had the biggest playground bully on its side. Now considered “a major defence partner” by the United States, India had surely arrived, at last.
Not so fast. “You don’t seem to have noticed who’s in charge in India!” says Hasan, casting doubt on any newfound clout. Analysts have long predicted that the “world’s largest democracy” will emerge from its cocoon any minute now as a global superpower, thanks to an economy on steroids and a geographical position whose significance was forgotten in the American era proper.
Perhaps. But is it feasible that a country in which half of a population of 1.3 billion people doesn’t have access – according to latest estimates – to a toilet could even consider throwing its weight around? Or, as Hasan says, a population short of “two meals a day and a roof over their heads”?
Such is the conundrum for a nation trying to run politically before it can walk. As it modernises, is India, erstwhile jewel in the British Empire crown, losing itself?
“There is a virulent and violent nationalism – and sub-nationalism – on the rise,” says Hasan. “We don’t seem to have a workable idea of what it means to be a modern Indian in the 21st century without hating someone – usually the next-door neighbour.”
India always punches its weight when it comes to producing star novelists, from Seth to Rushdie to the Desais, so might the art of fiction, or at least the art of reading, help cut through the confusion? After all, India, with rising literacy rates, is one of the few places where the newspaper business – print included – is still booming. Hasan isn’t convinced. “Reading for a goal other than passing exams is a minority activity in India,” she says, “and reading e-books is even more marginal. There’s a disproportionate interest in the nature of the medium. I’d rather think about what’s read and why, rather than how it’s being read.”
And as for the gallery of famous faces that the Indian literary scene can boast, it seems that even if an embossed invitation to join their ranks were received at chez Hasan, it would be politely sent back. “I don’t think the analogy of superstars works for writers,” she says. “It puts too much emphasis on the person – what matters is the work.”
Hasan, 45, is books editor at influential cultural and political magazine The Caravan, though she is now on leave from her position: a second book of short stories will be published early next year, following her 2012 collection, Difficult Pleasures. Her second novel, Neti, Neti (2009), was a contender for the Man Asian Literary Prize, while her third, The Cosmopolitans (2015), was received warmly enough by critics to establish Hasan as “one of [India’s] most exciting novelists”. Described as “cerebral”, “intense” and “a novel of ideas and emotions”, it tells the story of Qayenaat, “a drifting, solitary, sensitive figure at the edge of the Bangalore art scene”.
An unsettling, close personal encounter knocks Qayenaat out of her regular orbit and sends her skimming off the edge of the criminal underworld and into the rural north of the country, with its tribal conflicts and vanishing traditions. The Cosmopolitans deftly skewers all those pretentious, pompous art-scene groupies, from dealer to dilettante, familiar the world over. Hasan, too, has art-world credentials – but says the novel isn’t about the Bangalore art world, rather art generally and personal sentiments aroused by objets observed.
Meanwhile, Qayenaat, we find, works as a writer and editor, but reading too much into apparently biographical details is a dangerous game. “I’m not an artist or a trained critic or scholar of art,” says Hasan. “I’ve worked and talked with many artists through my former job and, like Qayenaat, I enjoy looking at and thinking about art. I visited rural India occasionally during the decade that I worked in an arts-funding foundation,” she adds. “The portrait of [fictional town] Simhal in the novel, with its decrepit king and magical but impoverished dancers, is based on some of those experiences.”
Nor should we suppose that Sophie Das, protagonist of Neti, Neti, is a pure reflection of her creator. Sophie, a directionless young woman, gravitates from Shillong to Bangalore and finds unfulfilling work. Beyond life’s pleasant superficialities, her existence is empty. Hasan left her hometown of Shillong, a north-east Indian hill station, and moved to Bangalore, the country’s “Silicon Plateau”, where she now lives “mostly”. The city “is still booming, but with every new day,” she says, “comes the feeling that this cannot last, that the choking traffic and miles of empty high-rises are all going to go under from the sheer weight of their magnitude”. When asked the obvious question, of whether she is Sophie, all Hasan ventures is “a little”.
Hasan’s work has been called subversive and she is happy to subvert “the values of the Indian middle-class: utilitarianism, crass materialism, pushiness, sanctimony, wilful ignorance”. She admits: “I don’t know whether I’m effective, or how much any fiction writer can hope to be effective in the present milieu. But we don’t have recourse as writers to anything else but writing, so we have to keep at it.”
The brave new India, welcomed in Washington, should be aware that its most perceptive observers are keen to ensure it grows up well mannered and engaged, and not a vacuous, puerile, bombastic bore.