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