In Delhi, bustling traffic separates the city from its suburban belts. Mobile and restless, the cars racing past pedestrians make them step back while the well-heeled race towards their destination. In a way, this necessity to move forward and backward at the same time has plagued generations of middle-class city-dwellers. Do we speak of the time to come or do we reminisce about the time that we lost? Do we cling to the lovers that we left or hope for a new love?
To pen down this perennially frenetic world and place it in the world of fiction requires meticulous observation and introspection. Anjum Hassan, true to positioning as a ‘people person’, effortlessly creates a melange of complex and unyielding characters. Struggling with the pull of their pasts and the desires of their present, the cosmopolitans live in the shadows of the cities that they inhabit. Mounting these characters on an elaborate canvas that investigates modern India, Hassan has as protagonist Qayenaat, art lover and eternal romantic.
“Nostalgia was big. Grainy black and white news played on a gigantic vintage TV set. The plain ceramic vase on the round-cornered, square coffee table and the dinner-plate-sized roses in it looked as if they’d been stolen from a giant’s lair. The news on the TV, focusing on the indistinct face of the newscaster as she mouthed statistics about death in the jungles and government scams, was not new.”
Hassan’s The Cosmopolitans opens with the magnum opus installation titled ‘Nostalgia’ and its creator Baban Reddy. Well-known around art circles as a man who is both ‘dramatic’ and ‘meaningful’, Baban’s return to his hometown has immense meaning for the chief protagonist, Qayenaat. As she savours his creation immersed in the relics of the past, Qayenaat makes her way through the gallery, hoping to reunite with her lost love. Interspersed in her longing to be with Baban is her effort to understand and feel ‘Nostalgia’ as her own.
In the first part of the novel, Hasan’s narrative lingers on Qayenaat’s thoughts on love, as she peeks into the world of the artist, the collector, the critic and the consumer. We follow her and watch characters like Sara, the art collector, expressing her desire to purchase Baban’s work, Qayenaat’s former lover and journalist Sati, displaying scorn for the elite bourgeoisie artists and the art critic Pai play the devil’s advocate in the debate.