Young, Rich & Bored: Mahesh Rao Takes Austen’s Emma to 21st Century Delhi
“Ania is young, privileged and bored, like Emma, and has an overarching sense of her own importance and talents at reorganising other people’s lives”
An adaptation of the classic Emma, often described as Jane Austen’s prime accomplishment, Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society is a gilded, sharply incisive treat. Set in Delhi’s high society, Rao’s desi Emma Woodhouse, Ania Khurana, is both exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely bored.
Flirting with the idea of writing her first book, Khurana takes the reader on an achingly sophisticated jaunt through Delhi, all while failing to set up her socially ambitious friends with the ‘right’ boys.
As a reader, one is instantly enchanted by Khurana for she is not vain, not down to the bone, but is instead almost clinically empathic, keen to engineer a love story, a ‘happy ending’ if you will, for the more rootless of her family and friends.
Her travails in doing so are set against a rich cast of characters: from gossip columnists to renowned pimps for the elite to cricketer-turned-politicians.
Rao answers our questions about the crazy, hypocritical yet dazzling world of his novel.
Polite Society is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma but with its own distinct narrative and characters. Can you tell us more about the delicate business of adaptation?
The genius of Austen is irresistible and many of her themes lend themselves so generously to a contemporary Indian retelling. Money, marriage and social mobility cast deep shadows among Delhi’s elite society too. There is also a great pleasure in trying to unpick her work and use it in a modern setting.
“Money, marriage and social mobility cast deep shadows among Delhi’s elite society”
Virginia Woolf said about Austen, ‘Of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’. Any adaptation therefore becomes an act of deep reflection on her sentences and technique.
What chief characteristics do you think Ania Khurana, the 25-year-old main protagonist, shares with Austen’s Emma?
Austen felt that Emma was her least likeable character and I have always been fascinated by the appeal of a character who is unlikeable in so many ways. Ania is young, privileged and bored, like Emma, and has an overarching sense of her own importance and talents at reorganising other people’s lives.
“I have always been fascinated by the appeal of a character who is unlikeable in so many ways”
But by giving the novel a contemporary setting, I had to approach her narrative arc in a very different way, in order to account for the different kinds of resources, inner and outer, that Ania is prepared to use in order to function in her world.
What are the most dangerous aspects of Ania’s jadedness? Is the latter a chronic plait of the upper crust?
The fact that she is jaded is one aspect of her character and boredom often accompanies this kind of extreme privilege. But I am more interested in the complex traits and universally human virtues and flaws that form the characters’ personalities — and how these become a narrative force that drives the novel onwards.
“Boredom often accompanies this kind of extreme privilege”
How would you define the term ‘Polite Society’?
There continues to exist a rigid hierarchy in elite circles of Delhi, where behaviour is governed by a complex set of class and caste codes, and where access to patronage or favour can often seem like the only route to success.
“The title of the book has the ironic weight to encapsulate the way in which relationships are traded and negotiated in this world”
But Jane Austen’s Highbury is not Delhi, where networks of immense power and status are concentrated in a couple of square miles of a modern megacity. I felt that the title of the book has the ironic weight to encapsulate the way in which relationships are traded and negotiated in this world.
Polite Society offers a fascinating insight into Delhi’s high society. For Pakistani readers, how would you describe this pool of characters and their concerns in three lines or less.
Ania Khurana is beautiful, intelligent, and bored witless in her upmarket south Delhi cocoon. In between periods where she tinkers with her novel-in-progress, she seeks excitement wherever she can but her enthusiasm and privilege cannot mask the darkness and vulnerability at the heart of her ornate world.
“Ania seeks excitement wherever she can but her enthusiasm and privilege cannot mask the darkness and vulnerability at the heart of her ornate world”
Which other writers from South Asia do you think have most successfully captured the atmosphere of elitedom?
I have always enjoyed Vikram Seth’s forays into this world. In terms of influence and impact, there are so many authors who have written so brilliantly on class and social mobility, among them Edith Wharton, Nancy Mitford, F Scott Fitzgerald and Edward St Aubyn.
I loved how Harriet Smith has been adapted into the gutsier and earthier Dimple in this text. Please comment on how this outsider views the lifestyles of the rich. Is there a great degree of cynicism there?
Harriet Smith is very much a creation of her time and place and Dimple really needed to be someone who could exercise much more agency. She is of course an outsider and her ambitions for personal freedom and escape from her small-town life are what drive millions of people across South Asia. The way in which she reaches a reckoning with the lives that have dazzled her, I would say, is probably one of the aspects of the book which is not in fact cynical at all.
“Dimple’s ambitions for personal freedom and escape from her small-town life are what drive millions of people across South Asia”
Ania’s unmarried aunt, Renu, is a superbly etched character. You have written of her single years with a great deal of subtlety and her lack of self-pity is refreshing. Does this signal a departure in the way ‘spinsters’ are depicted in fiction from this part of the world?
I think the fact that the word ‘spinster’ has almost fallen out of usage is in itself a positive sign. But a great deal of work remains to be done to escape the stereotypical tropes of women in South Asian settings.
“A great deal of work remains to be done to escape the stereotypical tropes of women in South Asian settings”
At one point in the novel, Ania curates a dinner party guest list with unnerving tact:
‘Acts of censure were necessary and inevitable. The creation of a guest list was not dissimilar to the use of valves and gauges to control the addition of a precious liquid into an experiment of great complexity. A crucial equilibrium has to be maintained at all times’.
Each character in the text grapples with secrets and the pressure to present a relatively polished facade. Please elaborate on the ways in which their hypocrisy is negotiated and perhaps affirmed by the structures that underpin them.
In my novel there are key characters whose stories end in much the same way that they do in Emma. But for some of the other characters, I was always led by the narrative force of their own impulses and motivations.
“There is plenty of darkness in the Delhi society that the novel depicts”
There is plenty of darkness in the Delhi society that the novel depicts and that is reflected in the final few chapters. Crucial to all of this, however, is the way that each character negotiates the relative power that they can wield and the trade-offs that they might have to make in order to sustain or infiltrate a life of privilege.
“Crucial to all of this is the way that each character negotiates the trade-offs that they might have to make in order to sustain or infiltrate a life of privilege”
Which character are you most fond of from Polite Society and why?
I would not say that I am fond of Nina but I found her the most enjoyable to write. She is a complex character who is often cruel, vain and arrogant but she also needed to elicit some measure of compassion from the reader.
“I would not say that I am fond of Nina but I found her the most enjoyable to write. She is a complex character who is often cruel, vain and arrogant”
Have you ever modelled characters on someone who you know personally, perhaps intimately? If so, does Polite Society contain such a lightly fictionalised portrait?
In most writing, there are composites of real-life characters and this book is no different. People also often see themselves in characters, which were written with no such portrayal intended.
“People also often see themselves in characters, which were written with no such portrayal intended”