We've been justifiably wary of Indo-Austenian collabs since we suffered through Bride & Prejudice as Darcy-loving teens. Which is why we approached Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society, a very Dilli take on Jane Austen’s Emma, with trepidation.
All for naught, we find a few pages into this delightfully tongue in cheek take on Lutyens Dally - a set that seems most concerned with successfully navigating social engagements and coming up with the most arch put downs at just the right moment, instead of on the way home like the rest of us plebes.
Famously the heroine Austen feared most of her readers would hate, Emma transforms into Ania Khurana, a socialite-slash-writer who much like her Victorian version, seems to know everything about everyone but still possesses a shocking lack of self-awareness. And much like her mater (of sorts), she endears herself to us a scant few pages into when she successfully manages to keep acquaintances attempting to turn into friends at arms distance.
The first half of the novel is frothy, charming, and peppered with references to laughable New Friends Colony jewellery designers and suitcases of money making their way from Rajouri Gardens to Gurgaon. The Khuranas are carelessly monied - bespoke linen shirts, private concertos, and an expensive Italian writers’ retreat are acquired like we pick up kanda-batata during our weekly shop.
All the old favourites are present: Mr. Knightley is reimagined as Dev, the scruffy academic. Mr. Woodhouse is Dileep Khurana, obsessed with defying age. Mr. Elton turns up as an emerging media star looking for social connections. But easily the most endearing ends up being the earnest Lajpat Nagar garment entrepreneur Ankit, who is a far sight less dull than his OG counterpart Mr. Martin.
Unlike the original characters, however, Mr Rao's characters are not just subjected to mere slights and gentle put downs. Instead, inner miseries are exposed and searing self-doubt is laid bare, making the reader uncomfortably aware of their own duplicities. Everyone in this town carries sick secrets and nasty narcissisms. And Rao spares no one, not even his heroine who, unlike her classic counterpart, comes off insufferably mean-spirited and classist more than once. The claws are bared in these genteel drawing rooms and utterly unafraid to draw blood.
Much to our relief, the characters don’t fade away into perfectly pleasant futures after all the high drama. Instead, we see them coming apart at the seams, sinking into the kind of listless ennui we curse the voluntarily unemployed with in real life. The novel flits from vignette to vignette, taking on catty gossips, depicting social climbers getting their comeuppance to hard-nosed financiers falling for godmen. It is all deliciously intriguing and frighteningly plausible.
The only cure for the lingering despair we are left with - other than to taking off to St. Tropez to get away from it all of course - is to let us pull an Ania ourselves. Here, take this - the only saving grace of that Movie-That-Shan’t-Be-Named that isn’t even worth a tipsy hate watch (trust us, we tried) - and send it to your girlie group chat. It won’t garner you entry into polite society, but is this a party whose invite you really want to snag?
Getting There: Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society can be purchased at all good bookshops (or you know, online) for Rs. 399.
Sushmita Sundaram writes about food, culture, and discovering your city. Follow her on Twitter at @sushmitas.
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