Polite Society

Polite Society

by Mahesh Rao

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Overview

"So funny, smart, sophisticated, and captivating, you just want to spend your whole life with it."—Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians

In this modern reimagining of Jane Austen's Emma, Delhi's polite society is often anything but polite.


Beautiful, clever, and more than a little bored, Ania Khurana has Delhi wrapped around her finger. Having successfully found love for her spinster aunt, she sets her sights on Dimple: her newest, sweetest, and most helpless friend.

But when her aunt's handsome nephew arrives from America, the social tides in Delhi begin to shift. Surrounded by old money and new; relentless currents of gossip; and an unforgettable cast of socialites, journalists, gurus, and heirs, Ania discovers that her good intentions are no match for the whims and intrigues of Delhi's high society—or for her own complicated feelings toward her cherished childhood friend, Dev.

Pairing razor-sharp observation and social comedy with moments of true tenderness, this delicious whirl through the mansions of India's dazzling elite celebrates that there's no one route to perfect happiness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525539940
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/20/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 131,043
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Mahesh Rao is the author of the award-winning novel The Smoke Is Rising and a book of short stories One Point Two Billion, both published in the UK to wonderful reviews. He was born and brought up in Nairobi, has worked in the UK as a lawyer, researcher and bookseller, and currently lives most of the year in India. Polite Society is his American debut.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

 

Ania lay on the hardwood floor in her bedroom and grappled with her thoughts. If she were given a choice between saving art or literature for humanity, she decided that she would preserve literature. This seemed only natural, given that she was about to begin her third attempt at a novel. Her bedroom contained a number of Edward Ruscha screen prints, recently transported from the family's art storage facility in Gurgaon. But she would willingly give them up for a lifetime of excellent books.

 

It was not unusual for Ania to contemplate drastic hypothetical choices in this way. The comforts of her own life meant that she was seldom called upon to discriminate or restrict: in the Khurana household, they usually ordered four of everything. As a result, this kind of grandiose conjecture had always come to her as something of an exertion, but also a thrill.

 

She sat up and looked at the screen prints, a series of disjointed words poured over a burned-orange sky. They were the most recent constituent in the refurbishment of her bedroom, a process that was as inevitable as the seasons, although far more capricious. Some unexpected good news would involve the replacement of a chaise longue or a reupholstering of the window seat. A foreign trip often resulted in sudden inspiration and a hasty call to Delhi's most exclusive bed linen suppliers. After she had finished reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Ania had decided that the hand-painted wallpaper on the far wall had to be replaced. Its birdcage motif seemed to exude a cruel symbolism. The only constant in the room was the view from the French doors: the reclaimed Andalusian tiles on the balcony floor, the wrought iron balustrade, the rich dappling of the gulmohar trees, and, in the distance, the hum of cars making their way through the grandeur of Prithviraj Road.

 

The constant redecoration was no secret, and it was often a delicate matter, having to refuse the eager services of the wives of her fathers' friends, many of whom had set up interior design businesses a few years into their marriages. But the Khuranas were firm believers in setting boundaries when it suited them.

 

"Your aesthetic is simply wonderful, but we try not to mix business with friendship. It would be terrible to jeopardize such a close relationship," Ania would say.

 

The wives would say goodbye and walk down the front steps of the Khurana mansion, casting a forlorn look at the gleaming white façade, the many sets of French doors that caught the evening sun, the stone urns that looked as though they had been in place for generations. But by the time they had swept out of the driveway, the balm of Ania's expression of closeness would have soothed their wounded pride. In any case, they retained the hope that evidence of their flawless taste would eventually persuade Ania to change her mind. There were, after all, five Khurana homes around the world to accommodate the wives' ceaseless creativity.

 

The Ruscha prints were gorgeous, but Ania could live without them. She could live without the mismatched lamps and the antique rosewood desk and the perfectly lit dressing room. But literature was not negotiable. She allowed herself the grace of a few moments to think about her new novel. She had finally settled on a title-The Enigma of My Effigies-and, as with her previous attempts, this important decision firmed up her intent and clarified her vision. She was now at the next stage of her creative process. She loved names and planned to spend the next few weeks homing in on the perfect ones for her characters. Ludmila. At the moment, she had a yen for Ludmila.

 

The trouble, however, was that Delhi was so uninspiring. Although only twenty-five, she felt that she had spent many decades trapped in a fishbowl, circling 'round to the same views and impressions. Something cold and rigid was holding her back. She had never had any doubts about her ability, having been assured of preternatural success all her life; as always, it was a question of the correct milieu in which to flourish. What her creativity required was a glorious new vista, exposure to dazzling minds, a seductive environment, the silvery glint of olive trees as the sun began to dip. She would have to speak to her father about this new enterprise.

 

She left the room and walked down the length of the corridor to the other side of the house but found that his study was empty. Behind her, the Khuranas' ancient basset hound, Sigmund, lay on an Isfahani rug at the top of the stairs, occasionally blinking with a great sense of resignation.

 

"It's all right, Siggy," said Ania as she stepped past him, "the world really isn't as awful as you think."

 

Sigmund closed his droopy eyes, and they remained shut.

 

At the foot of the stairs, she could see that the lights were on in the conservatory, its blues and greens reflected in the enormous glass panes, but this room too was empty. She walked down another passage, past the screening room. The door was open, and she could see that a film was still playing with the sound low, Humphrey Bogart's craggy face filling the giant screen. So her father was certainly around somewhere.

 

She eventually found him in the breakfast room, staring at a plate of gray crackers that looked like dog biscuits.

 

"Are those for you or for Siggy?" she asked.

 

"Technically, for me. They're from Sweden. They're supposed to increase one's metabolism."

 

"They're not the prettiest things in the world, are they?"

 

Dileep Khurana shook his head and looked at her much in the way that Sigmund had.

 

"Papa, sit down, I need to talk to you. I need to get away from Delhi."

 

"Why? Is there something wrong with your air purifier?"

 

"No, I need to be inspired. I need a real change. So, just hear me out, and please don't look at me like that, it's really not a big thing. There's a writers' residency in Italy, which is absolutely amazing, and it's the one thing that will really get me going in the right direction with my book."

 

"I see."

 

"I'm completely serious. It's not a holiday, it's work, it's a challenge, it's growth."

 

Dileep began to look at her with greater conviction.

 

She put her hand on his arm and lowered her voice.

 

"But it's obviously horribly competitive. People are judged on sample chapters and that kind of thing, which can be quite unfair for a work in progress. And that's why I need you to do me a tiny favor. There's another way of securing a place. We'd have to pay a fee, but the experience will be invaluable, worth every penny. So let's not worry about that. But I also need a letter of recommendation from someone a bit eminent. So could you please ask Alessandra to ask Clarence Lam? They're best friends."

 

"Clarence Lam, the Nobel guy?"

 

"As it happens, yes, he did win it, but please don't say 'Nobel guy,' that sounds so gross; it's 'laureate.' The thing is, I've heard he's so supportive of new talent. And Alessandra will obviously do anything for us, and they are really close. I found out that she stays with him all summer on some island in, well, I can't remember, somewhere. So, you know, I think we can swing this."

 

"Clarence Lam. I don't know."

 

"Papa, have you ever been asked to check your privilege?"

 

"Check my what?"

 

"Oh never mind, it's this online thing. But that's sort of what I'm doing. Lots of writers can't get into this residency by calling on friends. But since I can, why should I take up one of their places? I think asking Clarence Lam to put in a good word would be the right thing to do. It's saving other people a lot of time and trouble."

 

"Except maybe Clarence Lam."

 

"He won't write the recommendation himself. He'll have people to do that. He just has to sign it."

 

"I could ask Alessandra, I suppose. But you're serious about this? The book?"

 

"I've never been more serious about anything. I promise you. You will not regret this."

 

She leaned over and planted a kiss on his shoulder.

 

He looked at her and beamed. And it was a beam: an exceptional, coruscating, pearly smile. Dileep had just returned from another visit to Dr. Wiltshire (a seven-time winner at the Aesthetic Dentistry Awards), one of a series of appointments he had made on Harley Street. Although Dileep's hearing was perfectly satisfactory, now in his mid-fifties, what he heard more than anything else was the tick of time. Ania was an adult, his wife long dead, and romantic liaisons thin on the ground. Where did this leave a man like him? A charismatic man, certainly, who could reel off the names of scores of friends and associates; but the question still had to be asked. Money? Everyone had money, some people had even more than him. Power? He often found himself in a group, all of whose members could have gained access to a senior cabinet minister's office in a matter of hours. Respect? Well, for all of those who had the first two, the third was bound to follow.

 

Dileep had a terror of obscurity and irrelevance, and the way he had decided to distinguish himself was by his youthfulness and vitality. In among the paunches and bare pates of his peers, he was a rare object. He lifted up his shirt several times a day in the privacy of his office and gazed at the reflection of his flat stomach from three angles. He employed the services of a nutritionist who had once worked with several stars of The Bold and the Beautiful. His customized smart mattress sent him regular updates on his sleeping patterns. He went sandboarding in Peru and, more reluctantly, Dubai.

 

His wardrobe too was kept au courant. He had not abandoned his stiff cuffs, gray cashmere, and handmade brogues, but a series of unexpected elements had been ushered in, often bewildering his housekeeper and amusing his business partners. He had a New York concierge service send him vintage blouson jackets; his jeans were ordered from obscure shops in Tokyo. It was only after a great deal of reflection that he was able to decide that the latest trend for pastel-colored suits was best avoided.

 

Looming always was a great dark mass, the threat of the day when he would bend and sag and crumple in a heap, when no interventions would be able to help him, when he would be exposed in terminal decline. Dileep was adept, however, at keeping the darkness just out of sight. He had had much practice.

 

He thrived on the compliments he received but affected a genial nonchalance. When questioned by friends, he was forthcoming about some of his pursuits-those that demonstrated his vigor and daring. But he said nothing of the sensible care and maintenance that he felt would be read as gross vanity. His visits to Harley Street, he felt sure, would be misjudged.

 

He also felt that his ability to be a man who was essentially modern and energetic brought him closer to his daughter. In an odd sort of way, he had begun to seek her approval, and he was sure it came more easily because it was her natural province in which he now paraded.

 

Ania kissed her father again, this time on the arm.

 

"Please don't eat those crispbreads; they really look foul," she said, and returned upstairs.

 

Dileep broke one into halves and then crumbled it into a mound. He pushed the plate away and continued to sit at the table.

 

He often replayed conversations with Ania, imagining he could divine his wife's opinions and advice, hearing the gutsy laugh that would emerge when she tried to play for time. She had died when Ania was only a few weeks old-but the circumstances of her death meant that he had never been able to find the strength to talk about her to his daughter. There had only ever been perfunctory references on purely practical matters. He knew he had failed Ania in this respect, but he had been powerless to act differently. His sister never spoke of his wife in his presence nor did his friends. In their dark verandahs and chilly drawing rooms, old scandals were always carefully tended and stoked at a great remove from the principal players.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

There was one in most of the grand houses in Delhi, usually beached somewhere on the upper floors. A maiden aunt, once expected to marry and move out but whose failure to secure the right kind of alliance during her vernal years confirmed her as a permanent, if slightly unwelcome, resident in the family home. Around her, the neighborhood would change-apartment blocks sprouting up over gardens, glass-fronted shopping centers replacing cinemas called Eros or Gaiety, an overpass suddenly visible in the distance-and the aunt would see it all from an upstairs window.

 

No one could understand how Renu Khurana had joined their number, least of all Renu herself. In her youth there had been occasional mutterings that she was too educated, too tall, too fussy, but no serious doubt had been expressed about her prospects. And yet, the years had gone by: a few unsuitable proposals, a couple of halfhearted affairs, and one broken engagement. These days it would be fashionable for her to say that she had struck out on her own and chosen to break the mold; that her way of life, in effect, was a political statement. But that would have been untrue. In spite of her unexpressed desire for a traditional kind of life-a husband, a family-the flow of men with honorable intentions had waned and then ceased altogether.

 

The Khurana house had gradually anesthetized her, diminishing any desire for an independent life. Her twenties softened into her thirties, and these crumpled into her forties. She quit her job as a museum curator and tired of her clamorous friends. Instead there were plump cushions, thick carpets, a bountiful supply of true crime paperbacks, and a swirl of cream in the dishes that came up to her on a little trolley. With each passing year her face accommodated more of her father's handsomeness, the eyelids becoming heavier, the jaw sitting a little more squarely.

 

Every so often her thoughts would spark in a particular direction. She had plans to start an art consultancy, matching Delhi's rich with works that would earn them the greatest cachet at the lowest cost. Appeals poured in from charities, requesting her to help raise funds-and from time to time she would feel that she really ought to do what she could. She wondered about moving abroad, perhaps to a Mediterranean island, where she pictured a new and simple life: a large white sun hat, late-night dips in coves, harvesting her own clams. Nothing ever came to fruition. Now in her mid-fifties, the dreams of a new life had waned completely and any new endeavors were modest and infrequent.

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