Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society is a viciously funny black comedy of manners whereas in Austen’s Emma nothing really bad happens. Polite Society is the darker cousin of Austen’s Emma – you know the talons will come out at a point and the characters will get hurt. In Austen’s world, there are allusions but here we see the ugliness that lies behind picture perfect lives. I liked the book for its refreshing lack of morality, and there certainly is no redemption. By now you know not to expect a happy ending. A biting social commentary for the 21st century set in the snobby upper echelons of Delhi, just as segregated as Highbury.
All the characters from Aisha danced around in my head merging with the brilliant adaptation of Emma by Autumn de Wilde (that’s really her name!) plus the original characters from Austen’s Emma which I finished in lockdown (with a little help from the brilliant audiobook which made me feel as if I was listening to a radio dramatization). In 2019, I read a contemporary adaptation by Alexander McCall Smith which was neither here nor there. I had to have my bases covered, you see.
Ania Khurana, our desi Emma, is as vapid as Sonam’s Aisha. (Many people trashed the film but I liked it except for the trite ending.) Ania lives in a bungalow teeming with servants but there’s no one she can be honest with. The paparazzi track her every move. For all her material trappings, she is terribly lonely. Ania is rich but not really the daddy’s girl like Emma was. Ania and her father don’t have much of a relationship even though they live in the same mansion. The affection that Emma lavished on Mr Woodhouse is absent here perhaps because Dileep Khurana appears to be a cold father (it takes two to build a relationship). All we want in life, whether rich or poor, is to be accepted for who we are, and feel a little less alone.
A character I wanted to know more about was Dev (it will always be Abhay Deol in my mind). He has a fleeting presence in the book hovering in the background. He never shouts at Ania just teases her or ticks her off gently. Where Mr Knightley remains superior to all and sundry, Dev’s pursuit of intelligence and appreciation of intellect lands him in a quandary many a time. In short, Dev is Mr Knightley, who has been humanized, and hence more real.
Renu Bua is the unmarried aunt modelled after Miss Taylor. She may not be treated with outright contempt but she has a lesser importance both inside, and outside the house until she gets married and moves out. Old maids are still a thing. So much for all our modernity.
The author writes women well. (I am always surprised when men write women well!) The characters’ inner motivations are revealed in the chapters given to them which was quite interesting (a departure from Austen’s Emma). You see what they think about themselves, where they are really come from, and how it contrasts with the facade they have built for the world.
Differences from Austen’s Emma
Possible spoilers ahead.
I missed Miss Bates who provided me with so much laughter in the book and she was played brilliantly by Miranda Hartley in the 2020 film. Her character made me realize the importance of comic relief.
Dimple (Harriet) never would have fit into Ania’s world. She waits till the last moment to reveal that she is marrying Ankit (Robert Martin), not exactly a punishment to Ania’s meddling but standing her own ground, and delaying unpleasantness as much as she could in the present circumstances. Don’t we do that as well? She is no doormat like Harriet, and takes the reins of her life in her hands.
The character named Nina (I could be wrong but I found no equivalent of her in Austen’s world.) is a vicious serpent, who has no qualms about using her widowed status, beauty and charm to get the job done. There’s a scene in the book where she finds out she has lost all her money, and has an anxiety attack. It was so real I thought she would kill herself. The public humiliation is too much for people like them not just because it will be splashed all over the papers but because they always have a laugh at the expense of some poor sod’s gloom, and know it’s their turn to be skewered now.
Nikhil is much more sinister than Frank Churchill ever was. Ania made the decision to go after him, and she has to live with the fact that she doesn’t understand people as well as she thinks she does, like Emma who is easily manipulated and misled. He didn’t take Ania for a ride (though he did everyone else) but he was disingenuous. One can’t do anything about it except cry on the inside.
Kamya is a Jane Fairfax like character. She is a writer, keeping her affections a secret and for good reason (updated perfectly for the 21st century). She intrigued me but her character wasn’t explored much.
Fahim, like Mr Elton, is a liar as well but he has cloaked the lies in respectability, whitewashed by his job as a sincere journalist (though initially he did care about uncovering the truth). The same can’t be said about Mussoorie (terrible name!), his wife who has a bored lacklustre air about her. Mrs Elton was irritating but at least she was entertaining.
Polite Society catches you unaware and forces you to question your prejudices. One day I will read it again for its prose. For now, I will leave you with these lines.
She knew that there were cultures that celebrated death and believed that it was important for the living to engage in raucous sendoff – dancing, singing, drums or trumpets, a frenzy to mark the metamorphosis. Here, the silence was adamant, every sound felt like an act of dishonour.
The sky was clinging on to its final moments of deep blue before the colours of dusk ripped through its fabric.