One of the qualities that makes ”Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” so engaging a work is involvement. I mean that each of the cast of characters is involved with all the others, in series or in parallel, in accordance with the recognized register of traditional and contemporary relationships.
A Suitable Boy: A Novel, by Vikram Seth (Harper Collins: 1993)
What are book reviews for? Some are to vent righteous spleen—a scribbler has wasted our time, and here is the moment for revenge. Some are to establish superiority—what an author has made a critic can now break. Some are to whet the appetite—a writer has captivated our attention, and now we want to entice others into the same delighted captivity.
It is this third motive that causes me to report on my recent reading of A Suitable Boy by Seth (pronounced to rhyme with “gate” or “great”). To persuade one’s friends to read even an ordinary-sized novel is a responsibility. They part with some of their money and invest some of their life. But here is a huge book, a three-weeks’ book for a gulping reader like myself, or a three-months read at a more moderate pace. I will venture to attempt to snaffle you into it, and upon my head be it.
From Heaven Lake is, as far as I know, the latest in that proud procession of “making it to Lhasa” books. I have a love for travel books which has become a passion since I spend most of my life in an office. (This passion is aided and abetted by one of our alumni, Jerry Caplan, ’73, with whom I exchange title for title and sometimes book for book. In fact, From Heaven Lake went out to him yesterday.) Among travel books I read most avidly the Tibetan type, for the intrepidity required of the travellers, for the stupendousness of the Himalayan “Roof of the World,” for the romance of the real Shangri-la, for the mystery of forbidden Lhasa, for the grandeur of Potala Palace, for the strange plausibility of Buddhist practice, and—this reading is in a different key—for the pathos of the destruction wreaked on this vulnerably beautiful civilization by the Communist Chinese in the sixties. Before getting back to Seth, I cannot resist here recommending the Tibetan books of Alexandra David-Neel. the most adaptable, courageous, learned and funny member of that astounding tribe of women travellers who for three centuries now have been making distant worlds unsafe for officialdom.
Seth’s Tibet book makes delightful reading, but I mention it here really mostly because on occasion it breaks into verse. Such occasional verse foreshadows his next book and first novel, The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse. (Versification is, it seems, a different art from poetry; Seth has also published two books of poems, one of them called The Humble Administrator’s Garden, which I have not read.) The Golden Gate is a California novel—and thus for us orientals a kind of travel book—written entirely in an iambic tetrameter stanza with a complex rhyme scheme borrowed from Johnston’s “luminous translation” of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. (On Seth’s versified recommendation I bought it, and spent several happy nights discovertng that the Russian national epic is, of all things, witty.)
“A Novel in Verse” may sound unlikely if not repellent. Seth reports attending a party
Hosted by (long live) Thomas Cook
Where my Tibetan travel book
and an editor
seized my arm: ‘Dear fellow,
What’s your next work?’ ‘A Novel… Great!
We hope that you, dear Mr. Seth—’
‘…In verse,’ I added. He turned yellow.
In fact, it turns out to be more readable than many a prose novel, and for all its playfulness, quite moving. It also seems to me to prefigure one of the qualities that makes A Suitable Boy so engaging a work—involvement. I mean that each of the cast of characters is involved with all the others, in series or in parallel, in accordance with the recognized register of traditional and contemporary “relationships”—lover, ex-lover, divorced lover, paterfamilias, materfamilias, counsellor, physician, husband, wife, friend, fellow-demonstrator, support-giver, and suitor, unsuitable or suitable. The verse novel and the prose novel—A Suitable Boy is subtitled A Novel as if to set it off from The Golden Gate—have this feature in common, that the author has an easy command of every local tradition and every latest trend, yet presents, for all his huge absorptive virtuosity, no superciliously scintillating comedy of manners, but a warm, even loving, account of the human nodes in which these conventional relations terminate, in California or in India.
Why, besides the reason given, is A Suitable Boy subtitled A Novel, I keep wondering. What else could it be? Well, judging by its length, it my be taken for another Anglo-Sanscrit epic. (There is actually such a book by Shashi Tharoor, a very funny book full of English and Sanscrit literary allusions, called The Great Indian Novel, 1989, based on and named after the Mahabharata.) Or it might be read as a social history of India, (Seth did do a lot of research) or as seven novels bound in one (Seth had actually planned a series of novels covering half a century). In fact, it is all of these. But it is, I suppose the author meant, above all and unabashedly a novel at a time when the novel has been pronounced a finished genre. Critics have remarked that Seth is quite unaffected by this news and that he is determinedly unexperimental, just as if straight novel-writing were still an option.
Here I cannot resist recurring to a favorite observation of mine, a secret by now so open that the critics have begun to bruit it about. It is a fact designed to make those of us who wield English As A Second Language proud and pleased. The English language is about the nicest thing that happened to us immigrants. It is the thing we gained, whatever else we lost, and now our debt is being repaid. For while the language and its literature is under assault by popular carelessness and intellectual wilfulness in its home countries, the former margins are coming to the rescue. The most agile, handsome, freshly traditional English is being written by bilingual authors at home in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and Hindi—to name some I know, by Timothy Mo, Kazuo Ishiguru, Tayeb Salih, and Vikram Seth himself. They display an unselfconcious sense of possession and an unabashed English literacy. (The character who seems to represent Seth himself in the book, the eligible young writer Amit Chatterji, has it said of him that “Jane Austen is the only woman in his life,” and Amit himself excuses the over-a-thousand page novel he is writing by reference to Middle march—now on our program, I am happy to say.) And their novels are full of novelistic invention—so rich in current content, who cares if the form be passé.
I have heard, and could in any case have guessed, that the use of English is a fiercely touchy issue in India, but while the nationalists and intellectuals argue, the writers write. Seth went home to live with his family in New Delhi to write his novel, and it appears to me to be an Indian Novel. At least I seemed to learn a lot about a time in India of special interest to me, the years 1951-52, half a decade after Independence and Partition. As readers of my reviews in this journal may recall, I am a great admirer of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and Seth’s period falls between that work and its sequel, Staying On. (I hope one day to learn what Seth thinks of this predecessor work, which he must, somehow, have taken into account. There is, for example, an invented city, Brahmpur, in Seth’s book, of which “a few misguided souls” assert that its name means “the city of illusion and error;” such a city name, Mayapore, also occurs in Scott’s Jewel in the Crown.) But then again A Suitable Boy is an Anglo-Indian novel, and the mode of being Indian that several of its protagonists display is to out-English the English. This mode may seem shameful or comical to people devoted to ressentiment, but to me the point is that these devotees to anglicization succeed so well. Their English is pleasantly and playfully correct, they have appropriated Shakespeare, and they can quote more English poets than I have even heard of. ”They,” of course, means Seth himself, whose gift for language play is marvelous. Indian English is many-voiced, and Seth renders the variants with affection. There is the nonchalant idiom of the Oxbridge graduate, the just-off diction of the Midlands university student, the over-correctness of the home trained official, and, most delightful, the inspired solecism of the babu, the Hindu clerk. A family retainer, Biswas Babu, has a genius that way: “a different kettle of tea,” advice that “runs off your back like duck’s water,” and “commenstruable” for “commensurable.” The most hilarious passages in an often very funny book are Seth’s renditions of the English verses written by the members of the Brahmpur Literary Society.
The authortal voice is, in contrast, smoothly unobtrusive, to let the various flavors of spoken speech come out. Seth, wisely, makes no concessions to the non-Indian reader’s ignorance of the ordinary terms of Indian life, such as titles or colloquial terms like angreziyath, evidently something like “anglomania.” (This guess was confirmed by a friendly functionary at the Indian Embassy.) In particular, there is incessant reference to delicious sounding but image-void foods and drinks. What for example, might a gulab-jumam be? A sweet, it is clear and appetizingly gloppy-sounding, but made of what? So, like life, this novel requires us to live with and around these terminological mysteries. No doubt a future edition will give in and supply a glossary.
Besides the pervasive comedy of language, the book has some lovably, comic characters. If you like the literature of the Jewish Mother, you will love emotive Mrs. Mehra, whose daughter, Lata, is the heroine of the book, the one for whom “a suitable boy” is to be found. There is also an irresistible child. (To me the presence of such a personage, like Petya Rostov in War and Peace, is the penultimate test of an author’s skill.) His name is Bhaskar Kapoor, and he is Lata’s little nephew. He is a mathematical monomaniac. For example, here his favorite uncle, Maan, is taking his leave:
‘Bye. Maan Maama… oh, did you know that if you have a triangle like this, and if you draw squares on the sides like this, and then add up these two squares you get a square,’ Bhaskar gesticulated. ‘Every time.’ he added.
‘Yes. I do know that.’ Smug frog, thought Maan. “…Do you want a good-bye sum?’
We would have to invent an AP Freshman mathematics tutorial for that little genius.
This same Bhaskar nearly dies. This is a novel of ordinary life, and mostly of middle class life at that. Seth has a gift for making the narrative run along like a colorless stream of water with a constant rippling of events, again like life. And then suddenly, and yet again like life, a torrential disaster comes rushing down. There is the horror at the Pul Mela, the venue of a great Ganges festival, where crowds panic, a thousand are dead in a quarter of an hour, and Bhaskar’s hand slips “digit by digit” out of his mother’s grasp. The reader, this reader at least, immersed in the stream of action thinks. “Oh no, not Bhaskar!” and an instant later, stepping outside, “Must he—Seth—do that to us?”
Seth’s ability to build up a catastrophe, be it for a crowd or for a character, by a slow-rising of the narrative flow, to write a tempestuous episode, and then, as happens in life, to let it die down and stream away, is remarkable. Equally accomplished is his weaving of the web of involvement I spoke of before.
There are four families: the three Hindu clans, the private middle class Mehras, the political Kapoors, the literately chattertng, couplet-making Chatterjis, and fourth, the demoted, post-Independence nawabs, the Muslim Khans. The Hindu families are related to each other by marriage and to the Muslims by friendship. The author has kindly supplied a family chart.
The bar to inter-religious marriage is one of the novel’s lines. In a bookstore, Lata meets a handsome young Muslim, “the most unsuitable boy of all,” Kabir. She is flipping through Tennyson and he recommends to her Courant and Robbins (a delightful all-purpose mathematics text which we once used in the junior mathematics tutorial). Passionate love develops, but ultimately, by her own will, she yields to her mother’s wishes. It is neither tragedy or sudden glory, and it reminds us that a novelist’s proper function is to make the non-tragic and the inglorious, that is, ordinary life, deeply satisfying.
Other issues are unobtrusively broached: the obsessive intra-Indian color consciousness, the unextirpated caste system, the struggles of the energetic commercial classes (we learn a lot about the shoe trade), the ramshackle and rambunctious new democracy, and the tenacious struggle of an old religion against modern imputations of superstition. The point is that it is all done through the lives of people who are knit into a network of blood and social and emotional relations. Seth’s control, his ability to yield to his characters the freedom to be, while keeping them enmeshed each with all, is what seems to me his main novelistic virtue, over and above even his linguistic and observational virtuosity.
To the West, India seems infinite, but A Suitable Boy is only long. Seth by craft has managed to impose closure on his temporal slice through her enormous life—though, happily, without foreclosing a continuation, in Indian fashion. The versified table of contents ends with a half-promise:
The curtain falls, the players take their bow
And wander off the stage—at least for now.
This essay was originally published here in January 2016, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It first appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 43, No. 1, 1995) and is republished here with permission of the author.
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