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Sitting Pretty

A Suitable Boy

by Vikram Seth
Harper Collins, 1,349 pp., $30.00

The character Vikram Seth chooses in his novel A Suitable Boy to represent himself is not one of the central characters; it is Amit the poet who “was sitting pretty in his father’s house and doing nothing that counted as real work,” which happens to be the writing of an historical novel. In an uncharacteristically confiding moment, he compares writing fiction to Indian music.

I’ve always felt that the performance of a raag resembles a novel—or at least the kind of novel I’m attempting to write. You know…first you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover its possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it’s only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the tabla joins in with the beat…and then the more brilliant improvisations and diversions begin, with the main theme returning from time to time, and finally it all speeds up, and the excitement increases to a climax.

He is cut short by an acerbic critic, Dr. Ila Chattopadhyay, who interrupts, “What utter nonsense….Don’t pay any attention to him….He’s just a writer, he knows nothing at all about literature.” So Amit tries again and the next time round he compares his work to a banyan tree:

It sprouts, and grows, and spreads, and drops down branches that become trunks or intertwine with other branches. Sometimes branches die. Sometimes the main trunk dies, and the structure is held up by the supporting trunks. When you go to the Botanical Garden you’ll see what I mean. It has its own life—but so do the snakes and birds and bees and lizards and termites that live in it and on it and off it. Of course, it’s also like the Ganges in its upper, middle and lower courses—including its delta—of course.

Both—or all three—comparisons imply the slow and ample growth of an entity that gains impressive dimensions through size, longevity, and intricacy of design. One has to agree they are apt comparisons for a novel about four large families and the social and political life of northern India in the 1950s which fills nearly 1,400 pages.

Engagingly, the author is also capable of downplaying the book’s scope and achievement. After a reading at the Brahmpur Literary Society, Amit is pursued by the usual questions: “Why is it that you do not write in Bengali, your mother tongue?” and “Why do you use rhyming?” and also the one that Seth will have been asked with monotonous regularity over the last few months: “Why is it…so long? More than a thousand pages!” He replies:

Oh, I don’t know how it grew to be so long. I’m very undisciplined. But I too hate long books….And I have my own way of reducing that bulk….Well, what I do is to take my pen-knife and slit the whole book into forty or so fascicles…And when I’m wandering around—in a cemetery, say—I can take them out and read them. It’s easy on the mind and on the wrist. I recommend it to everyone.

Everyone” is appalled. “Mr. Nowrojee looked as if he were about to faint dead away. Amit appeared pleased with the effect.” Vikram Seth alias Amit Chatterji clearly enjoys creating such effects. His last literary success was a novel he wrote entirely in verse, The Golden Gate. Much was made of the fact that the verse form was the tetrameter sonnet employed by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin. Here the analogy was unfortunate, for The Golden Gate was, for all its technical achievement, essentially light verse closer in spirit to John Betjeman and Ogden Nash than to Pushkin’s ferocious and satirical wit. It was precisely this that made readers who ordinarily “never read poetry” find it painless and enjoyable. Seth employs the same facility for light rhyming verse to leaven the bulk and weight of his gigantic novel, and in his “Word of Thanks” addresses:

Gentle reader, you as well,
The fountainhead of all remittance.
Buy me before good sense insists
You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.

Equally enticing is his “Table of Contents,” also listed in verse:

1 Browsing through books, two students meet one day. A mother mopes; a medal melts away.
2 A courtesan sings coolly through the heat. A hopeful lover buys a parakeet.
3 A couple glides down-river in a. boat. A mother hears that mischief is afloat….

—and the charm of the rhyming couplets eases us into the formidable river of prose. Light verse on the one hand, the prosy mass of a family saga on the other: How are the two to be bridged? Seth may have had in mind the Sanskrit epic in which, through all the digressions and diversions, the thread of narrative is maintained and imprinted on the memory of their readers—or, in the days when epics were composed, on their listeners—by frequent recourse to rhyming couplets and song, more memorable than rambling prose.

It is not possible to carry this analogy any further: the verse is extraneous, an embellishment, not a literary device of the author’s. Seth’s affection is for the ordinary and the everyday: he creates neither heroes nor villains of mythical proportions, nor does he build historical events into ahistorical legends. The epic belongs to an oral tradition beyond resurrection in an age of technological communication, and Seth’s novel must be fitted into the modern literary tradition, which is essentially Western. He himself claims—or his publishers claim on his behalf—that his novel belongs to the nineteenth-century tradition created by Tolstoy, Dickens, George Eliot. and Jane Austen. One would like to think that the assertion is enough to bring a blush to the cheek of even so phenomenally successful an author as Vikram Seth.

Seth’s touch is feather-light and airy; one can ascribe to it neither the great dark weight of Tolstoy’s searching meditations nor the flashing satiric swordplay of Jane Austen’s pen. The great Victorian zeal for reform that inspired so much of Dickens’s and Eliot’s work can hardly be said to be Seth’s purpose: he is too fond and too tolerant of his characters to want to transform them. Although, in their rash youth, they might be tempted by the possibilities of change, defiance, and the unknown, they learn their lessons and return, chastened, to the safety and security of the familiar and the traditional, represented here, in the Indian fashion, by the great god Family.

We are left with the undeniable length of the book—a family saga stretched to the point when “Victorian” does become an apt adjective: one thinks of the Albert Memorial in London, the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, of Victorian skirts and Victorian meals and Victorian furniture as other examples of such amplitude and substance. How did the author of such delicately proportioned verse as in The Humble Administrator’s Garden and All You Who Sleep Tonight get drawn into a prose project on such a scale? At times one might even find oneself asking why. Surely the story of Lata being maneuvered by her mother into choosing between three suitors, or the story of the Hindu boy Maan’s friendship with the Muslim boy Firoz, or of the Urdu teacher Rasheed’s desire to bring change to his unchanging village, would have made a more shapely story in itself, of a more conventional length of two to three hundred pages.

Yes, but one soon sees that such a story would have been slight, and negligible in itself (and has often been written, by others): it is precisely by interweaving all their tales with such skill into patterns of such intricacy that Seth achieves his effect of bulk and mass impossible to overlook. His intention was clearly to reproduce India on a scale in keeping with its history, its population, its diversity, and abundance of life. Neither two inches of ivory nor the more sizable stretch of a Victorian oil painting in a heavy gilt frame would have suited his purpose, and if his novel has an artistic equivalent then it is the folk painting on a village wall, a mural in a cave, or a stitched and embroidered quilt patiently patched together and embellished by that multiplicity of detail that gives it density and richness. In The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society* Richard Lannoy termed such art a display of “the unified field awareness” which involves a disregard of a single focal point, an even distribution of emphasis, a giving of importance to both foreground and background by flattening perspective, and the resulting cyclical effect that makes possible a study that begins at any point and ends at any point and yet covers all the territory.

The canvas is provided by the fictitious state of Purva Pradesh in north India (which bears a very close resemblance to present-day Uttar Pradesh, now commonly known as the Hindi Belt, or the Cow Belt, being the home of Hindu fundamentalism) in the year 1951. Not a year that is particularly memorable in modern Indian history, yielding up not even one momentous event to memory. By choosing it rather than another, Seth again displays his proclivity for the commonplace and quotidian, and he is able to convince his reader of its historical accuracy by means of thorough research and the painstaking reproduction of the politics of the time—the beginnings of disillusionment with Nehru, who only four years before had led India from colonial rule to independence, the beginnings of the rift in the ruling Congress Party between those who continued to support him and those who had become impatient for change, and the preparations for the first general election held in independent India:

And then finally it would be the voters who mattered, the great washed and unwashed public, sceptical and gullible, endowed with universal adult suffrage, six times as numerous as those permitted the vote in 1946. It was in fact to be the largest election ever held anywhere on earth.

Nevertheless it could not have held the reader’s interest if Seth had not created characters who are personally involved in these public affairs, and for this purpose he employs the services of four large, sprawling families that live in the dusty environs of Brahmpur, the state capital, and the more sophisticated city of Calcutta—the Mehras, the Chatterjis, the Kapoors, and the Khans. The first three, being Hindu, are related by marriage; the last, being Muslim, only by friendship. To the first two are given all the lighter roles—they provide us with amusement and laughter; to the latter two are given the darker ones—they provide the drama, and the melodrama.

For all the breadth and the scope of the author’s intention, there is at the heart of his work a modesty that one would have thought belonged to the miniature, not the epic scale. The characters are not heroes or villains, and we see them involved in the usual affairs of love and business. They are so numerous that Seth runs the risk of seeming to skim over the surface of their lives; occasionally one finds oneself wishing he would pause and give us a moment to reflect. No, no, we must get to our feet and rush on regardless—scarcely has Pran the college lecturer had his heart attack than his wife Savita has her baby; no sooner have we dispatched with Maan’s court case then it is time to get Lata married.

  1. *

    Oxford University Press, 1974.

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