Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth; drawing by David Levine

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.

This leaves Seth little space to develop his characters. They come to us extremely well-equipped with easily recognizable characteristics: in the Mehra family, the matriarch Mrs. Rupa Mehra is identified by her capacious black handbag, her collection of greeting cards that she cannibalizes to commemorate every new family occasion (on the birth of her new grand-daughter she chooses one that reads, “A Lady Baby came today!—what words are quite so nice to say?”), frequent recourse to tears, and constant reference to her dead husband; her son Arun by his pompous and officious ways; and her son Varun by his cringing evasiveness.

In the Chatterji family Amit the poet is reclusive and difficult to draw out, Dipankar is spiritual and discourses on profound matters with the Grande Dame of Culture (” ‘…not Unity, not Unity, but Zero, Nullity itself, is the guiding principle of our existence’ “), Kakoli talks almost exclusively in rhyming couplets, and the frivolous Meenakshi divides her time between canasta at the Shady Ladies Club in the mornings and casual promiscuity in the afternoons. At the end of the book they have progressed no further in any new directions.

If, in spite of their predictability, we become so engaged in their lives and even devoted to them, it is because of the author’s skill in providing them with details we find recognizable and true, and in this he goes to tireless lengths. Arun Mehra is only a minor character but one is given all the information one could want about the management agency for which he works and which controls trade and commerce in “Abrasives, Air Conditioning, Belting, Brushes, Building, Cement, Chemicals and Pigments, Coal, Coal-Mining Machinery, Copper & Brass…” and so on down the alphabet to “Tea, Timber, Vertical Turbine Pumps, Wire Rope,” thereby giving Arun the aplomb that informs his every gesture:

He got out of the car, leaving his briefcase behind, and protecting himself with the Statesman. His peon, who had been standing in the porch of the building, started when he saw his master’s little blue car. It had been raining so hard he had not seen it until it had almost stopped. Agitated, he opened the umbrella and rushed out to protect the sahib. He was a second or two too late.

“Bloody idiot.”

The peon, though several inches shorter than Arun Mehra, contrived to hold his umbrella over the sacred head as Arun sauntered into the building. He got into the lift, and nodded in a preoccupied manner at the lift-boy.

The peon rushed back to the car to get his master’s briefcase, and climbed the stairs to the second floor of the large building.

Unerring as is his eye for the telling detail, the method works best in humorous scenes and is less successful in portraying the darker, more sweeping passions, which are often rendered as bathos. Maan’s infatuation with the Muslim courtesan, Saeeda Bai, and its effects are analyzed in a perfunctory manner: when Maan’s mother, Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor, “saw Maan so drunk and unsteady she was very unhappy. Though she did not say anything to him, she was afraid for him. If his father had seen him in his present state he would have had a fit.” The Hindu boy discovers his best friend, Firoz, in Saeeda Bai’s drawing room, misinterprets his intentions and attacks him in a blind rage, then staggers off, dripping with blood, into a dark and misty night. This scene belongs to melodrama, complete with a slowly clopping tonga horse. The courtroom scene in which Firoz withdraws his accusation and Maan is acquitted is one in which Seth feels so ill at ease that he winds it up in one page and hurriedly tidies it out of sight. The revelation made about the true ancestry of Saeeda Bai’s “sister” Tasneem (“the child she had conceived in terror, had carried in shame, and had borne in pain”) rings false—it is not a moment of truth but merely a device of the plot.

Seth himself seems to be on the side of Maan’s father, Mahesh Kapoor, who slaps Maan when he comes home drunk: ” ‘Love?’ cried his father, his incredulity mixed with rage… ‘Get out! Out!’ ” and he seems positively relieved when Maan sees the folly of his ways and rejects Saeeda Bai:

So shattering had been his mother’s death, Firoz’s danger, his own disgrace, and his terrible sense of guilt that he had begun to suffer a violent revulsion of feeling against himself and Saeeda Bai. Perhaps he saw her too as a victim…. “I am to blame for all that has happened.” “You don’t love me—don’t tell me you do—I can see it—“ she wept. “Love—“ said Maan. “Love?” Suddenly he sounded furious.

Lata Mehra, the charming young heroine of the book, whose mother in the opening scene declares her plans for her—“ ‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter,” and in the final chapter brings off this highly desirable ending—Lata, too, less dramatically but equally soberly, abandons youth’s dreams of passion and gives up her unsuitable Muslim suitor so as not to distress her mother. Both she and Maan sacrifice romance in the name of family and stability. Lata tells her appalled friend Malati, “If that’s what passion means, I don’t want it. Look at what passion has done to the family.” When Malati protests, “You are mad—absolutely mad. How could you do it?” Lata tries to explain. Being modern and “Westernized,” a student of English literature at Brahmpur University, she does so by quoting Clough:

” ‘There are two different kinds, I believe, of human attraction. One that merely excites, unsettles, and makes you uneasy; the other that—’ Well, I can’t remember exactly, but he talks about a calmer, less frantic love, which helps you to grow where you were already growing, ‘to live where as yet I had languished….’ ”

Her mother, who begins each day by reading two pages of the Bhagavad Gita, would have quoted instead: “He who can withstand the impulse of lust and anger even here [in this life], before he is separated from the body, is steadfast and truly a happy man.”

If any philosophy is being expounded here it appears to be that of Aristotle’s golden mean—the avoidance of excess, the advisability of moderation, the wisdom of restraint, temperance, and control. Whenever these rules are flouted, grief results.

Even changing the rules can cause a dangerous imbalance. Mahesh Kapoor, as revenue minister, is largely responsible for the Zamindari Abolition Bill that proposes to dispossess such landlords as Firoz’s father, the nawab of Baitar, of their land. Many landlords, less noble and generous than the old nawab, act quickly to remove tenant farmers from their lands before the bill can turn them into virtual owners. Maan’s Urdu teacher Rasheed who passionately hates the old feudal system and longs to bring about reform in his ancestral village, sees the risk to the peasant Kaccheru on his father’s property. He marches into the village patwari’s office to insist that the family land holdings be changed in favor of Kaccheru who has worked so loyally for his family through the years. For this he is punished severely: his family denounces him for his meddling zeal, he is unable to help a single person in the slumberous, mosquitoridden village, and he loses his mind and commits suicide (a scene so distasteful to the author that it is the shortest in the book).

These dangerous and fraught involvements actually take up the lesser amount of space: more is given to the lighthearted and the pleasurable in which Seth is clearly more in his element. Some of the set pieces are on the grand scale, rendered either in the detailed informative manner of official reports, for example, the Pul Mela (the gigantic fair held on the banks of the Ganga)—

The roads on the Pul Mela sands were packed with people…. Men, women and children, old and young, dark and fair, rich and poor, brahmins and outcastes. Tamils and Kashmiris, saffronclad sadhus and naked nagas, all jostled together….

—or in more lurid descriptive prose as in the raising of the Shiva-linga, the phallic symbol of the god Shiva, from the riverbed and its inadvertent descent:

It kept rolling on, down, down, swifter and swifter towards the Ganga, crushing the pujari who now stood in its downward path with arms upraised, smashing into the burning pyres of the cremation ghat, and sinking into the water of the Ganga at last, down its submerged stone steps, and onto its muddy bed.

The Shiva-linga rested on the bed of the Ganga once more, the turbid waters passing over it, its bloodstains slowly washed away…

—a description which resembles nothing so much as one of those grim steel engravings of the Mutiny of 1857 that expressed the British colonial nightmare.

Fortunately there are the lesser activities, at once so busy and so leisurely in the distinctively Indian way, that occupy the four families—a boat ride on the river at dawn, feeding monkeys with fruit under a banyan tree, a courtesan’s recital of Urdu love poetry, a tea party at which three matrons discuss their grandchildren, the making of mango pickles and the dangers of allowing young daughters too much freedom (” ‘You see, it is like this,’ said Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor gently, ‘please look after your daughter, because someone saw her walking with a boy on the bank of the Ganga near the dhobi-ghat yesterday morning’ “), a discussion with a gardener over a matter of sloping lawns and pond herons, and a good many eminently civilized games of cricket played on dusty university fields by handsome young men showing off with bat and ball while demure wives sit in the sun with their knitting.

With the glee of an anthropologist let loose among Pacific islanders, Seth describes for us all the festivals of the Indian calendar year, from the colorful spring festival when characters stagger through the canna lilies in a happy haze of bhang—on that day not merely permitted but prescribed—and then are dunked in tubs of pink water, through Rakhi when brothers and sisters swear loyalty to each other by the tying of pretty wrist bands and gifts of sweets and money; Janamashtmi to celebrate the birth of the baby Krishna; Bakr-Id celebrated by Muslims by the slaughter of goats and the feasting on their flesh; Karva Chauth at which good wives fast to ensure long lives for their husbands; and winding up with Christmas and New Year’s Eve with plum pudding and brandy sauce in the clubs of Calcutta, that haven for boxwallahs left over from the heyday of the East India Company. (Inexplicably, the greatest festival of the Hindu year, Diwali, is left out.) So ardently are these celebrated by one set of citizens or the other that when the Hindu festival of Ramlila, commemorating Rama and Sita’s triumphant return to their kingdom after fourteen years of wrongful exile, occurs on the same day as the Muslims are conducting the Mohurrum procession of the funerary tazias of the Prophet’s murdered nephews, Hasan and Hosain, through the city toward the mosque, a slight delay on the part of one leads to what police and politicians had dreaded—a bloody clash accompanied by knives, fires, riots, and deaths. Even when Hindus are celebrating the Pul Mela by themselves, with processions of sadhus taking turns at bathing in the holy waters of the Ganga they manage to contrive a colossal tragedy.

For the most part, however, the celebrations are affectionate and enjoyable as family life is. If there are bad experiences, few are so bad that they cannot be put right by a basket of ripe mangoes, or a timely song. When shadows loom, Seth steps forward to drive them away with a flap of his hands; if the schoolboy Tapan has been traumatized by the cruelties of his schoolfellows in the British-style public school Jheel (Seth himself studied in one called Doon), a rescue is quickly devised by his resourceful brothers and no lingering effects such an experience might have had on the boy are shown us. There is only one truly nasty character in the whole book—Uncle Sahgal, who plods quietly down the corridor to his daughter’s bedroom at night and then tries to slip into Lata’s—but he is seen as a figure in a nightmare: daylight drives him into oblivion and no more is made of his sinister vice.

When Mr.Sahgal, her uncle from Lucknow, approached them with a repellent smile, she held Haresh’s hand tightly…. Lata had closed her eyes. He looked at her face, at the lipstick on her lips, with a slight sneer, before moving away.

It is the last we see of him and the wedding celebrations go on apace.

Critics have remarked on the remarkable absence of Freud from the book, which is written as if Freud’s theories had never filtered down into the bazaars of Brahmpur, and, in fact, the vast majority of Indians have never heard of them and feel they do not need to—everything has surely already been portrayed in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana

If Seth displays an old-fashioned regard for the “normal,” and an unpoetic one for anti-romanticism, so does he show himself an admirer of another old-fashioned virtue: work. He is surely redressing a common lapse on the part of novelists when he ascribes more space to his characters’ trades and professions than he does to their looks, dress, or love lives, and thereby accords them an unexpected dignity. He transforms Lata’s most humble suitor, Haresh Khanna, something of an upstart in his flashy silk shirts and two-tone shoes that so distress her, into a kind of hero, for he is devoted to his work in the far-from-sweet-smelling shoe trade. So that we may know exactly how Haresh rises from rung to rung of it, Seth takes us on a tour from the fetid open-air tanneries, where low-caste chamars stand in pits soaking the flayed skins, to the Czech empire of Prahapore (closely resembling the ubiquitous Bata Shoe Company and Batanagar). So intense is his involvement with his profession that on the morning after his wedding, he proposes to visit the local shoe factory: he is obtuse enough to invite his bride to accompany him. She demurs. On the train carrying them to their new home in Prahapore, he is so exhausted that he falls asleep, leaving her to entertain herself by feeding the monkeys at the railway station with a somewhat pensive air.

Not a romance in the Western sense, or even the Eastern. To which hemisphere then, and to what era, does Seth belong? By virtue of his age and nationality, to a generation of Indian writers born after Independence and now in their forties, who have attracted attention abroad and even made the reading and writing of novels a respectable pursuit in India. Yet he has little in common with them in any literary sense: he writes as if Salman Rushdie had never written Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses, firmly turning his back upon the unconfined imagination and dangerous fantasy. He does not have Amitav Ghosh’s taste for fine shadings and subtleties, or for the historical satire marked out by Shashi Tharoor and Alan Sealy as their territory. Seth has refused to either equal or outdo his contemporaries. He is quoted in interviews as having said that he wished to strip fiction of ideas and style, suggesting these only get in the way of a reader’s enjoyment.

Yet it is impossible for a writer of either prose or poetry to disregard an essential element of style: language, especially troubling to an Indian writing in a non-Indian language, English. Novelists of an earlier generation—Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, and Mulk Raj Anand—found their own individual solutions to the problem, but that did not obviate the need for experimentation on the part of the younger generation. Seth, with his cheerful disregard for anything that proposes to be “a problem,” has decided to throw together all their experiments and all their solutions: some of his characters are fluent users of the English idiom (“How fearfully dowdy!” and “A bit of a bounder, I’d say”), some in a more laborious schoolroom English (“Your superstitious mother will start panicking if they miss the correct configuration of stars”), and others in the casual multilingualism common to urban Indians (“So you’re his sala,” “I’ll be kutti with you,” “You can’t be kutti with your uncle”). There are also passages in the babu English in which British satirists used to delight, at its most hilarious in a meeting of the Brahmpur Literary Society at which a Dr. Makhijani reads an interminable patriotic poem:

Let me recall history of heroes proud,
Mother-milk fed their breasts, who did not bow.
Fought they fiercely, carrying worlds of weight,
Establishing firm foundation of Indian state.

At times Seth helps clarify matters by telling us, “His conversation with his father had been in Hindi, hers with her mother in English.” At other times he leaves us to draw our own conclusions: for example, the courtesan’s dialogue with her admirers is so courtly, allusive, and elaborate, it can only be in Urdu, e.g., “Sit down and illumine our gathering.” Seth provides no glossary for non Hindi-speaking readers, counting upon the energy of his prose to help them over any hurdles of speech, and in this his instinct seems to have been right, for the text moves at an unencumbered pace, leaving his readers amazed at their ability to read some 1,400 pages so easily, and awed, of course, by Seth’s having written them with seemingly equal ease.

Awe, too, is what Seth’s labor inspires in the reader. At the end it is as if one had listened to a raag played by a musician with skill, dexterity, and charm. It may seem ungrateful, then, to wish there had also been moments of silence, of stillness, in the midst of such a buzz of words and actions, when one might have heard the great resounding boum emerge from the heart of the cave, the dark heart of even the most ordinary man or woman.

This Issue

May 27, 1993