Indian Summa

John Lanchester

  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
    Phoenix, 1349 pp, £20.00, March 1993, ISBN 1 897580 20 7

Forests have been slain, not only in the manufacture of A Suitable Boy, but in the production of its review coverage. An unusual amount of the publicity has been statistical, with journalists dwelling on the size of the book (1349 pages), its weight (an uncompromising 1.5 kilos), the size of the advances received (‘2.6 crore rupees’), and its status as the longest one-volume novel in the English Language. (Clarissa is longer and is now published in one volume, but wasn’t written that way.) The Indian reviews are generally rupee-driven, and widely acclamatory; one magazine says that Seth ‘has become India’s answer to Pearl S. Buck and Tolstoy’. The English reviews are also rupee-driven, and are more acclamatory still; the favourite comparison is with Middlemarch. Salman Rushdie writes to the papers to deny a rumour that he had dismissed the novel as a soap-opera: he says he’s two hundred pages in and going strong. On the other hand, the first American review calls the book ‘a cream puff’.

Proust somewhere says that Balzac is more vulgar than life itself. A wonderful compliment, and one that comes to mind not only about all this publication kerfuffle (which has been something that Balzac wouldn’t have minded putting in a novel) but about A Suitable Boy, too. It has the Balzacian unembarrassedness about money and class as primary human motivations; it has the qualities Auden praised in Jane Austen’s work, when he wrote (in ‘Letter to Lord Byron’) that

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effect of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

A Suitable Boy is, like the novels of Jane Austen, structured around the institution of the arranged marriage. The novel is set in Brahmpur, fictional capital of the fictional state of Purva Pradesh; one of the novel’s many technical triumphs is that no non-Indian would guess that these aren’t real places. (When they first met, Seth’s English editor asked him if he had written the book in Brahmpur – another wonderful compliment.) The action takes place in 1951 and 1952. It opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra, eldest daughter of the good-natured but none-too-bright Mrs Rupa Mehra, to Pran Kapoor, lecturer in English at Brahmpur University: ‘“You too will marry a boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.’ The younger daughter is the attractive Lata, a student at Brahmpur University, and one of the two central characters in the novel; the other is Maan, Pran’s happy-go-lucky younger brother, the son of Mahesh Kapoor, the Revenue Minister of Purva Pradesh. At the wedding, Lata and Maan are spotted chatting by a friend:

‘Who was that Cad you were talking to?’ she asked Lata eagerly.

  This wasn’t as bad as it sounded. A good-looking young man, in the slang of Brahmpur University girls, was a Cad. The term derived from Cadbury’s chocolate.

Lata’s search for a husband – a suitable boy – and Maan’s search for something to do with his life are the two main strands of the novel. Around them Seth constructs a miraculously vivid and diverse portrait of Indian life. For instance: one of the multiply-ramifying plot themes concerns a Bill being put through the Purva Pradesh legislative assembly by Mahesh Kapoor, father of Pran and Maan. The new law will abolish the system of zamindari, or the feudal ownership of land; among those who will be grievously affected by this are the Nawab Sahib, the great Muslim landlord of Purva Pradesh, who spends all his time in his library preparing an edition of the Urdu poet Mast – and who also happens to be Mahesh Kapoor’s closest friend.

We see Kapoor struggling to get the Bill through the legislative assembly, harassed, on the one hand, by the outraged representatives of the zamindari class and, on the other, by the Socialist party, who are enraged that the new law doesn’t go far enough; we watch a challenge to the Bill in the state Supreme Court; and we see its effect on people’s lives when Maan is sent to the impoverished countryside for a few months, allegedly to learn Urdu, in fact as a break to cool off from the sweaty affair he is having with the famous Muslim courtesan Saeeda Bai – a period of semi-voluntary rustication that is to have unexpected consequences when his father, disgusted by creeping corruption in the ruling Congress Party, resigns his ministerial post and (partly on the basis of demographic calculations made by Bhaksar, his ten-year-old mathematical-genius nephew) tries to re-enter the state parliament from a new, rural, constituency.

That summary, however, leaves out a wide variety of interlinked characters and stories, like that of Rasheed, Maan’s Urdu tutor, with whom Maan travels into the immiserated village life of Purva Pradesh, and through whose eventual psychological disintegration we get a glimpse of ‘the tragedy of the countryside, of the country itself’; or the story of Waris, the rustic tough who works first as Mahesh Kapoor’s election agent, then as his most bitter rival; or of another of Rasheed’s pupils, Tasneem, Saeeda Bai’s beautiful younger sister – or is she?; or the story of Prime Minister Nehru himself, at loggerheads with the party he is leading into the General Election of 1951 – the first Indian election staged under universal suffrage and the ‘largest election ever held anywhere on earth’, involving a sixth of the world’s population. And all this is only one of the book’s several focuses of attention.

Seth spent a decade at Stanford, studying for a PhD in economics and writing his verse novel about la vita Californiana, The Golden Gate. The training in economics shows up in A Suitable Boy, one of whose many virtues is a strong sense of how the world actually works. This is as apparent in the uproarious pastiche of parliamentary debate as it is in scenes like the one in which Pran is trying to get Joyce into the Brahmpur University English syllabus, despite the opposition of his departmental head, the portly and malevolent Professor Mishra:

‘It is heartening to come across a young man – a young lecturer’ – Professor Mishra looked over at the rank-conscious reader, Dr Gupta – ‘who is so, shall I say, so, well, direct in his opinions and so willing to share them with his colleagues, however senior they may be ... We are already hard-pressed to teach 21 writers in the time we allot this paper. If Joyce goes in, what comes out?’

  ‘Flecker,’ answered Pran without a moment’s hesitation.

  Professor Mishra laughed indulgently. ‘Ah, Dr Kapoor, Dr Kapoor ...’ he intoned,

  ‘Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not
                  singing. Have you heard
  That silence where the birds are dead yet
              something pipeth like a bird?

James Elroy Flecker, James Elroy Flecker.’ That seemed to settle it in his mind.

But this is to over-emphasise the public aspects of the novel at the expense of its portrayal of the private life, as treated through the dilemmas of Lata as she decides between her three suitors. There is hunky Kabir Durrani, whom she deeply fancies, but who is rendered definitively ineligible by being – to Mrs Rupa Mehra’s ineffable horror – a Muslim. (When Mrs Mehra finds out that Kabir’s mother has had a breakdown, she isn’t slow to use the ammunition against him: ‘Muslim and mad.’) There is her brother-in-law, the Oxford-educated and ultra-eligible Amit Chatterji, poet and darling of Calcutta literary society, at work on a thousand-page novel about the Bengal famine. And finally there is Haresh Khanna, who makes up for deficiencies in glamour (he’s short, speaks English badly and works for a shoe company) by his energy, amiability and uncomplicated affection for Lata. The ending is happy, but not idiotically or unreflectingly so; several characters have been visited by tragedy, and there’s even an undercurrent of melancholy in the fact that Lata can only choose one of her suitors. The tone is not unlike that caught by Empson in his essay on Gray’s ‘Elegy’: ‘It is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy.’

If A Suitable Boy has a model it is less the 19th-century masterpieces with which it has been compared than the country of India itself – a country whose variety of life and livings provides the writer with a pattern and a challenge. In its attempt to incorporate India into itself the novel resembles an ostentatiously different book, Midnight’s Children. Seth’s imagination and Rushdie’s are not so far apart: the work of both writers is informed by liberal, pluralistic values, and A Suitable Boy is, among other things, a political book. The violence and degradation consequent on extreme poverty are present in the novel, which is concerned throughout with the threat India faces from ‘the systemic clutch of religious fundamentalism’. At one point, a group of fanatics attempts to dismantle a mosque, in order to build a temple on the site; a sadly accurate prediction of the events at Adodhya.

The style of A Suitable Boy is as astonishing as its content. Seth has striven for complete transparency: all his energies are concentrated on making the prose a vehicle for the characters and the action. Virtuoso effects are confined to often comic moments of parody and impersonation, as when Dr Makhijani reads his deliriously terrible ‘Hymn to Mother India’ to the Brahmpur Literary Society (‘Mahatma came to us like summer “andhi”, / Sweeping the dungs and dirt, was M.K. Gandhi’). Kingsley Amis has famously remarked that in reading his son’s books he feels the lack of simple declarative sentences, along the lines of ‘having nothing more to say, they finished their drinks and left.’ He should like A Suitable Boy, which contains no other kind of sentences, and which has a studied lack of fastidiousness about people saying things ‘firmly’, or ‘confidently’, or ‘wryly’, or any-other-adverbially.

The prose is intended not to distract. The resulting structural clarity is remarkable – you never don’t know what’s happening, why, where and to whom. (Compare this to One Hundred Years of Solitude, which calls for the construction of maps, home-made wallcharts and plot-flow diagrams.) It’s a considerable technical feat, which draws no attention to itself – in fact, the only aspect of A Suitable Boy which draws attention to itself is its length. Seth has taken his own advice: in an essay published in this journal in 1988, he wrote of the requirement to balance the injunction to ‘load every rift with ore’ with the countervailing admonition to ‘allow the poem to breathe’. A Suitable Boy breathes, all right; the unfakable, unmistakable breath of life.