What is the longest English novel all about? [Archives:2006/1008/Education]

December 18 2006
Photo from archived article: photos/1008/education1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/1008/education1_1
Prashant K. Sinha
[email protected]

Vikram Seth's “epic” novel A Suitable Boy, which, unlike works of “magic realism” of Salman Rushdie and others, adheres relentlessly to realism, won accolades as a masterpiece to be compared in its presentation of themes of love and marriage with the fiction of Jane Austen and in the breadth and sweep of its depiction of a society with the novels of George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy)of course minus their moral observations. The sheer readability of the work carries us through its enormous length, and at the end there emerges a sprawling and graphic description of India of early 1950s in its diversity and multiplicity. The novel, as noted by many critics, with its sheer range of characters, events, social and linguistic and religious groupings takes us through an astonishing variety of circles: its locale moves from Brahmpur (perhaps modeled after Patna) and a few villages in Purva Pradesh to Calcutta, Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow, and everything is treated with remarkable accuracy. The characters include Hindus (of many castes), Muslims, Parsees, Sikhs and Christians, the classes range from aristocracy and landed gentry i.e. Nawabs, rajas, landlords to rich farmers, middle class traders, professionals) academics, lawyers, doctors, business executives, technicians, elite barristers, bureaucrats and judges)poets, spiritualists, diplomats and down to factory workers, servants, shoemakers and landless agricultural labour. Even the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru appears more than once in the novel. And everything is well researched. The work begins and ends with weddings, with quite logically large congregations of people on both the occasions. The story is carefully manipulated by withholding some information and shifting from one plot to another at crucial moments of suspense and also foreshadowing certain events through astrologers. So it is only appropriate that A Suitable Boy should inspire a new anthology of critical essays entirely devoted to itself. Murari Prasad's book comprising essays by both Indian and Western scholars is a welcome step in that direction.

The introduction by the editor neatly covers the biography and the background of Vikram Seth, in the process pointing out the parallels between events in his life and his family and those narrated in the novel. Then it “introduces” the essays that follow, commenting succinctly on them.

The first essay by Himanshu Mohapatra and Jatindra K. Nayak, “Jane Austen and Vikram Seth:Uses of Realism in A Suitable Boy “,effectively shows the similarity of concerns in Seth's work and the novels of Jane Austen. They observe that what Gothicism was for Austen, “marvelous realism” is for Seth, and they elaborate the statement by analyzing the tension between romance and realism in both Austen and Seth. They compare A Suitable Boy and Persuasion in relation to the presentation of the ” dominant middle class”, noting that Seth's novel is Austenian in its privileging of “sense” over “sensibility”. These perceptive remarks, however, are punctuated by minor flaws. Thus they allude to “a key moment of sexual surrender”. I wonder if there is any “moment of sexual surrender” in Seth's tone! The article evinces a wide range of reading, but interestingly there is no reference to Rajagopalachary and Keerthi's “Social Realism in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy” which evokes Jane Austen. In the list of works cited authors' names are abbreviated somewhat arbitrarily.

The two articles that follow engage Seth's employment of the English language. Neelam Shrivastava's article on the “Challenges of Rendering Indian experience into English in Midnight's Children and A Suitable Boy” examines “their use of English as a translation from other Indian Languages)and as a linguistic choice, which reveals the secularism of the authors' representation of India” (p.44). The essay perceptively concludes that Seth's prose has a “smooth and eminently readable surface” in spite of “several instances of code-mixing and hybridization from Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and other languages”. Christopher Rollason's article on the “Linguistic Aspects of A Suitable Boy” is somewhat useful in its detailed scrutiny of the novel's four language multilingualism, especially in his insightful comparison of Vikram Seth and Walter Scott. However, many of the statements and observations about the contents of the novel are erroneous and inaccurate. Thus he compares Brahmpur to Varanasi, Agra and Ayodhya, but never to Patna where Seth had actually resided. He says that Kabir was a “maths student” whereas he studied History. Firoz is called “a wastrel son” which is a gross exaggeration, but he is justified when he mentions “Seth's crucial theme of the need to connect across barriers” (81).

The two articles on Islam take diametrically opposed stance. Ian Almond's “The Imbalance of Islam: Muslims and unhappiness in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy” is an “essentialist” study representing the kind of prejudiced, unbalanced and partial view that several western scholars and politicians have taken of the Hindu attitude towards Muslims that led to the unfortunate partition of India and propping up of Pakistan's Military Dictators. In a jaundiced reading of the novel, Almond classifies the Nawab Sahib and Dr. Durrani as representing the sickness of the Muslim community. In fact, the Nawab Sahib is a cultured, cultivated, tolerant and compassionate man. Dr. Durrani is an absent-minded unworldly scholar whose introversion represents the ivory tower academic rather than a ” deranged” Muslim. Similarly in his pairing of characters to show how in every case, the Hindu is flexible and sensible and the Muslim is tragic and inhuman, he grossly misjudges Rasheed and Maan, as it were. Rasheed's idealism, political commitment and devotion to duty, set him far above many others in the novel. In contrast, Maan is not, as mistakenly proposed by Almond, the norm. He is rather too casual, undisciplined and lacking in self-control. Again the rightist Home Minister Aggarwal is not applauded by Seth but rather unambiguously condemned. Although it is not customary for the editor to write a separate article, refuting the position taken up in another essay in the anthology, Murari Prasad had no choice but to resort to it to undo some of the mischief Almond's article may do. He very convincingly demolishes the structure of Almond's argument. In addition to Rasheed, he takes up Firoz, Imtiaz and Zainab to show the positive side of Islam as depicted in the novel. Perhaps in his enthusiasm, he goes too far when he says, “[S]ecularism in Islam was, and probably even now is, if not non-existent altogether, a terribly ticklish issue” (108-109). Has he forgotten M.C.Chagla and Bismillah Khan? He is also mistaken when he concludes that in Lata's search for a suitable boy, “Islam is not at issue, or religious affiliations and narrow identities for that matter” (114). After all, as Malati tells Lata, Kabir's being a Muslim is a crucial factor. It is said more than once that “mixed marriages” cannot work in India. However, from this, we cannot conclude as Almond does that Muslims in the novel have an association with the “tragic and the gloomy”.

Among other articles that explore Seth's vision, Mala Pandurang's feminist reading neatly develops its point of view with illustrations from the text. She convincingly concludes that ” Seth[…] falls sshort off inscribing agency to his women characters, or of investing in them the potential to transform traditional mindsets. The novel does not therefore challenge existing gender conventions. A sincere effort to offer the option of praxis to Saeeda, Tasneem and/or Lata could, on the other hand, have elevated A Suitable Boy from the level of a gentle satire to a stringent critique of social and sexual inequities” (p.129). Unfortunately, Pandurang's style is highly jargonistic; sadly enough, she is in the distinguished company of critics like Homi Bhabha

David Myer's detailed scrutiny of “Passion and Prejudice” in relation to the thematic unity of A Suitable Boy advances the somewhat one-sided view that “Seth proposes that we deny passion and remain, whimsically, in control of ourselves”(131). Again he writes of Lata that ” Her pragmatic and defiant decision is almost like an allegory of modern India turning away from stultifying snobbism and tradition and towards rational planning, capitalist work ethic and economic productivity”(133). It is somewhat simplistic: one cannot ignore that Lata had proposed to Kabir that they elope, and he, being then in a cooler frame of mind, had turned it down. Quoting Foucault on sexuality-source not provided- he proceeds to conclude that repression of sexual passion is linked with “the primacy of capitalist productivity and bourgeois respectability” (133). However, passion, as in the case of Saeeda Bai amd Maan is shown as irrepressible. Myers extends the scope of his argument by introducing other varieties of passion such as the religious passion of the Raja of Marh and the passion for power as in Arun and L.N.Aggarwal. He is really perceptive when he concludes that Seth displays ” Victorian delicacy” on the subject of sexual passion. Similarly he is quite original when he talks of Maan as a tragic character with a tragic flaw (passion for Saeeda), remorse, repentance, renunciation and transformation. However, he is often faulty with small details: he refers to Arun Kapoor and Varun Kapoor in place of Arun Mehra and Varun Mehra; he talks of Ustad Majeed Khan's “leaning” for Tasneem instead of mentioning Ishaq Khan; he says of the Hindu code Bill; such laws guaranteeing the survival of minority languages and cultural groups, which is obviously untrue.

Felicity Hand in her piece on “Translating India into English” is quite perceptive when she observes that Seth's novel is a calm depiction of the ordinary reality of India, and at the same time, “he can point to the virtues and vices shared by all the human race as opposed to insisting on the existence of an intrinsically Indian identity that the inhabitants of other countries could never hope to comprehend”. Both the “calmness” of “depiction” and the “universality” of Seth's work are features that critics have often overlooked. Others have observed the multiplicity of characters and events in the novel, but Hand has also taken cognizance of Seth raising “a large number of issues”. However, from here, she moves on to a somewhat sweeping generalization: “Episodicity, for an example, is an outstanding feature of Indian novels…”(158).

Finally, Cielo G. Festino's “The social Geography of A Suitable Boy” employs Franco Moretti's strategy for literary interpretation as shown in Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1998) and draws a map of the locale. However the map is not entirely accurate in its details, especially of directions. The essay is also somewhat lacking in depth.

The bibliography at the end by the editor serves a useful purpose as it contains several items which have not been mentioned in the articles included in the book

On the whole, the anthology is both insightful and comprehensive. Important facts of the novel including themes, characters, prose style and narrative technique have been covered. Perhaps some other features of the form of the novel and its narrative management, especially in relation to the epigraph, and recurrent imagery can be added in a second edition of the book.

The book is well bought out with an attractive cover. It is a valuable addition to the scholarship on Vikram Seth.

Murari Prasad(ed). Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy: An Anthology of Recent Criticism. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2005. Pp 180. Rs 400/$20.ISBN 81-85753-72-5

Dr. Prashant K. Sinha, formerly Professor and Head, Department of English, Pune University, Pune (India), was recently a visiting professor of English at the Faculty of Education, Sana'a University.