A Suitable Boy (1993)
Ever heard something called grace under pressure? Well, Vikram Seth’s 1349-page novel may not subscribe to that exact notion, but gets as close to it as possible. Yes, there are long-winding passages, and also a cast that leaves War and Peace seem underwhelmingly underpopulated. But in contrast to any other tome of its length, Seth makes his work a humble, pleasant read. There is no rambling here, no Tolstoyan howling, no Proustian sentimental whining, no Randian lets-torture-the-human-race-with-some-extreme-capitalism pomposity. What’s more, no Wallacian or Pynchonian postmodern pyrotechnics/gimmickry. Here is a humble, quiet novel that canvases modern India (the entire novel is set in 1951-52) in simple, understated terms. His style derives from the tradition of nineteenth century novels – and is perhaps one of the few novels of its length in the twentieth century to feature no flashbacks or flashforwards.
With his subtle, witty and sly sentences, Vikram Seth pulls off much more than any of his ambitious, bombastic and logorrheic contemporaries (say, Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul) could ever hope to achieve, notably by eschewing the former’s melodramatic magical realism and the latter’s frivolous judgmentalism. For once, the characters are real and not vehicles for some larger abstract philosophical pining – they echo day-to-day concerns and live their lives with a degree of intelligibility and humor, endearing them to us. They speak normal dialogue and don’t harbour any hardboiled Cormac McCarthyesque ambitions to make every spoken word sound like an AFI best of 100 years’ quotation. And they inhabit a very real world which is getting increasingly harder to find in Indian fiction. The fictitious world of Brahmpur is colorful without looking like a Bollywood junkyard (i.e., a Nasir Hussein film-set).
So why is the novel so long? Primarily because it is less of a novel than a series of short vignettes. Like many 20th century novels, it slows down to give us entertaining, somewhat encyclopaedic information on various matters. In the case of Pynchon, we get a ‘how to build a V-2 rocket’ guide, or in Thompson we get a ‘how to shoot heroin without dying’ guide; in Vikram Seth, we get slightly more useful advice. How is a shoe made? Seth takes you from the tanneries to the shops. How to get yourself elected into a legislative assembly? Seth takes you on the campaign trail. He indulges the reader with all kinds of information – exegeses of Mirza Ghalib and Rabindranath Tagore’s works, Indian classical music, animal psychology and behavioural patterns, gardening and hunting tricks, and more importantly, a window into the psyche of ’50s India.
A lot of liberals (present company included) have a fascination to Nehruvian India – a young free nation building itself on optimism and hope. Yes, probably that decade was the best decade in the history of the Republic of India, au contraire to America which was probably seeing its worst ten years at that time. After reading A Suitable Boy one sees the decade in a way more complex light than before. Seth’s quiet, reflective tragicomic opti-pessimism leaves a very uneasy mark on the reader. The fifties had a lot to look forward to – the birth of a new economy, the decline of the kings and end of royalty, land reforms. But it was also a decade mired by a rising (also dumbened, familial, conservative, Hindu) middle-class which chose to live above cities rather than in them; an era extreme poverty, crumbling caste relations and increasing Hindu-Muslim polarization. Vikram Seth, clearly a liberal, shows us all this and much more, and one of the most admirable feats of the novel is the distance he creates between his own politics and the objective one he describes.
Vikram Seth is a poet by profession, and his novel shows us the playfulness of his trade. The index and word of thanks take the structures of rhyming couplets, and the entire book is filled with them – some of them very silly too (especially those that satirize the bull-headed nationalistic genre of poetry – arguably the most torturous creation of post-Independence Indian literature). Seth doesn’t want to hide, his novel is not an exercise in good taste, nor is it a meet-the-author. It is a novel of characters, talking and coming to life.
‘A Suitable Boy’ is a labyrinthian plot-heavy novel, but the plot is secondary to the development of character. Above all, the novel is a study of people, their lives and the places they visit and belong to. It is told in a linear narrative, and takes place in a few theatres of action – by the end of the novel one can easily guide oneself in the lanes of Brahmpur, and parts of Kanpur and Calcutta as well. The strong imagery of Barsaat Mahal – the palace whose parapet was ‘the venue of a number of romantic suicides’, the mischievously named Tarbuz ka Bazaar – ‘the street of singing girls and prostitutes’, the cremation ghat at the Ganges after the Pul Mela stampede (based on the 1954 Kumbh Mela stampede) all linger on long after reading the novel.
The plot surrounds four families – the Mehras, Kapoors, Khans and Chatterjis. Lata Mehra is the protagonist of the novel, if we had to ascribe the role to someone. It is her marriage that remains Seth’s major preoccupation of the book, and it her mother’s (Mrs Rupa Mehra) search for the titular character (a suitable Khatri boy through an arranged marriage) that Seth uses as a framing device for the action of the novel. Mrs Rupa Mehra is a widowed woman of much emotional capital, and her ideas of life reflect the old, conservative India that all the other characters enjoy lampooning. She is superstitious, does religious fasts, enjoys discussing genealogy, detests modernity, westernization and people who have ‘a gala time’. She has four children. Arun, the eldest son, is an anglicized white-collar employee at a British conglomerate, who listens to Churchill’s speeches on the radio and murmurs, ‘Good old Winnie.’ Lata is a good-natured but weak-willed girl, whose indecision concerning her life, studies and three suitors provide much fodder for other characters to try dictating terms in her life. She is counterposed by her ultra-modern friend Malati who has affairs with strange old men in Simla. Savita, Lata’s sister, is married and pregnant, more or less content with life. Varun, the youngest child, is a renegade, spending his time drinking shamshu (described as some very strong alcohol), betting on races, and trying to study for his IAS exams. Dr Kishen Chand Seth, the grandfather of the four, fondly called Kishy by his trophy wife (a third of his age) enjoys and energetically weeps over melodramatic Dilip Kumar films.
Prem Nivas – the house of the Kapoors – is the center of much action. Mr Mahesh Kapoor, a left-wing liberal Congress politician, acts as the voice of reason in the family and the book; he’s a progressive man whose way of thinking closely resembles that of Nehru. His wife is the naive, religious Mrs Mahesh Kapoor – her existence is almost an obligation to her children and garden. Pran Kapoor, the eldest of the three children, is a lecturer and Elizabethan Drama enthusiast, who has a strong conviction convincing his superiors to replace James Elroy Flecker with James Joyce on the students’ syllabus. Their second son Maan is described as a good-looking young wastrel, whose tragic love for a Muslim courtesan/prostitute occupies large chunks of the novel. Veena Kapoor is married to Kedarnath Tandon, a man who had made a living in ‘of all the polluting, carcass-tainted things – the shoe trade,’; he also spouts economic wisdom to his wife who berates him for his spending: ‘Over-extension is over-extension, all great fortunes are based on debt.’ Their frog-like mathematician, child-prodigy son Bhaskar spends his time pontificating mathematics and language, and seeing numbers in everyday life.
The Chatterji family allows Seth to mock everything that is wrong with the Bengali middle-class, which is depicted as a frivolous, strong bastion of the bourgeoisie. He takes a dig at the intelligentsia that revere Tagore: ‘reading him is like trying to swim breast-stroke through treacle. We’ve heard enough about Shantiniketan and how idyllic it is. I know that if I had to live there I’d commit suicide every day.’ Seth seems to relish demolishing the Bengali psyche – ‘A combination that was by no means uncommon in Bengal: the mad deification of the patriot Subhas Bose who had fled to Germany and Japan and later established the Indian National Army to fight the British; the eulogization of Hitler and Fascism and violence; the denigration of all things British or tainted with ‘pseudo-British liberalism’; and resentment bordering on contempt for the sly milksop Gandhi who had dispossessed Bose of the presidentship of the Congress Party which he had won by election many years before.’ Back to the Chatterji family. Mr Justice Chatterji and his serious wife have five children. Amit is a poet (maybe based on Vikram Seth) who is busy writing a book on the Bengal Famine, while being pushed by his siblings to woo and write poems to Lata, which he does with some reluctance. Dipankar has ambitions of being a mystic, thrives on spirituality, talking of sanyasi, dualisms and monisms – a character remarks that arguing with him is ‘like battling a blancmange.’ Meenakshi is the promiscuous wife of Arun Mehra, who neglects her motherhood duties and ‘exposes more of her midriff than Brahmpur society was normally privileged to see.’ Kakoli makes trite two-liners which are known as Kakoli-couplets and plays Schubert; her love for Hans, a German pianist, makes an amusing subplot in the novel. The youngest child Tapan has just been sent to a boys’ boarding school, where he faces some serious hazing threats from the prefect.
The Khans are a royal zamindari family in the decline, with their vast palace and fort, large landholdings, cultured Urdu, etiquette and women in zenana and purdah (a world with a ‘halter on boldness or unorthodoxy’). The Nawab Sahib, father of three children, is a very erudite man given to depression and spending time in his silverfish-infested personal library, which is rapidly ‘running to seed.’ His world philosophy is interesting: ‘For people like me at least things are in decline, and I do not feel it worth my while consuming the rest of my life fighting politicians or tenants or silverfish or my son-in-law to preserve and maintain worlds that I find exhausting to preserve and maintain. Each of lives in a small domain and returns to nothing.’ His world is rapidly comes crumbling coming down, at one instance the Custodian of Evacuee Property comes to his palace to confiscate it on government orders. An era of land-reform and the end of zamindari would have been unthinkable twenty or thirty years before the era in which the novel is set. ‘I am not going to give up in half an hour what has belonged to our family for generations,’ the Nawab’s daughter says. But here they are, at the crossroads of a paradigm shift in history. A Muslim MP tries to give the Zamindari Bill a religious tinge, that the Hindus have used their ‘brute majority to force through amendments which are patently mala fide’ and merely made the zamindars a ‘scapegoat class’; she even invokes the threat of communism, but to no avail. With the end of the zamindari lords, also comes an end to the ‘managers, relatives, retainers, musicians, wrestlers, bullies, courtesans and wastrels’ who went along with them. Seth conjectures that perhaps if there was no partition, there would have perhaps been no land reform as well, for the united large class of landowners would have parlayed or lobbied their way into self-preservation, with their hunting, wine, women and opium. The royal apologists show little optimism to the reform, and they believe that the zamindari class would only be replaced by a babu class of ‘venal clerks and gluttonous Sub-Divisional Officers.’
Lastly, we come to the other two suitors of Lata (we have seen Amit before) – Kabir Durrani (probably based on cricketer Salim Durani) and Haresh. The former treats love like a wailing bluesman, and the ill-fated Hindu girl-Muslim boy love-story subplot serves well to highlight the hypocrisies of our secularism. The latter is a serious man who works for Praha (a Czech firm that is the fictionalized Bata) who does little except ponder about the insole of shoes, finding counters and toe-puffs of good quality, analyzing methods of de-hairing, de-liming, pickling, chrome-tanning, fat liquoring, samming, splitting, shaving, dyeing, drying, glazing, boarding, ironing, cutting, skiving, pasting, folding, trimming and hammering leather into shoes (yes, Vikram Seth describes them all) and in general ‘living by the awl.’ Lata is torn between loving the careerist Kabir and the practical Haresh, though she has an ‘atavistic revulsion’ for the latter’s profession.
Apart from having a well-constructed plot, ‘A Suitable Boy’ has great satire, and entire sections of the book can be read isolated for their biting Huxleyan wit. Seth shows us the crassness of career politicians and takes digs at the prudishness and idiosyncrasies of the times – pandits and Sanskrit prayers, ‘dry states’ and alcohol as taboo, the fear of having ‘black children’ and the obsessive love for white complexion, the super-sensitivity of families concerning marriage and sex, the tear-jerking Bollywood films of patriotism and immoral familialism. The list could go on. You also have biting satire reminiscent of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron: ‘If you have a number of outrageous things to do [then] do them simultaneously. People will scatter their complaints, not concentrate them. When the dust settles, at least two or three out of five battles will be yours. And the public has a short memory. As for the firing in the Chowk, and those dead rioters, it will all be stale news in a week,’ says a clever politician. Religion too isn’t spared: a religious man on a boat in the Ganga tells a character, ‘I bathe here every day – five, six times a day. Mother Ganga washes all your sins away.’ ‘You must sin a lot,’ is the reply he gets.
Some of the most brilliant passages of the book are the ones where Seth decides to go beyond the usual satire and actually make some powerful social commentary (of course, the poet is too clever to deal in didacticism and agit-prop methods – his combination of subtlety and research work well for him). He takes us into a chamar/jatav colony and right into the tanneries as well – he spares no details. He takes a realistic view of their strike as well, not pumping it with Marx and Engels jargon, but looking at the practical, economic hardships of the jatavs instead. The passages of life, ignorance and brutality in rural India also show some very meticulous research – Seth has clearly been to places, and doesn’t rely on arm-chair generalities or country-life clichés. He has seen the ‘caste-ridden, poverty-stricken, unrelievedly back-breaking, hopeless life’ of the rural hinterlands, and manages to sketch it in very vivid terms. Seth’s village of Debaria is one of slow entropy, small-talk, local thugs and oppressed peasantry. He doesn’t even see the village wanting to change, to adopt to the new India. ‘How can one argue with ignorance? People know nothing and want to know nothing.’ His research takes him into various subcultures and technicaities – entire sub-chapters are dedicated to the making of shoes, the different varieties of paan, horticulture, knowledge of birds and beasts, architecture, classical Indian music (which nearly operates like a caste system with its rigidities and hierarchies – sarangi being a low-caste instrument; being born into the kalawant-caste being almost a sine qua non to be a respectable musician), Ramachandra Guha-styled dissections of cricket, speculations on the feasibility of clauses of the Criminal Procedure Code and even the evolution of medicine.
The wide range of characters and events all enhance the cultural richness of the novel. Vikram Seth is incredibly well-read and this shows in his wide quotation from history and literature – Nehru’s Letters to Chief Ministers, the Koran, Bhagavad Gita and Sri Ramcharitmanas, poems of Sukumar Ray, Rabindranath Tagore, Mir Babar Ali Anis and Mirza Ghalib. Modern literature too is discussed, some writers appraised (W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and Joyce), some rubbished (Thomas Mann being ‘unutterably dull’). Seth dedicates a wonderful passage to obliterating Alfred Tennyson, a nineteenth-century redneck who wrote jingoistic trite like ‘The Relief of Lucknow’ but nevertheless remains a much canonized poet.
For a novel of this size, it has a surprisingly less amount of sex in it. Again, this must be Seth keeping things real in fifties-style – no one had sex, if at all they did, it was between sheets, or in Seth’s case, between chapters. We are only shown pre or post-coital reflections and conversations. There are a few homoerotic overtones, but not many. Seth more than compensates for this commercial risk with his linguistic ability. Apart from being able to tackle long plots with great dexterity, he also has the unique ability of being a crafty phrase-maker. He manages to extract humor from very slight turns of paraphrasing, and from simple but original metaphors as well. ‘It was pleasant to think of shattered hearts on a cloudless morning.’ Or ‘His pleasure was akin to that of a stamp-collector who finds the two missing values in an incomplete series suddenly supplied to him by a total stranger.’ Or ‘Now he was at the mercy of indifferent cooks and their institutional cooking; there was a limit even to asceticism.’ It is sentences like these that help cement the book as being as much of a literary achievement as a scholarly one.
Politics is never too far from the social satire and subtexts of the novel. In fact, we have many sections of the novel just dedicated to political commentary, and many of the characters themselves are directly involved in politics. Mahesh Kapoor is moulded very much like Nehru, the State Chief Minister of Purva Pradesh bears many similarities (including a limp) with Govind Ballabh Pant and Nehru himself makes an appearance at one point. Kapoor’s preoccupations with getting the Zamindari Abolition Bill passed in the State Legislative Assembly are described in great detail. However, Seth is aware that he must not overtly politicize his novel, and shows the redundancy of politicking as well: ‘You know, for a supposedly gentle, spiritual people, we seem to delight in rubbing other people’s noses in dog-shit, don’t you think?’
Nevertheless, parliamentary and judiciary proceedings both make a significant part of the book. They give him the ability to be neutral in discussing politics from above, allowing characters from both, the left and right, the Hindu and the Muslim – to voice their opinions in the debates (in the Legislative Assembly and High Court). It is interesting to see how the Courts operated in their first few years, having no precedents to rely on. Most of the time, the lawyers actually use American or European court rulings in order to justify their cases. The Courts grew in importance after the Constitution and Seth explains to us the dramatic consequences of this on society – in one of the Court scenes, a royal is ejected from the Court room on grounds of contempt.
Seth shows us that there was a lot of disillusionment in the early ’50s concerning the direction in which India was headed. The Congress was no longer the national movement fighting for independence, but a political party, fighting for votes and computing caste combinations and election strategies. Nehru’s placation of minorities didn’t go too well the Hindutva lot. ‘Nehru indulges them too much, he only talks to Azad and Kidwai, does he think he’s the Prime Minister of Pakistan?’ one character quips. Even his sympathizers find him indecisive: ‘In the Congress Party, where Tandon and his cronies are just pushing him to the wall, what does he do? He just goes along with it.’ Seth’s reply comes as the answer, ‘he’s not a dictator.’
The Congress which Seth represents is one of vulnerability, fighting and in-fighting in a nascent democracy in turmoil. Congress’ secularism hadn’t made its way to praxis, with leaders trying to ban cow slaughter, and President Rajendra Prasad unabashedly visiting the Somnath Temple. The judiciary was being cleansed off of Muslims and the English. A rightist Congress lobby was trying to make a Sanskritized Hindi the national language, and the language for the IAS examinations. Zamindars were hiding behind Article 362 of the Constitution. In theory, sharecroppers of more than five years were to be given the ownership of the land they tilled, but in reality the local patwaris were fudging records to show them as having rotated from field to field, and never having a tilled a single piece of land for five years. Sugar was scarce, and there was a black-market for it. The middle-class had already emerged with its Austins, 78-rpm records and its ability to look straight through the beggars that accosted their car windows. Seth portrays young India as a country that was clearly not fit for democracy or Nehruvian idealism.
The Congress was struggling to find its own political identity, with Nehru’s leftism on one hand, and Sardar Patel/Rajendra Prasad/Tandon on the other. Meanwhile the old Congress vanguard was rapidly disintegrating – a long-standing Nehru-aide, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai was elected to the Executive Committee of the KMPP in 1951 (after having campaigned hard against the Tandon faction – which narrowly lost the presidency of the Congress Party in 1948 but narrowly won in 1950 – Kidwai had turned into something of a renegade), though he stood on a Congress ticket for the election. Tandon’s power had grown considerably by 1950, and he had managed to exclude both Kidwai and J.B. Kripalani (Gandhi’s left-hand man, who had even been in the race for Prime Ministership in 1947) from the Working Committee, effectively controlling the personnel of the party and the selection of candidates for the upcoming election (1951-52). Tandon’s line grew stronger by the day – he was a covert proponent for war with Pakistan, and overt opponent for Nehru’s policy of allowing refugees that were pouring into India from East and West Pakistan and integrating them into Indian society. One could directly contrast Nehru’s inclusionist policies (the inclusion of Muslims and minorities led to the near-complete wipe-out of the Muslim League in India) to the exclusionist ones of the Patel/Prasad/Tandon (which was rapidly alienating leaders into forming their own parties – Kripalani quit to form the KMPP in 1951 and merged it with the Praja Socialist Party in 1952, Ambedkar resigned in 1951 following the failure of the Hindu Code Bills and ended up in political wilderness). It was in light of all this that Nehru fought back, standing for Congress presidency elections (what he had previously considered to be a conflict of power, resigning the presidency in 1946 to become Prime Minister) and being elected in 1951. He held that post till 1954. After a lot of in-fighting, threatening of resignations, Nehru managed to re-constitute the Working Committee to his favor, as well as become Party president. As Vikram Seth puts it, ‘it was in effect a coup; and Nehru had won. Apparently’ (probably Seth thought of it as pyrrhic victory, that Nehru needed to compromised on his principles to beat the right-wing). As Seth points out, some read it as a tactical move, some as a dictatorship; but even Nehru’s worst critics knew that he didn’t care for personality cults.
The glimpse of Nehru that we get in the later sections of the book are those of a tired, weary leader. Even one of his most ambitious projects like the Zamindari Bill after ‘two hundred clauses, two hundred ulcers’ was struck down as unconstitutional by the Bihar High Court (setting what Seth calls a ‘psychological precedent’ to other High Courts). In fact, as Seth demonstrates, it was the structure of democracy itself that hounded him. To add to all this, Nehru’s contemporaries/rivals were more crowd-friendly and charismatic in the eyes of their voters. One of the characters even mimics the ‘mumbling incomplete cadence’ of Nehru’s speeches, that abruptly ended with ‘Brothers and sisters – Jai Hind!’ Nevertheless, Seth clearly acknowledges the revolutionary impact of Independence and Nehruvian thinking. Peasants were no longer submitting to their lords and ‘underneath their pleas [of non-payment] was the sense that the political equations of ownership and dependence were inexorably shifting.’ In fact Seth sees the disillusionment against the Congress not as the result of some of the Congress’ failings, but the inherent nature of disobedience that had been inculcated into the youth in the days of the freedom struggle. He has a rather wry take on it: ‘Students had learned how to cause trouble under the British, and there was no reason why hard-earned corporate skills, passed on from batch to batch, should be wasted merely because of the change in dispensation in Delhi.’ Another justification that a character provides is that India’s ‘problems are very simple, you know. In fact, they all boil down to two things: lack of food and lack of morality.’ After such a long era of authoritarian rule, most people could not come to terms with the fact that no single person held complete power – they say Nehru’s tolerance as weakness. They felt he was too detached or too idealistic to be a man of politics. A local wiseguy in the book remarks, ‘Panditji means well. He meant well when he gave away Pakistan. He meant well when he gave away half of Kashmir. [He] has built up his career by meaning well. And the poor, stupid people love him because he means well. And those well-meaning letters he writes every month to the Chief Ministers. Do you know what the contain? Long homilies about Korea and the dismissal of General MacArthur. What is General MacArthur to us? He [does not] understand our society and our scriptures, yet he wants to overturn our family life and our family morals through his wonderful Hindu Code Bill.’ Nevertheless the final triumph of Nehru in late 1951 against the other party factions managed to silence his critics.
In capturing the zeitgeist of a political scene, Seth attempts to compress all the possible strands of Indian polity in his novel. He follows the trajectories of many political lives and shows us the ones which succeeded (and why they did) and the ones that didn’t (and why they didn’t). Waris, a dummy candidate and erstwhile extortionist for the nawab, is shown as a character that succeeded in easily adapted to the new post-independent polity – mastering the muckraking, heckling and slander that one needed in politics. Urdu teacher and anti-zamindari firebrand, Abdur Rasheed clearly didn’t succeed, his idealist student socialism didn’t work in the muck that college student politics is, and his politics ended in suicide. And there is space for loonies too, such as the Raja of Marh, an oafish ex-king who ‘thought with his crotch rather than his brain’ and spoke in ‘guttural grunts’ – his non-libidinous ambitions being centered on constructing a Shiva temple (through a Linga Rakshak Samiti) on the rubble of a Babri-esque mosque. He doesn’t succeed, and ends with an accident that costs many lives and much disillusionment. Seth correctly portrays the proto-Hindutva organizations and leaders as a bunch of religious dunces.
When it comes religion, Seth echoes the famous Marxist one-liner about the opium. It’s surprising that no right-wing Hindutva organization tried to ban this book in India (a usual practice by now). The scars of the Partition are mentioned on many instances and there are two riot scenes, a stampede and an unnatural disaster – all of them caused either by religious instigating or religious foolhardiness. In a scene resembling the 1954 Kumbh Mela, a group of angry ascetics brandish spears and trishuls and begin a stampede. In another scene, when a Muslim tazia runs into a Hindu ramlila it results in a riot. Because even local ministers inflict a religious tinge in ‘managing’ riots, they get even more out of control. As one character observes that even ‘in British days law and order was not such a problem.’ Seth critiques the religious politics of the new Hindu parties, but that doesn’t mean that he endorses or glorifies Congress’ secularism. He is aware of its limitations. ‘Even Gandhi, for all his reforming concern had believed that people should continue in their hereditarily ordained professions.’ For Dr. Ambedkar it was different: ‘he had been born a Hindu, but he would not die a Hindu.’
To conclude, what we have here is a very bold novel – one that chooses a very small span of time (1951-52) and just a few cities (and a village) as a setting, for so vast a project. Its ambition in tackling so many themes and so much politics (but so little politicking) coupled with its sheer realism make it one of the most powerful English novels to come out from India. Its simplicity and almost Zen-styled descriptions show us that clarity and sincerity can achieve much more than dramatic, pompous hyperreal prose. When one is tired of fiction, one can begin Vikram Seth. This book is the perfect antidote for literary fatigue.