(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)


Rooted Cosmopolite: Vikram Seth and 'the Scars of Middlemarch'

Ruth Morse (Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge)

'Why, then, is it rumoured that your forthcoming novel – to be set, I understand, in Bengal – is to be so long? More than a thousand pages!' she exclaimed reproachfully, as if he were personally responsible for the nervous exhaustion of some future dissertationist.

'Oh, I don't know how it grew to be so long,' said Amit. 'I'm very undisciplined. But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they're bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling, and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.
                                      A Suitable Boy (18.2, p. 1254) (1)

Slavish imitation, internalised oppression, rampant literary neocolonialism, or postmodernist pastiche, hybridity, witty appropriation: whenever a version of an artistic tradition is restated, reinterpreted, creatively misinterpreted, observers of the cultural scene (or scenes) find themselves in the familiar quandary of descriptions (redescriptions) as judgements. For those picking a difficult and dangerous way through the currently inescapable nationalist controversies over commonwealth literature (where 'post-colonial' carries its own manifestos), there is the added danger of implicit racism, through which a 'central' (i.e. white) author's engagement with a 'metropolitan canon' is as of right, but a 'minority' author' is as of corrupted culture. One of many risks is the implied distinction between certain authors who are citizens of the world, by virtue of their successes as much


1. References to the books mentioned will be found at the end of this essay. Page/section numbers are in the text.



as their styles, while others find similar aspirations denigrated because of their origins, addresses, the nature of their markets and audiences, or – even – the quality of what they write. The expectation that a 'marginal' writer exploit 'magic realism,' because that is the appropriate style for a 'new literature in English' might exemplify the pitfall of criticism which legislates against the exploitation of, to take examples not at all at random, the satirical mock-epic of Byron or Pushkin, or the assimilation of the great nineteenth-century realist social novel. Derek Walcott might stand as one icon of renewal, reinterpreting and revivifying a shared literature which returns to Homer. That Walcott is who he is, from where he is from, tempts us to categorise him also as an icon of the margin conquering, the centre. There is even a temptation to give him a special status, special 'rights' to behave like the poet in the imaginary museum, for whom all literature is reduced to a flat field of strangeness-to-be-interpreted, thus reversing the first interpretation of the signifying monkey. The celebration is of his gift to world literature. It displaces, for commonwealth criticism, the previous insistence upon 'authenticity,' by which the writer embodied the experience of his new nation.

To say that a young writer is derivative, that he is trying on the styles of a variety of predecessors before finding his own voice, is to say nothing exceptional, except in the Commonwealth case, where the young writer risks accusations of neo-colonialism. Nor is it unusual to say that the fashion for what we are pleased to dub 'post-modern' style is recapitulative in ways that encompass many earlier voices, a categorisation which legitimates the reappearance of allusion where the author's stance is ironic. Allusion is at the heart of Seth's style, if not his voice. His two novels are closely linked by theme and variation, like a rhapsody which has become an opera. And behind them is a wealth of earlier literature, of which I shall be able to identify some European works. In what follows, I shall assess Vikram Seth's work in the broader context of literary recapitulation. I want, above all, to return an author to the realm of authorship from which his status as 'minority,' 'third-world,' or 'postcolonial' threatens to exclude him, leaving him rather in the position of allegory or icon. It remains a question whether Seth's 'authenticity,' which includes intense engagement with earlier writers, encompasses those influences (with or without anxiety) to achieve 'irony.' It remains also a question whether that is to be, or not to be, the question.

With hindsight it is, as usual, easy to see Seth's controlling themes, his interest in plot, his eye for the typical, his social concerns, in his earliest work. From Heaven Lake, his travel book, is cleverly constructed, with elements of suspense over the fate of the traveller. Of the foibles and malice which are the travel-writer's meat, Seth is remarkably free; what he is constantly drawn to is families, especially (although this is bound to be the case for a male traveller) fathers and sons. Many of his observations are of nature, but it is almost always


nature with human beings in the landscape. Observations of those human beings are often exemplary: this is the kind of kindness, or obstructiveness, that he met throughout his stay in China. This eye for the typical, and the concomitant ability to represent it, are part of what convinces in his account, because the attributes to which he refers are, if not already well-known, plausible, such as an old man's story of succeeding, bureaucratic decisions about the script in which one of the ethnic-minority languages of China is to be written which result in his not being able to write to his son, who has learned a different system at school. Even if this particular bureaucratic absurdity is new to us we have the well-trodden category 'bureaucratic absurdity,' which in turn points towards such old chestnuts as 'universality' in fiction. This is not trivial. It is significant that this example, which so moves Seth, should be the disconnection between father and son, who cannot write to each other.

These broad categories of human foolishness, ineptitude, and consequent ill-effect are grist to the satirist's mill, but they are broad categories, even where that means clichés of tragedy: the victims of twentieth-century cruelty, political dislocation and oppression, such as the Tibetans who describe what happened to their families during the Cultural Revolution. The aftermath of that period occupies him throughout the book, since the destruction of the Chinese past and its art, up to half its cultural heritage, is everywhere apparent to him. This human destruction of humanity and its creations is something which emerges in Seth's poetry as well. Chinese ethnocentrism leads to reflection on ethnocentricity as a standard of judgment; those topics which are of particular interest to an Indian citizen identify themselves, but not either from superior knowledge or defensive inferior status. Nevertheless, this apparent authority appeals to an assumption of neutrality on his part, and there, for western readers at least, there is a risk of positive racism which may reinforce our own prejudices. His eye is acutely an Indian eye, and among his concerns, as perhaps the subject of his research suggests, are those particular to someone from an overpopulated country which deals in different ways with many of the problems that exercise the Chinese, especially regulation of families and family size. So in passing, he reflects upon the bases of society and social control, a kind of moral cost-benefit analysis. The kindness or obstructiveness of people met along the way is described, and judged, but from a position which, while informed by nationality and aware of class and culture, is not bound by them.

What above all makes this a joy to read is the voice of the narrator, for Seth is always in his story, and his awareness of himself as subject and object pervades it. Perhaps it is a triumph of the rhetorician's art, but the ethos Seth creates is that of a thoughtful, humane, traveller possessed of tolerant good humour and a share of the weaknesses that flesh is heir to. Most importantly for our purposes, this voice, which he



attributes to himself, to the real Vikram Seth, is remarkably like the voice of the narrator in The Golden Gate as well as being, consistent with the narrator of A Suitable Boy. Since in both poem-novel and prose-novel the narrator sometimes intrudes as a character, in addition to Seth's creation of characters who appear to share aspects of their creator, this overlap of opinion is at least a rough guide to the poet-traveller's own opinions. His confessed weakness for flute music, in Mappings and at the end of the travel book reappears in Dipankar Chatterji, who owns 'a red bamboo flute – which Dipankar, when the mood took him, played very untunefully and fervently' (A Suitable Boy 16.3, p. 1095). Appreciation of music signals approbation; even a bad musician is likely to receive his sympathy, and music and poetry are woven into the novel ('Veena,' one of his bevy of devoted wives and mothers, is named for a musical instrument, and is seriously studying Indian classical music; one knows that all is not lost even for Varun, the apparently ne'er-do-well Mehra brother, whose desperation is expressed in a devotion to debased popular music; Kuku Chatterji's sole redeeming feature seems to be her own commitment to Schubert). These repetitions, which are a clue to his innate social conservatism, are also a clue to his technique of splitting aspects of the self.

For the moralist, essayist, or cultural critic the cultivation of a conversational voice is necessary, because if there is no agreement (the hostile might say collusion) between writer and audience, there can be no influence. If the village is global this raises new challenges for the moralist as insider. It is as well to remember while reading From Heaven Lake that it is written in international standard English discursive prose for an Anglo-American market by someone educated both in England and the United States, but born into neither community. In a way it is as if the Persian Letters had really been written by a Persian, but a Persian conversant with France, the French, and French, who manages, at the same time as he addresses the metropolitan audience of (as it were) Paris, to interest them in his own country as well as theirs. To give a non-metaphoric example, among the books Seth was reading on his journey was V S. Naipaul's India: a Wounded Civilization, a book which moves him and with which he feels himself in often profound disagreement, but with which he takes issue only with respect. For a reader of Seth not a reader of Naipaul, this is an area of intertextual reference not at all spelled out, and the arguments about poverty and the authoritarianism apparently required to combat poverty, corruption, and spiralling population growth could not be supplied. In its way, From Heaven Lake is a reply to topics raised by Naipaul, public topics inescapable for a South Asian economist. The public issues (how political society orders civil society) are linked through the experiences of individual families: the lorry driver, Sui, with whom Seth hitch-hiked, is elevated to heroic status by his unselfconscious and non-instrumental private friendships. For Seth this entails no contradiction. From


Heaven Lake ends on an analogy between water molecules (which spread throughout the world) and the spread of private understanding between peoples which, if it pervades human communities like water molecules, might increase, by however little at a time, and however slowly, the quantity of human understanding. This connection risks banality, but it identifies the focus of Seth's subject. It also marks him as a satirist of a relatively comfortable kind. His is not the voice of indignation, rather that of gentle comedy: imaginative sympathy with his subjects nevertheless distanced by his own travelling on. Society is his concern as an author, but among his concerns as a man in society is how far it is possible for authors to belong to the world of weddings and funerals. The 'social moron' withdraws from action into the world of books.

This nostalgia leads, throughout Seth's work, to a longing for a lost home, sometimes identified with his family, but sometimes associated with an ideal of rootedness. An instance front the (ravel hook may suffice.

Returning to Nanjina has for me the flavour of a minor homecoming: my room, my friends, familiar sights ... . Everyone who returns after an absence of a month to the place where he lives, knows, as he opens his mailbox, a uniquely bitter-sweet mixture of anticipation and apprehension. There is no letter from Stanford about my research, but then there are no unpaid bills either. At least my family has not forgotten me. I read their letter with a twinge of conscience: they are expecting, me to be home by the 25th of August, on a flight from Hong Kong. I write a cryptic note, saying that I'm going to try to return 'by a more interesting route.' I cannot say more, since it is an open secret that foreigners' mail is read in China ... . For all the enthusiasm with which I am undertaking this journey, I am conscious that I know almost nothing about Tibet ... . And in one sense my purpose is not to travel in Tibet, but merely to pass through it: 'coming home,' as I write to my parents, 'by a more interesting route.'

Increasingly of late, and particularly when I drink, I find my thoughts drawn into the past rather than impelled into the future. I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of my earlier students days in England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias. (pp. 32-3, p. 35)

In the landscape but not of the land, travelling through Tibet but not in it. Trying to get home is not The Odyssey, but Seth's journey certainly contains many of the reflections on nation-as-culture, the multinational cultures, or perhaps multicultural nationality, of a


country which provides a constant compare-and-contrast to India. Despite his personal self-questioning, there is a calm assurance about his point of view that is not marked by seeing the self as an example of a country with something to prove. There is no politics of envy. The observant writer interiorizes others so far as to bring his own sense of self into doubt, but Seth, like the actor, also exteriorizes himself into invented characters. The saeva indignatio of the conservative, for whom the position of judgement is a presupposition unquestioned and unquestionable, is a long way from Seth's tentativeness, understanding and, in the end, tolerance. Everyday moral obtuseness, psychological brutality, even petty tyranny, may rise to the heights of amused disapprobation, but they fall short of reprehensible psychological or social limitation, and far below good and evil. The satire of social comedy, where things, however serious, are not life and death, is a delicate flower. In The Golden Gate death comes by accident, or in the nature of things (and, in both novels, the precious loss is a mother); consequentiality is subdued. The pursuit of power for its own sake is about as venal an offence as Seth considers. These are continuities which define his technique and its limitations.

The voice of the travel book is consistent with the voice of Mappings, the Writers Workshop collection, a voice which is personal and autobiographical as poets' first collections so often are. This is the weak, opening poem in Mappings, 'Panipat':

My aunts sit in the courtyard,
Gossiping, shelling peas,
While around them parrots
Cackle in the neem trees.

I sit with my flute near the place
Where the well was covered up
To make a septic tank.
I glide from stop to stop

Following the scale of Lalit
Though it is afternoon;

Its mournful meditative
Mood moves into a tune

Leading me God knows where –
Into a universe



Beyond – beyond Panipat!
Well, I could have done worse

Than break my studies and come
Back home from Inglistan.
Punjab, pandits, panir,
Panipat and pan,

Family, music, faces,
Food, land, everything,
Drew me back, yet now
To hear the koyal sing

Brings notes of other birds,
The nightingale, the wren,
The blackbird; and my heart's
Barometer turns down.

I think of beeches, elms,
And stare at the neem tree.
My cousin slices a mango
And offers it to me.

I choose the slice with the seed
And learn from the sweet taste,
Well-known and alien,
I must be home at last. (Mappings, 9- 10)

The continuities become clear. Travel, the reliability of family and especially female domesticity, the inevitabilities of progress (the septic tank), music, the need to roll Indian words on the English-speaking tongue, the easy reflections, the catalogue of the common. Here is the germ of things to come, for Seth will use Seth as material which he splits, varies, and reincarnates in more and more characters. It is not uncommon for writers to reveal themselves as it were contingently; certainly many writers waste nothing: Seth gives us his favourite raag, as well as the pea-shelling which will so move Maan in the later novel (A Suitable Boy 17.10, p. 1184). When asked for the model of Casaubon, George Eliot replied 'myself.'



Seth is a formalist, and in this first collection adherence to his chosen forms often forces itself upon one's notice. It is perhaps significant that he did not reprint any of the poems in Mappings in The Humble Administrator's Garden, his second collection (billed, however, as his first, until the appearance of All You Who Sleep Tonight, his third, by which time one may assume he felt confident enough to acknowledge apprentice work), although the continuities include tributes to his family. He may have been working on some kind of historical recreation of the Moghul Emperor Babur, who appears in the first two collections (including a poem about Babur's love for a lad in the camp-bazaar). Here, too, is the first allusion to bisexuality, which is handled openly in The Golden Gate and with discretion in the depiction of the intense friendship between Maan and Firoz in A Suitable Boy. These 'historical' poems allow Seth to project his own concerns onto that foreign country where they do things differently, but the same: we find a 'Persian letter,' a poem about the desire for fame; more about families and continuity, and finally about self-sacrifice. This is not just any self-sacrifice, however, but the Alcestis-like offer to die in another's place: Seth's Babur gives his life for his son's ('From the Babur-Nama. Memoirs of Babur, First Moghul Emperor of India,' pp. 42-3), and which will recur in the Nawab's thoughts beside the bed of his gravely ill son, Firoz (A Suitable Boy 17.28, p. 1221). The demand for the father's love is a common subject, and it is one of Seth's, which assumes increased importance in the prose novel, with its multiple families.

The Humble Administrator's Garden is technically more accomplished, but the same problem arises: the spare and limpid can also appear banal. Though the dedication is 'To my family, pictured within,' the three large divisions, which may be identified with China, India, and America, all contribute to the tensions of here and there, belonging, and yearning to belong. The love poem between poets may be read as addressed to a lover of either gender, and returns to one of Seth's constant questions even from its title, 'From a Traveller': not even perfection of art or life, but whether it is possible to sustain a shared life at all, when one of the sharers is the empty page. Back at home in Delhi, 'the eldest son,' who is one of The Comfortable Classes at Work and Play, 'mumbles a snatch of Lalit' and plays with the family's careering dog (who, in this first appearance, is called 'Oscar'). He is an avatar of 'Amit Chatterji,' the wildly successful poet of A Suitable Boy. The character who will be Kuku Chatterji is an unnamed sister, and aspects of Mrs Rupa Mehra, the mechanical mother monster, here belong to the Grandmother (pp. 33-5). Despair over the unfinished Ph.D. is constructed as the difference between the dreariness of figures compared to human experience: the prose-novel expands the law and plays down economics (and the dog becomes Cuddles). Still the occasional clanging rhyme obtruded; uncomplicated by the syntax, Seth's lines appeared short, if to the point, but metrically unvaried (is it wrong to


wonder if the patronizing reviews of Janet Hayakawa's simple sculptures in The Golden Gate are also from the life?). Seth attempts the lapidary but achieves the simple.

Pushkin's Eugene Onegin gave Seth the impetus for his first novel, The Golden Gate, and its characters reappear in the second. He read two translations, attending especially to Charles Johnston's Penguin Classic, in which the translator followed the Pushkin stanza throughout, and approximated to Pushkin's inventiveness in rhyme and rhythm. Pushkin's story is well known: young Tatyana loves Eugene Onegin, indiscreetly writing him a declaration, but he rejects her; years pass and Onegin suddenly finds that he loves Tatyana, but by now she is married, in respect and friendship, to someone else, to whom she intends to remain faithful, and though she admits that she still loves Onegin, she rejects him in her turn. In the meantime, through self-conceit and an inability to admit he has made a mistake, Onegin finds himself involved in a duel with his friend Lenski, and kills him. This duel will reappear in A Suitable Boy, when the drunken Maan, mistakenly believing that his best friend (and lover) has deceived him with his mistress, loses his temper and stabs him; Onegin's belated discovery of love is in this version transferred to the mistress, the courtesan and singer, Saeeda Bai, the novel's golden-voiced, as well as golden-hearted, whore. The facility which was a feature of the short poems is given a long run in the novel: Seth's poem is 590 Pushkin stanzas long, or about twice the length of Onegin. Length, if not a theme, is an obvious characteristic: the prose-novel is 1349 pages in its British edition.

On the surface, The Golden Gate is a gentle and humane satire on the life of a small group of Californian yuppies. Its public focus is nuclear annihilation and workers in the defence industry. Its families are several, and spur the action, including the painful effect of lack. It is also a careful and detailed recreation, with Seth's characteristic repetitions, of Pushkin. I shall select only some of the many correspondences. Translated, or perhaps transferred, Onegin is reborn as John, the high-flying, but negating, yuppie computer specialist whose work on the U.S. defence system is one clue to his faults. John gets a bad time from the narrator (he is unsound on music) and most of the other characters (even his father has abandoned him to return home to Kent, and his mother is dead), but, somehow, not from the poem's artist, Janet Hayakawa, committed to her sculpture, to music, and, though gently, tactfully, also to John. Simple reinterpretation is not Seth's style. Division is. There is, for example, no single figure who corresponds to Tatyana, though the young lawyer, Liz Dorati (with her famous conductor's surname), is as close to being a heroine as the poem provides. Janet Hayakawa has Tatyana's unrequited love (as Saeeda Bai will in the prose novel), and she writes Tatyana's letter (in this version John has already spurned her). Two women divide Pushkin's heroine (and her sister reappears twice in the prose novel): Liz Dorati's character and characteristic values will find larger expression in Lata Mehra. She



lives with John/Onegin, but rejects him, and his selfish, rigid, thoughtless lack of consideration, for Phil Weiss/Lensky. With his acceptance of his own bisexuality, Phil has Maan and Firoz of A Suitable Boy among his descendants. Seth's characters divide and divide again. The artist, the sensualist, and the ascetic are important types.

Phil, the successful suitor, has given up his job in the defence industry, and been given up by his WASP wife, heavy-handedly named Claire Cabot (here we may recall that Haresh, the successful suitor in A Suitable Boy, has an earlier passionate love for a Sikh woman whose family will not tolerate marriage outside their community), who left him and their young son, Paul, when the differences in background between herself and Phil became overwhelming. In the course of the poem Phil has an affair with Liz Dorati's younger brother, a homosexual distressed by the pull of a Christianity he interprets as strictly chaste (the ascetic younger brother reappears as Dipankar Chatterji, but with more humour).

Liz Dorati, like Lata, has a choice of suitors. This may be the place to insert a reminder of how times have changed, since a novel set in just-post-Independence India (1951-3, more or less following the year from one Holi to the next) hardly lends itself to an unchaste female lead. But it is worth remembering, too, that an 'international' novelist who wants to reach audiences in different parts of the English-speaking world may feel himself constrained by their different manners and expectations. Though the American is sexually experienced, economically independent, and sure of herself, she makes, in the end, the same abrupt choice that the younger, more sheltered, dependent Indian daughter makes, and for many of the same reasons.

Three things turn Liz from John to Phil. First, there is John himself, whose angry suspicion brings about what he most fears: things are sexually right between them, but that is all. Second, there is Phil's engagement with the anti-nuclear movement, which both lures Liz, who is a lawyer, into a kind of activism, but also shows Phil's dedication to something beyond himself. Third, there is Liz's sudden discovery that her mother is dying of cancer, and that her mother's desperation to see grandchildren is in part driven by the knowledge that her own end is near. The poem downgrades passionate love for something which someone used to the idea of traditional marriage – or not altogether convinced by the aspirations of women – might have approved of the fate of Pushkin's Tatyana as well as in the fates of many of his countrymen and women. Seth might want to argue for a more open interpretation of the marriages, but both stories appear to underwrite the heroine's choice. There is evidence, in the marriage of Liz and Phil, in the narrator's explanation that Phil's first marriage failed because he and his wife came from backgrounds that were too disparate, in Janet Hayakawa's reflections on her parents' traditional marriage (11.53), as well as in Lata's sudden decision to accept the safety of Haresh Khanna, of approval for this



calmer way of life. There is thus what appears to be, at least for women, serious and considered rejection of romantic love as a basis for marriage. There is a gendered inconsistency here, which shows Indian women (such as Lata's sister, Savita) falling in calm and happy love with their chosen (not by them) husbands, which has been a cliché of Indian legend since at least the Ramayana. The two women who are independent of husbands or children, a Brahmin university teacher and a Muslim politician, are satirical portraits of eccentric, even distorted, behaviour. Seth is not one to describe serious refusal to conform.

The Golden Gate follows the structures of Onegin throughout. As Pushkin introduced himself into his fiction as a friend of Onegin, so Seth makes a brief appearance at a party given by Liz and John, as the anagrammatic Kim Tarvesh (11. 10):

Bewildered by the fraught frivolity
He sees around him, Kim Tarvesh,
A joyless guest amid the jollity,
Dreams of his thesis – that dense mesh,
That spongy marsh of curly deltas
In which all year he wastes and welters.
While round him voices rise and fall
In oral goulash, Occam's call
Leaches his vision of variety:
He mumbles, 'In all likelihood
An n-dimensional matrix could
Succinctly summarise society ...'
(Poor Kim Tarvesh – we must recall
He's an economist after all.)

The values manifested by the narrator of From Heaven Lake, as well as the poet's despair of his Ph.D. in number-crunching, make this objection to variety as clearly a joke as its author must have intended. It looks forward to Dipankar Chatterji, the economics-trained younger brother in A Suitable Boy, obsessed with conventional careers and about what it might be worth spending one's life doing: " 'But, Baba protested Dipankar, blinking in distress, 'economics is the worst possible qualification for running, anything. It's the most useless, impractical subject in the world.' " (A Suitable Boy , p. 419)

Kim Tarvesh is Seth's sole appearance in this poem (also like Pushkin). Seth imitates Pushkin's presence as a narrator, though, informing his readers of some of the strains of


creation along the way. He also prepares the way for Amit Chatterji, who is teasingly like his author, another poet working on a long novel (which might alert readers to his eventual failure as a suitor). This archness, too, carries over into A Suitable Boy, once breaking the illusion of realism: what we might now categorise as self-conscious reflexivity: 'In the car both studiously avoided discussing the case or its implications, which, in a sense, was a pity because it would have been interesting to know what they would have said (p. 693).'

Seth's literary allusiveness (Pushkin above all, but also Byron and Marvell) appears as does his love of western music (Mozart and Wagner); these private pleasures are supplemented by his love of nature's power to calm. The testimony of animals counts for Seth; and is his irresistible quibble. Cats, in particular, are important characters in The Golden Gate, as judges and as prosecuting attorneys. Liz Dorati's Charlemagne reappears in Pillow, the Chatterji grandfather's leashed cat. In the Indian context, Lata's gentle respect for monkeys contrasts with Maan's attack in self-defence against a female monkey crazed by the loss of her baby (even monkeys have families). Even if this latter is a necessary murder, in a culture which reveres monkeys as descendants of the armies of Hanuman, the monkey god, it is an omen of trouble to come. To follow this digression just a little further, the reappearance of animals also functions as symbolism, in the way that repeated imagery can give an impression of unity beyond the meaning of the story. Maan's killing the monkey has a function not dissimilar from Vronsky's riding his horse to death in Anna Karenina: in each story the man's violence first destroys an animal.

Seth's mixture of tones, as well as his easy seduction into repetitively hammering, his ideas home, is obvious in the overlong, central speech by a local Catholic priest against mankind's self-destructive support for the defence research that supports atomic weaponry. Phil Weiss's reaction of coolness in the face of emotive rhetoric contrasts with Liz Dorati's emotional receptiveness. Phil, who – also like Maan – does not seem to have to work for a living, may be a sensualist, but he is none the less politically astute for that. Suddenly the story becomes serious, and moves beyond the private concerns of the actors to public issues. Because the poem itself invites us not to take these things too seriously we can take them just as seriously as they are meant. This is a world issue, and the author speaks in this section as a citizen of the world, neither with specific accusations nor with solutions, but with concern.

The Golden Gate both begins and ends with John alone. But in the course of the poem he comes some way towards understanding, and tolerance, towards connection with the rest of mankind. John is selfish, rigid, uncomprehending, independent of family, and an agent of destruction. Janet Hayakawa, who loves him, herself does not understand why she should, but accepts that her love is as it is. Friendship is the value most recognised, and the poem



ends with John about to pick up the telephone and resume contact with the friends his anger has estranged. The bildungsroman which lies behind this exercise in intertextuality implies a journey toward self-knowledge, but, in addition – or, perhaps simultaneously – the form of the long narrative poem which Pushkin adapted from Byron, and which Seth recreates, implies an ambitious competition with a strong poet. The tour de force of the rhymes stakes a claim for satire as epic, as in Byron. The description of the American yuppies, like Pushkin's idle rich, aspires to an analysis of human values and a denigration of money, leisure, power where these become ends in themselves.

These intertextual, moral impulses lie at the heart of A Suitable Boy, which is, in its way, historical, set in the early fifties, just post-Independence. The Russian literary model, which must add War and Peace to Eugene Onegin, combines with the English model mentioned lit the novel itself and quoted as an epigraph to this essay, but also to such Indian epics as Mahabharata and Ramayana. This is not the independence struggle dear to Narayan, nor the story of partition that occupied Kushwant Singh or Malgonkar's A Bend in the Ganges. It is more like a combination of the political analysis of Nayantera Sahgal crossed with the social satire of Anita Desai. Seth has tried to show the roots of the way we live now, from the politics of the Congress party, the jockeyings of business, the attempt to reform land-ownership, and the complexities of religious belief as a key aspect of civil society (including a crude but amusing picture of' self-serving fundamentalism in an Ayodhya-like temple-building), while constantly alluding to the novels which have had similar scope. The novel gives an epic account of foundation, twining its different plots together through three or four families. Families are the backbone of the novel, and Seth shares that conservative insistence upon the retreat into private happiness which is so marked a feature of contemporary novels.

Brahmpur is an imaginary city on the Ganges in an imaginary state inserted into south-eastern UP near Kanpur on the main Calcutta-Delhi railway line. Like Middlemarch, it represents the society of a generation ago. Seth has (once more) put himself to school to an older way of writing in order to embody his nation, not unlike Derek Walcott's epic reinterpretations of Homer. Part of his curiously in-period literary conservatism is the emphatic resuscitation of the long realist novel. He takes three families, and, through them, wanders (like a Banyan tree, he says) from plot to plot, taking in, alone the way (and trains and train-journeys are one of his favourite motifs) not only India on the eve of its first general election, but predictions about the line the country was to follow. Of the public order subjects, in addition to business (Haresh's business in shoes allows Seth to bypass contemporary debate over industrialisation), the two important ones are politics and religion. Like Tolstoy, Seth brings in the great figure of the day, Nehru. The arguments over



the anti-zamindar legislation which was intended to redistribute land, as well as India's first election, are central to the public issues of the novel. So, too, are the festivals of the year, both Hindu and Muslim. Religion is well handled, both in the Nehru-like insistence upon secularism and the extravagances of pious devotion. Seth is even-handed, and the prejudices of the Muslims in the countryside are more than balanced by the grotesque Rajah of Marh, whose Ayodyah-like temple scheme make him a cardboard villain. If religion has been at the heart of India's difficulties for generations, it has also given colour to life. Seth is scrupulously fair here, too. His limitations lie in the relative middleness of his vision. A Suitable Boy is social satire and social history, from the politics of the great man to the manoeuvring of a mother. Here I might venture that the author Seth is most like is Trollope, including Trollope's own facility in keeping the plots going, and his simple characterisations (Seth is too prone to mechanical labelling: Dipankar's blinking, Varun's nervous laugh, Mrs Rupa Mehra's tears, Haresh's face-crinkling smile).

The novel is replete with literary allusion (though Trollope is not, I think, part). This is made easier because Lata is reading English at Brahmpur University and her sister is married to a lecturer in English there. Lata plays Olivia in a production of Twelfth Night. The book is full of Shakespearean references (Seth alluded to Hamlet as early as Mappings.) The man she is actually in love with, or at least infatuated with, is a Muslim, and therefore, at least for her, an impossible prospect. That his name is Kabir, the name of a medieval Muslim poet who wrote to encourage inter-communal understanding, is one of the indications of Seth's sympathy for him. His devotion to cricket allows Seth to encompass the traditional description of a cricket match so beloved of English authors. He loses on the family stakes, too: Kabir's father, a professor of mathematics, is one of the book's cardboard cut-outs, so mechanical as to be an embarrassment. His mother is mad – which doesn't encourage intermarriage. It is Kabir, though, whose work as a volunteer after one of those human disasters to which India is prone (here the fictional Pul Mela replaces the actual Kumbh Mela), recognises a lost child in a motif beloved of folklore and the Victorian novel. This is not sufficient to win him the hand of his beloved.

Earlier I referred to a character as an avatar, and to Seth's penchant for repetition. It becomes clear that the apparently continent sub-plot about music (and music-and-poetry), which at first glance looks expendable, is a meditation on craft, on learning one's craft and on the way an art is constructed. For, although this is a novel, with all that that implies about the interpretation of a western form, it is equally an Indian novel, which twists and turns and repeats, and varies, and returns to its central themes. Too long, one might ask, for whom? It is meant, despite its apparently modest title and self-description as a story about a marriage, to be an epic, the great Indian novel which will treat of the great Indian subjects.



Making another of Lata's suitors a poet now engaged on a novel about the Bengal famine (about which, in fact, a well-known novel in English had been published in 1947, Bhabani Bhattacharya's So Many Hungers!) increases the scope for reference. It also, again like a Victorian novel, allows Seth to inset numerous poems in the text. It is hard to see why, even in the India of 1950, they won Amit Chatterji the fame he is said to enjoy. Where the unsuitable boy has intelligence and good looks (as well as Lata's infatuation) on his side, Amit has the advantage, in the marriage stakes, of being a Brahmin, and wealthy. In terms of the Indian novel, as well as of Hindu society, 'Brahminisation' of heroes and leaders has long been a special problem. Amit's family is the butt of Seth's satire throughout, although it is his brother, Dipankar, the flute-playing ascetic economist, and the only unselfish one of his siblings, who eventually comes out well. One of Amit's sisters is the crass, unfaithful Mecnakshi, perhaps an avatar of Pushkin's insensitive Olga; the other marries a German but the family is Brahmo, and therefore advanced in its religious views. Amit's father, the High Court judge, opens the subject of India's legal system, but also the question of what it is worth doing with one's life. Throughout, the characters are types.

The successful suitor (against the run of the novel, as, against the run of the earlier poem) is almost without family. He is self-made, self-confident, and self-congratulatory. Like Lata (and like Seth), he is a Khatri (the second caste in rank), a businessman who has been educated in England at a technical college, and making his career in shoes. This, given the hindu prejudice against anything to do with leather, counts heavily against Haresh Khanna. So does his still being in love with someone else. One of Seth's more unashamed literary allusions is to Flaubert: like Charles Bovary, Haresh has negglected to put away the silver-framed portrait of this first love, and Lata and her mother both see it when they are taken to inspect Haresh's home. Haresh's job not only gives Seth the opportunity to look at a business, and show things being made, it allows him to write about untouchables. Why Lata marries him seems largely a function of his innate dependability, though he has some of the social crudities of Phil Weiss and she has been shown as a sensitive woman. It is a curious choice, although consistent with the Seth of The Golden Gate, whose view seems to be that women should choose reliable fathers for their children. Lata's trajectory toward marriage has been the frame of the book. Perhaps Haresh, neither artist, sensualist, nor ascetic, is there for that reason, and there, as well, as a gesture against the Brahminical domination of the heroes of Indian fiction.

But equally, perhaps more, at the heart of the novel, is the Kapoor family, whose son Maan steals every scene he enters. Maan is the son of a government minister, which allows Seth room to discuss politics, and, by sending Maan into the countryside, to extend the novel into the India of the villages, the 'real' India, as Indians themselves are fond of



saying. Maan comes into his own in the course of India's first election, where his father at last sees and comes to appreciate his qualities. One might hark back to the poem of Mappings to find this desire for the father's approval. Into the discussions of politics Seth seeds predictions of the corruption of the Congress party which was to come (esp. 18. 15, p. 1284). Maan's mother is one of those idealised Sitas who fill Indian novels, and another of Seth's expendable mothers, like Liz Dorati's in The Golden Gate.

Maan's great friend, and sometime lover, is Firoz Khan, the lawyer son of the Nawab of Baitar (one of the more winning fathers in the novel, if one who has A Secret, in best Victorian manner). But the novel is constantly hijacked by Maan's passion for Saceda Bai, the renowned Muslim singer and courtesan; here is a love which is unacceptable to the point of scandal, but an attempt by the author to study passion. (When Amit insists that Proust is unreadable we know Proust has been read.) For the sake of his beloved Maan attempts to learn Urdu (so he can understand the poetry she sings), but he also quotes in English. Seth even gives him an ironically misquoted forward reference: 'I fall upon the knives of life, I bleed' (13.4, p. 851), which anticipates the brawl to come. Seth is not without his leanings toward melodrama, and this angry and drunken knifing of Firoz allows him to bring the end of the novel through a series of exciting climaxes. The boldest of these is the recapitulation of Adela's denial, in court, that anything happened to her in the Marabar caves. Firoz takes the stand and says that now that he remembers what happened he is sure that he tripped and fell upon the offending weapon, and Maan leaves the court an innocent man. Seth's recourse to Forster in the great Indian novel is a clever touch. If there is a key to salvation in this novel, it is in the private world of marriage and family. This, too, is in period: ours. For there is an elegiac despair over the loss of idealism which infected Indian political life from Independence. It is striking that Seth should locate the problems which now plagge the subcontinent in India's own development, not only from such an early period, but because there is a strident tendency in modern Indian life to blame all such corruptions upon the legacy of the Raj. Seth is eloquent upon the need for an independent and talented judiciary, and for upright politicians. But his characters are outmanoeuvred, by and large, by the unscrupulous and the ambitious. It may be that the Jamesian ending which sees the newly-married pair disappearing, into the inevitable train is meant to be more The Bostonians than Tatyana's dutifulness or Dorothea's sacrifices for Ladislaw. For all its social comedy, A Suitable Boy is a sombre novel, more sombre, I suspect, than its author knows. But that he saw himself writing an Indian epic in prose which might capture the imaginative attention of a world readership, I have no doubt.

It is a pity that there has been such hype, for it is a striking, achievement, with its Victorian demands upon the reader and its seriousness about public life, as well as its



remarkable recapitulation of (among others) Middlemarch. For, as Seth's work has progressed, it has become clearer how far his theme is the search for private comfort in the context of a public politics increasingly empty of moral value. This is a Condition of India novel, in an old and respectable tradition, which Seth reinterprets with the confidence of a writer who claims to be taken seriously as a craftsman appropriating both the multi-plotted Victorian novel and the wandering epic of the subcontinent. Seth wears the scars of Middlemarch with pride, in the full assurance of his place as a world, and world-class, writer. Whether this writerly state is geographical or temporal, perhaps only time will tell.


Note on Vikram Seth

Born in Bengal to a wealthy high caste family (his father is a businessman, his mother a High Court judge), in the course of his childhood Seth lived in many different areas of India, from Delhi to Panipat. He took his first degree at Oxford, in PPE, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. After Oxford he began a Ph.D. at Stanford, in economics, writing, or not writing, his dissertation on the broadly demographic subject of birth control in contemporary China. In pursuit of this research he spent two years at Nanjing University in north-eastern China on the Yangstze River. He was Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford in 1977-8, where the support of Donald Davie was no doubt crucial. Davie shared the dedication of Seth's first book of poems, Mappings, published in Bengal in 1981 as one of the Indo-Anglian Writers Workshop productions, and Davie's blurb appears on the back of the second book of poems, The Humble Administrator's Garden, which was published by Carcanet (with whom Davie has long been associated) in 1985. Seth held an Ingram-Merrill Fellowship (for poetry) in 1985-6 and a Guggenheim in 1986-7. In 1986 The Golden Gate was published by Faber in London, having been rejected by Carcanet among other presses, and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. In the meantime, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet (London, Chatto and Windus, 1983; Sphere Books, 1984) won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. All You Who Sleep Tonight (London, Faber and Faber, 1990) as the third poetry collection, and Seth has recently published a volume of verse translated from the Chinese. A Suitable Boy (London, Phoenix House, 1993) was not short-listed for the Booker Prize. There are no studies of Vikram Seth yet, although there have been many reviews. Among the best of these is Bruce King, 'Postmodernism and neo-formalist poetry: Seth, Steele, and Strong Measures' in The Southern Review 23 (1987), pp. 224-31. There is a long entry with biographical details and an interview in Contemporary Authors 127 (1989), pp. 391-4.



 Books by Vikram Seth referred to in this essay:


Mappings, Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1981.
From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, London: Chatto and Windus, 1983; Sphere Books, 1984.
The Humble Administrator's Garden, Manchester: Carcanet, 1985.
The Golden Gate, New York, Toronto: Random House; London: Faber and Faber, 1986.
All You Who Sleep Tonight, London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
A Suitable Boy, London: Phoenix House, 1993.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)