By S.B. Veda

VIKRAM SETH: A Virtuoso Comes Calling, Again

     There are two pillars, of whom it can be said are responsible for supporting the structure of what Salman Rushdie likes to call contemporary Indo-Anglian writing (the writing of Indian origin people in the English language): one is Rushdie, himself; and the other is Vikram Seth.

Why, you ask? (hint: it’s not politics, though his outspoken critique of Article 377 of the Indian Constitution, which criminalizes sexual acts ‘against nature’ has rallied the educated public to be more tolerant of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.)

Because at a time when Indian writers were straining to outwit themselves with witticism, sarcasm, and various other isms, some involving whirlwinds of expositions from the tongues of cheeky narrators, Vikram Seth authored a contemporary literary classic: A Suitable Boy.

Set in India and epic in its sweep, it is nearly 1500 pages in paperback edition, and well over half a million words, making it one of the longest novels ever published in the English language.  The length alone prompted one critic to remark: “I hope I get through it before I’m dead!”

The response has been very different from the vast majority of readers, making it one of the longest works of fiction to be so widely read, in the history of English Literature.

I read the book in my early twenties around a year after it was published. After buying it (then not an insubstantial purchase for a student of little means – at least not for a novel, anyway) I was not confident I would finish it.

Not yet a teenager, I had pounded through Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning, Midnight’s Children as if it were an obligation – and that too, at my father’s insistence. Rushdie’s follow-up novel, Shame was easier to assimilate. More matured in my reading, I was overwhelmed by the magnificent prose in the controversial novel, The Satanic Verses but it seemed to take me forever to get through a chapter, the book was so full of meaning – and meanings.

The point is: I like to read slowly, letting the story sink in. As one might imagine, I was somewhat intimidated the sheer volume of pages comprising A Suitable Boy. Still, like the man who climbed Everest because it was there, I began reading the tome with a nervous bravado – and was hooked from the opening sentence, finishing it in a couple of days.

It was a pleasure to consume a story set in India, which read not unlike Austen or Dickens – stories as much about period and place as characters and plot. Seth seemed to have written the book unselfconsciously but brimming with meaning, indicating the thought he must have put into each sentence, each phrase, each individual word.

The story consists as a tapestry of plot-lines, seamlessly woven together from the threads that form the story arc of each character. The relationships between them stitch the characters together – unforgettable creations, many of them. It is the history of 1950s India reduced to its barest elements, the drama of life on a personal level in a new country whose people were striving to define themselves, absent their shared oppressor. That it all comes together so engagingly is a testament not only to Seth’s talent but also his supreme confidence as a writer.

And, while Rushdie can be considered the quintessential writer’s writer, Seth is a reader’s author. He offers stories that are leisurely written with the clarity and poise of a Victorian novel.

When he started writing A Suitable Boy, Seth had written only one novel, and that even in verse – a rarity at the time.  (His success has seen a resurgence in narrative poetry, since.) His travel book, Heaven’s Lake was acclaimed, and his skill with the sonnet was well-known but Seth was far from a household name. Still, he was bold, singular, and uncompromising in his aim to paint a layered, complex, and meaningful portrait in ‘his slice of life’ (more like chunk of life) epic on post-independence India and her many challenges.

He knew the book would be long to allow enough narrative space for the different plot lines to bloom but was unfazed by warnings about the dwindling attention span of readers during an age where fewer and fewer people, it seemed, were reading novels in the English speaking world.

Seth rejected the first offer he got to publish it on the grounds that what was being offered did not adequately compensate him for the time, effort, and commitment to this work; he felt his product had been undervalued. He went back to work, polishing, perfecting. When he was finished, he was offered ten times more by another publisher. Though he called it “a ludicrous sum”, no doubt, he felt vindicated for his efforts, a mere six years in the making.

His then editor David Davidar, whom this writer interviewed during the Kolkata Literary Meet in 2013, commented, “We had the most outrageously enjoyable shouting matches.” One might imagine what a Herculean feat it must have been, editing a book, down, to nearly fifteen hundred pages! ‘How long was the original?’ one is apt to wonder.

“But that was the joy of working with Vikram. There is nobody else like him. He’s special.” Added Davidar, who went on to be CEO of Penguin International and Penguin Canada, before his return to India to start a new venture in publishing, Aleph Books.  His company, which has a distribution arrangement with Rupa Books, has purchased the rights to Seth’s hotly anticipated sequel, A Suitable Girl.

The two were a formidable team as Seth camped out in Davidar’s home in Mumbai, during the exacting task of deciding what words would make the cut on the final printed page. Perfectionist to the last word, Seth was even involved even in typesetting, much to the chagrin of the publisher. So particular was the author that he demanded that the last sentence end on the last line of the last page. (A psychiatrist friend of mine, who specializes in OCD would, no doubt, have something to say about that – but what one man might describe as obsession, another man will call genius.) The reviews reflected an appraisal that was closer to the latter.

After a thunderous launch and rave reviews, the book was snubbed by the judges of the Man Booker Prize, leading some to wonder if there was as maybe just the barest twinge of jealousy in this unknown Indian man being compared to Tolstoy.

It puts me in mind of a reading I attended at National Library of Canada during the early nineties when Seth was promoting A Suitable Boy. One of the audience members asked him how he felt in being compared to the Legendary Russian novelist.  Seth paused, and responded with his characteristic playfulness. “Well…how would you feel?”

How indeed?

Perhaps the comparison has done him more harm than good, though it is an entirely reasonable one. Like Tolstoy, Seth internalizes history through the eyes of characters, who are linked by blood or friendship, and he uses the most universal story – one to which many, not only Indians, can relate:  a bride’s search for the right groom. In this case the bride and family are a tense amalgam, searching together while often being at odds.

The premise knocks down all pretension; it is simple, straight forward, and necessary in the context of the society upon which Seth sought to elaborate during the period he was depicting.  In the process, the pressing issues of the time add tension and drama, bringing many dialectics up against each other – Hindu vs. Muslim, Reason vs. Passion, Elitism vs. Populism, The Feudal System vs. Land Reform, Love vs. Possession – and he describes it all in such detail as to render as simple, the complexities of politics and religion in a pluralistic new democracy as the sights, sounds, and smells of a leather tannery.  The narration is gloriously smooth, enabling the reader glide through the story while the words sink into the subconscious – at least that was my experience of it.

In the end, the story is true to its name: the protagonist unites with someone, who is suitable – neither the most romantic figure, nor the most talented – nor even the most intelligent – but one who will make the best companion in life, someone with whom she can settle down and have a family. It is perhaps this rational choice, seen by many (female readers, in particular) as a compromise, which perhaps hammered the nail in the coffin for Seth on the awards circuit.  Some might have found this to be a vindication of a society with intrinsically oppressive social elements controlling the lives of people, especially to women. Ironically, Seth’s female protagonists – Lata especially – challenge this notion.

There is love, death, murder, drama, drunkenness, and sexuality but no crudity…as has become a mainstay in the South Asian narrative – no shocking for the sake of getting a reaction out of the reader.  In the end A Suitable Boy is a very traditional novel on a traditional subject with a traditional outcome by a very non-traditional novelist, who makes it all seem remarkably fresh.

Seth’s writing allows one to enjoy the story-telling without encumbrance. His style is elegant and entertaining without being heavily stylized.

With fans clamouring for a sequel, Seth would go on to follow A Suitable Boy with a novel proved to be very different, and not at all ‘ethnic’ in the scope of the story. An Equal Music was about his other passion, music.

Then came a memoir of the love story: the non-fiction story of his great aunt and uncle, an inter-cultural couple who found love during an improbable time-space.

Music and the rhyme dominated his later years, composing song for “A Rivered Earth” a collaborative concert series with British composer Alec Roth and the violinist Philippe Honoré.   A critical element of Seth’s sensibility as an artist, his love of music is innate and frankly very demanding from the beginning – it is the focus of many scenes of A Suitable Boy, and features prominently in An Equal Music. The concert series came out of the cultural life of Salisbury, England, where he resides and in which he is an active participant.

He believes that in his home country of India music breaks through caste and class and religion. “It belongs to everyone,” he told the Ottawa Citizen, my home-town newspaper. He was introduced to Indian classical music early on, but when he came to England to study, the door opened to other styles and other individuals — Bach and the Beatles. He particularly enjoys Schubert and admits to a compulsion to sing out whenever someone hits the piano for a lied or two, especially if his old friend and editor Kim McArthur is playing. He calls her his liederine.

Novelist, poet, librettist, calligrapher, essayist, photographer, traveller and polyglot, it is perhaps Seth’s myriad of talents and interests and penchant to explore, travel, which are at the root of his inability to move forward in a straight line.  Ever restless, perennially intrigued, unsatisfied by skimming the surface of a topic, he learned Mandarin Chinese (including calligraphy) eventually translating the poets Wang WeiLi Bai and Du Fu, doing so simply because he was dissatisfied with the quality of English translation available to him.

“It’s almost as if he is too brilliant, incredibly multi-talented to focus on one thing, like writing a book.” Says Malavika Bannerjee, Director of The Kolkata Literary Meet in which Seth inaugurated in 2012 and is due to participate in 2014.

This is what likely got him in trouble on his way to writing A Suitable Girl, the planned sequel to his classic novel of opposite nomenclature.  Penguin International, his publisher had advanced him roughly $1.7 million with the intention of launching and marketing the novel last year, which would coincide with the 20th anniversary of A Suitable Boy.  However, Seth was far from finished, prompting them to ask for the money back.

Still, it is not unreasonable for an audience to await the next opus from the imagination of a virtuoso. The publishing world at large has chosen to accept this – and accept him just as the corporate types at Penguin were determined to take a hard line. Seth’s agent David Godwin promptly got him a substitute deal for the same amount with his original publisher, Orion.

The wait for his sequel to A Suitable Boy, which is due to come out sometime in 2016 has made anticipation for it rise to even dizzier heights. It is sure to be a best-seller, even if it doesn’t rise to the high expectations. (Though, I expect it will exceed them; for Seth is not one to submit a work for publication before it is ready).

I am curious to see how he tells the story of modern India through the eyes of the same protagonist, Lata, of A Suitable Boy, now a grandmother, and doing to her grandson what her mother had done to or for her.

Twenty years later I am a different reader, and Seth is surely a different writer. India is a vastly different country, so the only thing I expect to be similar is that age old premise – what does a guy’ doting and manipulative grandmother have to do to find him the right gal?  Not the best gal, or the most enthralling one, just the right one – or the one who is most suitable.

The virtuoso has come calling to Calcutta, his old home, once again, and we will be listening to him at the Kolkata Literary Meet from January 25th to 30st.  He will be speaking on Sunday January 26th and Tuesday, Jaanuary 28th.


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