Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth is arguably an odd writer to figure in this series of outstanding British prose writers of the last century. In the first place he is Indian and he did not stay on in England after his education, unlike Naipaul, an Indian who grew up in Trinidad but has since lived in Britain. Whereas Naipaul settled down in England after his undergraduate days at University College in Oxford, Seth (who was at Corpus Christi College) went on to America for graduate studies in economics, did field work in China, and finally returned to India to settle down.

Secondly, while I have not excluded books that deal with the colonies, the others I have looked at are concerned with the colonial or post-colonial experience, and Britishers figure largely as protagonists. Seth’s best novel, on the other hand, A Suitable Boy, is emphatically about Indians in the period after independence. So, brilliant though it is, that alone would not have been reason enough to include him here. And then, his first novel, The Golden Gate, was not only set in San Francisco in California, the opposite end of the English speaking spectrum from England, it was also written in verse. Besides, of his major prose works of non-fiction, one is a travelogue about China, and the other an account of his great-uncle and his German Jewish wife.

Still, that couple lived in England and provided a home for Seth during his student days. I can in addition claim that he has also set up a household in England, even though he continues to reside in his parents’ home in Delhi and use it as his headquarters. And then, there is also one outstanding distinctively English novel, An Equal Music, which is about English classical musicians. In describing a love affair haunted by physical debilitation, Seth is convincing in his portrayal of the artistic and psychological needs of performers, moving in his description of failing romance, and inspirational in his accounts of aesthetic triumphs. The acclamation the book received from critics of music testifies to Seth’s commitment to the European culture he had imbibed, not just through his British education, but from the cultural milieu of an Indian of the upper class, schooled at the last traditional British Public School, the Doon School at Dehra Dun.

It should at the same time be noted that the depiction of Indian society and culture in A Suitable Boy suggests roots that go deeper – or at least provide an equal music. My point though is that, in treating Seth as an English writer, I have the excuse of his, not exclusive, but certainly comprehensive, cultural conditioning. This can be seen too in his command of formal metre in The Golden Gate, for which Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was an inspiration. It is entirely characteristic then that Seth’s house in England once belonged to the mystic English poet George Herbert.

Still, in terms of Seth’s own genius, pride of place must go to A Suitable Boy, which revolves around the efforts of Mrs Rupa Mehta to find a suitable husband for her daughter Lata. The novel is set in the Hindu heartland in the early fifties, and covers amongst other things the struggle for the soul of the Congress Party between its right wing and the social egalitarianism championed by Nehru. One field of struggle is the question of the takeover of private land, complicated here by the main landownders being Muslims.

Personal dilemmas reflect the political, when Lata falls in love with a handsome cricketing Muslim. She finally decides to give him up however, not because of the religious difference, but because she feels that she is too much in love, and would be overwhelmed by jealousy, appropriate or inappropriate, which would stifle her own individuality. The suitor she plumps for in the end is the shoe maker Haresh, not as sophisticated or as exciting as any of her other suitors but almost certainly more likely to be a devoted husband.

Amongst the other candidates is Maan, the playboy son of the Chief Minister who is defeated in the polls because Maan stabs Feroze, the son of the Nawab who had emerged as a political opponent. Ironically the attack has nothing to do with politics, but arises from jealousy over a dancing girl, which turns out to have been inappropriate because Feroze is interested in the daughter rather than the mother. Adding to the irony is the fact that Feroze and Maan had slept together in their schooldays, and do so still, for fun, without any sense that this detracts from their more pronounced interest in women.

Homosexuality is a recurrent theme in Seth’s work, with a moving account of angst (atypical of the usual conception of sexuality in San Francisco) when physical desire conflicts with traditional Christian morality in The Golden Gate. But it is never a central subject, which seems to me a more effective way of crusading for acceptance of individual sexuality than the more dramatic descriptions that have accompanied the recent campaigns for homosexual rights in India. Seth, who makes no bones about his own homosexuality (or rather bisexuality, in the less exclusivist approach he champions) has proved an effective advocate of change, which the Delhi High Court has recently institutionalized. Incidentally, or perhaps not incidentally, Seth’s mother Leila was a judge of that court before moving on to become Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh State High Court. In a memoir Leila talks about coming to terms with her son’s homosexuality, which was even harder she said for her husband – who she declares candidly was the sole model for Haresh in A Suitable Boy.

While other characters in that book are also based on real people, Seth’s great achievement was to transform these individuals into authentic participants in the social and intellectual changes of a seminal period in Indian history. His descriptions of speeches in the legislature, intrigues in academic circles, public celebrations of festivals, even the minutiae of the shoe trade, show a brilliant grasp of a range of activities and mindsets. He was equally evocative on the much smaller canvas of An Equal Music, where the varying emotional responses to art as well as the complications of loving are finely drawn. And we should not forget the lively descriptions in From Heaven Lake of Chinese society just as it was beginning to open up to foreigners, in his extraordinary account of travel overland to Tibet and then down to India, against all odds with regard to what was thought permissible.

Seth then is a writer of extraordinary talent, who has through the range of his work contributed considerably to English letters. And, while I would hesitate to argue for any special status for India within British colonial history, I believe the continuing link between the cultures of the two countries, and the role played in the development of British culture by artists from the subcontinent, testifies to the relationship, as Paul Scott put it, of ‘two nations …locked in an imperial embrace of such long standing and subtlety it was no longer possible for them to know whether they hated or loved one another, or what it was that held them together and seemed to have confused the image of their separate destinies’.