Vikram Seth's Big Book - "A Suitable Boy"
At the Austrian Embassy in New Delhi, members of the Indian capital's foreign diplomatic corps and local cultural elite have assembled on a balmy February evening for a recital of Schubert's "Die Schone Mullerin." Ambling through the French doors from patio to drawing room, they trade greetings with the Austrian Ambassador, piano accompanist for this special event. The magnet for the gathering, however, is the unfamiliar baritone, a more remote and dapper figure, so slight he seems to bob below the surface of the crowd. In this layer of New Delhi society, where the circuit of embassy parties is part of the daily grind, the public singing debut of the Indian writer, Vikram Seth, offers something even more attractive than European wine or American whisky.
Along with a burgundy vest, gray slacks and a paisley silk scarf curled around his neck, Seth wears an aura of youthful fame into the room. The week before the 40-year-old had appeared on the cover of Sunday magazine, which dubbed him "The Golden Boy" because of the $1.1 million advance he has received from Indian, British and American publishers for "A Suitable Boy," his native epic of post-independence. And in the weeks to come there will be no avoiding his handsomely moody face on Indian newstands. (Few journalists had read the 1,366-page book and concentrated instead on the money, an unprecedented sum for an Indian writer.) Despite the hoopla, orchestrated by Seth and Penguin Books India with a time-released series of interviews, he appears at the embassy without fanfare. His entourage consists of his parents in the front row.
Before seating himself at the piano, the Ambassador, Christoph Cornaro, explains that the recital will be an informal affair, a bit of old Vienna, friends entertaining friends. They are a couple of Schubert amateurs who have played together irregularly for less than two years. He outlines the song cycle's theme -- a lad's piteous yearning for a mill maid -- and promises an evening full of "hope, love, jealousy, anger." Seth removes his scarf and observes in his soft, scholarly manner that the poems of the cycle were written by Wilhelm Muller, father of the august 19th-century orientalist, Max Muller. He seems to have selected this pleasant West-meets-East anecdote to hang in the air over the duo's own partnership.
Hands in pockets, reading from sheet music on a stand adjusted for his 5-foot-3 height, Seth gives a heartfelt performance that is generously received. His obvious technical limitations -- he is more light tenor than baritone and lacks the forceful, rounded voice the music calls for -- can partly be overlooked. He is singing a difficult masterpiece of the lied literature despite never having taken a lesson in European classical music. "Schubert is just for pleasure," he later says apologetically. "There wasn't any attempt to be anything but competent."
Seth has never wanted for daring or confidence. In 1981 he hitchhiked 4,000 miles across China and produced the charming, clear-eyed travelogue "From Heaven Lake." Trained as an economist at Oxford and Stanford, he put off his Ph.D. to write a story -- in the form of linked sonnets -- about San Francisco yuppies. Published in 1986 without advance noise, "The Golden Gate" was a dazzling literary feat and became a surprise hit, touted by Gore Vidal as "the great California novel." Seth has also translated Tang poetry (he is fluent in Chinese, Hindi and German), considered recalcitrant to faithful rendering in Western languages. And now, without ever having written a short story, he has devoted most of the last six years to bringing forth one of the longest works of fiction written in English in this century.
According to one of the stanzas in "The Golden Gate," Seth rhymes with "great," an aspiration shared by "A Suitable Boy." Featuring dozens of characters from interrelated families, a historical setting of the momentous 1952 elections (India's first after independence in 1947), and passages on land reform, Hindustani music, life styles of Muslim courtesans and the economics of the shoe industry, the novel invites comparisons to the thick and well-researched novels of Trollope and Tolstoy. (At nearly 800,000 words, it is longer than "War and Peace.") Deliberately plain and uninvolved in its syntax and psychology, "A Suitable Boy" reads as though Flaubert, Joyce and Nabokov had never existed. It isn't so much post-modern as pre-modern.
Were the background not so thoroughly Indian, the multifamily plot and the reactionary style might be seen as a commercial ploy. (It is a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.) But "A Suitable Boy" makes few concessions to the American market. Readers must puzzle out hundreds of local words like khatri (denoting a commercial caste), alaap (introduction to a raga) and nimbu paani (drink made of fresh lime juice and soda) without a glossary. The central story thread -- a girl's search for love and marriage -- is spun out without R-rated sex; no longing for the lost British raj seeps through the page, as it does in the popular novels of Paul Scott or M. M. Kaye. It's a saga of modern India with a virtually all-Indian cast.
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