Sunday, July 24, 2011

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Discovery of India in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

  • Sunday, July 24, 2011
  • Aruntha Kanagaratnam
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  • In this continuing series of articles on the representation of India’s prominent Indian writers, this week’s column examines how Vikram Seth invents India in his masterpiece. The column is heavily drawn on a paper entitled 'The Invention of India' in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy by Neelam Srivastava.

    Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story, set against the post-independent India. This over 1470 page novel: the tale of Lata’s – and her mother’s; Mrs. Rupa Mehra's – attempt to find a suitable boy, through love or exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, the novel, alternatively examines national political issues in the period between Independence and the first independent election of 1956. Issues such as inter-sectarian animosity, the status of lower caste peoples such as the Jatav, land reform, academic affairs among other things have figured in the long narrative.

    The story commences in the fictional town of Brahmpur, located on the Ganges between Banares and Patna. Brahmpur, along with Calcutta, Delhi, Kanpur and other Indian cities, forms a colourful backdrop for the emerging stories.

    Lata is a 19-year-old college girl, vulnerable, but determined to have her own way and not be influenced by her strong mother and opinionated brother, Arun. Her story revolves around the choice she is forced to make between her suitors, Kabir, Haresh, and Amit.

    Significance of the novel lies in the myriad of socio-political issues that it covers in the post colonial India. Prominent issues covered in the novel include Hindu-Muslim conflict, abolition of the Zamindari system, India’s land reforms and empowerment of Muslim women.

    Formation of national identity

    The period against which the novel is set, was the 1950s was an important period in the formation of national identity of India. Neelam Srivastava writes: “The fifties were a very important moment in the consolidation of modern Indian identity, when ‘disobedience, resistance and revolt were carefully dismantled and oppositional energies were consciously diffused as the nationalist struggle was closed off and the nation-state began to establish its dominance’ (Tharu and Lalita 1993:44).”

    Many of the myths and conceptions of the nation that still survive today, were established and circulated during Nehru’s India. In some respect, the novel provides a cultural interpretation of the 1950s nationhood based on liberal progressivism and Seth’s strong endorsement of the progression. In other words, Seth’s secularism is articulated within the boundaries of the nation-state. Compared to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), which questions the viability of the very concept of nation, Seth works within an idea of the nation, and is concerned with more specific issues of making it work, such as communal harmony and economic improvement.

    As a parallel effect of the Nehru administration’s economic development policies in the 1950s, the body of the state absorbed the nation. The Indian state assumed full responsibility for the marginalised groups that had not been the beneficiaries of the transition from colonialism to independence.

    The important factor which distinguishes Seth’s India portrayed in A Suitable Boy compared with Midnight’s Children of Salman Rushdie is that it deals with a contentious issues in a secularist approach to nationhood, and, in a way that would promote ethnic harmony particularly among the Hindus and Muslims albeit in a context of growing middle class of India.

    “He writes about nation-building from the point of view of India’s rising middle class, informed by a secularising Nehruvian ideology. Focusing on four upper-class Indian families, three Hindu, one Muslim, the author makes no attempt to hide the essentially bourgeois viewpoint of the narrative, which is contained in part within a progressive teleology of the nation. Many events in the book can be seen as symbolic moments in the nation-forming process, characterised by gradual, rather than violent, social change.

    The land reform acts implemented by the Congress Party during the 1950s are evoked in the novel by the fictional Zamindari Abolition Act, which aims to abolish feudal land-holdings in the invented state of Purva Pradesh. It is portrayed as the cause of one of the most important social and economic transformations of post-Independence India. In the narrative it symbolises the passage from feudalism to the rise of the middle class, traditionally seen as a crucial moment of transition in the development of a modern industrialised state,” Writes Srivastava.

    In some respect, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is similar to Gamperaliya by Martin Wickremasinghe as it codifies the passage of transition from feudalism to middle class in India. As Gamperaliya provides a national narrative in a seminal phase of the contemporary Sri Lankan socio-political history and Seth provides a national narrative which defined the contours of the modern nation state of India.

    A Suitable Boy as a national narrative

    Srivastava highlights: “In A Suitable Boy, the nation is an all-inclusive concept that moves from the individual, to the locality, to the regional state, and arrives to embrace the entire nation. Seth invents a state, Purva Pradesh, whose regional, specifically North Indian dimension is stretched to make it representative of India in its totality. At the beginning of the novel, Lata Mehra, one of the central characters of the novel, is daydreaming during her sister’s wedding, musing on the small pyre in the middle of the ceremony.

    The author constructs an organic idea of India through the microcosm of Brahmpur, the capital of Purva Pradesh, in the tradition of R.K. Narayan’s invented South Indian town, Malgudi. Seth claims to have based Brahmpur on a mixture of Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Benares, Patna, and Ayodhya. The move to create typical, rather than specific, North Indian localities recalls the process of nation-forming itself, where it is seen as an idealization and selection of historical events and religious and linguistic traditions, made in order to construct an organic ideology which can claim a national representativeness.”

    A Suitable Boy opening and closing with a wedding, though this novel is supposedly the story of a Hindu family trying to find a suitable husband for their younger daughter, it represents a multiple realities of India, and remains as a secular and realistic narrative of India.

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