One of my shielding ‘staycation’ projects is reading Vikram Seth’s over-a-thousand page novel A Suitable Boy at the same time — well, I mean as well as — watching the Sunday night TV dramatisation, running on the BBC. The book charts, at the simplest level of plotline, the tale of a young girl, Lata’s, search for, and pathway to, marriage, either arranged by her infuriating ‘Ma’, her brother, relations and friends — or chosen by herself. This plot is what Andrew Davis’ brilliant adaption mostly concentrates on (in six TV episodes he is rather restricted). The book, though, uses much wider brushstrokes, far more period detail, and captures a lot of historical moments, attitudes and personalities, real and imagined. It paints a picture of India after partition and independence but with these events very much in people’s minds and with their lives affected, even broken, by those watersheds in the life of the sub-continent.
Of course there are advantages and drawbacks in this process of combining reading and watching. Some people hate to have how they imagine a character spoilt by a specific actor playing them. Normally I agree but in this case — especially when I have to rifle back a chapter or two to remind myself who on earth this unpronounceable character is again — then I find having a face to put to the name very helpful. This is especially true as all the main actors in the dramatisation are themselves Indian and not known to me and so I am not distracted by remembering other characters they have played (as I was in the case, for example, of Mr Bean playing Inspector Maigret!). I enjoy comparing the novel with what the TV serial has kept in or left out. My old Eng. Lit. training coming out I suppose.
Where the real pleasure comes, though, is in discovering a different world, new and different people (characters) whose lives and opinions I can, in my imagination, engage with and explore. And they are not just new situations and places but ones which I will never encounter in ‘real’ life — certainly not now! India has always been a great source of fascination to the British, not just because of the Raj and colonisation, but well before and after partly, I suppose, because of its glorious, exotic otherness, and the supposedly ‘spiritual’ nature of that land. In many ways this novel’s plot is not that different to Jane Austen (in that the story is about finding a suitable match in both romantic and socio-economic terms and avoiding disaster, especially from the latter perspective). Jane Austen enlivened this basic story with her rapier wit and her sometimes quite sharp analysis of the society of her day – and its obsession with money, social status, and an often unforgiving (public) morality. Vikram Seth is much gentler than Austen, not so pointed, not so cruel one might say (though not everyone can see the steel Jane Austen conceals in her full length glove).
What Seth does differently is weave in much of the real political and religious tensions and details of early 1950s India: the parliamentary speeches are imagined, the ambience and etiquette of a zenana is captured, the life of a Muslim courtesan is brought to life, and the tensions and hardships of a rural Indian village are described. All things which both Jane Austen and I would find too far from our experience or understanding and which we could never even hope to describe (though Austen did have West Indian plantation connections). Seth is not above satire and he clearly has political opinions but they are not forced upon us and the novel expands and opens up slowly so we are able to cope with its immense canvas and host of characters, some of which, inevitably, one enjoys more than others.
In the last couple of years, at two Universities here, I have taught several classes of Indian students, mostly from Kerala in the South. They have taught me many things — some quite surprising. One student, always very smartly dressed and very bright, once showed me, in the lunch break, how his independent evangelical church (one of the churches about which I know nothing here in Malta) sets about marketing their church services. Their use of social media is fascinating. They certainly don’t sit around and wait for people to find them! Mostly, though, when teaching these students, I was struck by my ignorance of their world, and reminded of the privileged, small world in which I was brought up and have largely lived. High Tories would dismiss this as the predictable guilt of a Guardian reader; the angst of ‘repentant gentry’. But I didn’t take this academic exchange with them as a rebuke but more like mind-expanding awareness training even at this late stage in life. We are never too old or too set in our ways, at least we surely shouldn’t be, to truly ‘meet’ new people and encounter a different world picture, view or understanding of life — scary though that can sometimes be as it can challenge our assumptions.
This then is one of the values I see in my reading. A Suitable Boy is still unfolding (only on page 652 so far!) and with luck, and Covid’s permission, there may be other students from India to encounter and new things to learn. A good novel helps this ‘mix-up’ with other minds and different ways of thinking. It enables me to realise and reverence ‘difference’ and diversity, to which, through birth, I may not be immediately inclined. After all I was brought up in one particular culture and outlook: that of the post-colonial British. Even living in Malta gives one a perspective on the world which is very much ‘upside down’ — like looking through a telescope the wrong way round! Being an outsider for a change, the one of whom people are suspicious, as no doubt many students from former British colonies might be when faced with my plummy accent and brogues, can be not only sobering but instructive.
For one thing, I hope, it brings humility. Humility at the struggles of others for things which I had delivered on a plate from seven years old. Even my faith was a gift — as everyone’s is — but to leap through the Old Testament at eight and imbibe Hamlet or Beowulf almost with one’s mother’s milk is quite a privilege, surely? The thing I ask myself is, what have I done with that privilege? What have I shared freely and generously with others? What effort have I made to get to know and understand, really get inside the head and heart, of those I meet of different cultures and backgrounds? That is why I shall persist with A Suitable Boy so that when I next teach students from India I won’t be quite so ignorant, quite so insular, and possibly even insensitive to their world and their struggles.
I might even get their Beta minus minus mark — ‘for trying’!