Vikram Seth has emerged as one of the most significant authors of Indian fiction in English. He is also the most versatile – he is a poet, travel writer, playwright and novelist – and has won major awards in each category. He has a cosmopolitan identity having lived in England, California and China as a student. His first collection of poems, Mappings, was published by P. Lal in 1981. In this collection are two poems addressed to men and several romantic poems to women. Seth declares his early bisexual leanings: “In the ranks / of Gay and Straight / what is my status? Stray or Great:”(‘Dubious’) revealing that his sense of irony and love of word play intervenes in his awareness of his life experience.The collection of essays on Seth under review is one of the first critical collections on the author. The editor, G.J.V. Prasad, states in the Introduction: “a collection can never claim to have said the last word on any writer…… here is a collection of essays which addresses a gap in our understanding and appreciation of one of the foremost writers in English of our times.”
It is good that Prasad has made this qualifying statement in his Introduction as the book does not contain essays on the following works of Seth: Mappings, Chinese Poets, Beastly Tales and Arion and the Dolphin.
The essays in this book amount to individualistic discussions of individual works of Seth, as similar issues about different texts are not addressed. Quick collections of essays on Indian authors appear to be on the increase Pencraft, Atlantic, Rawat, Worldview and Prestige are the main publishers catering to this kind of academic enterprise. The collections suffer from uneven levels of research on the part of the contributors and mixed perspectives which may add to the reader’s confusion rather than fill a gap in his understanding.
One issue the critics in this collection do seem jointly concerned about is the location of a cosmopolitan writer like Seth. In a well-argued essay on Heaven Lake Nandini Chandra concludes: “Seth, the writer, poet and scholar is doing what the western traveller does in spiritual terms. He too is seeking to uncover the real China from the veil of ideology”. G.J.V. Prasad’s essay on the Humble Administrator’s Garden is an eulogistic appraisal of Vikram Seth’s craft as is K.C. Baral’s discussion of All You Who Sleep Tonight.
Tabish Khair in his essay on Golden Gate outlines in brief his thesis in his own book, Babu Fictions: namely, that there is a minority English speaking educated elite in India who may be termed Babus and who speak a Standard English which is the legacy of colonialism and Indian authors who write in English come from this category. Whether Standard English can express non-patronizing and authentic authorial sentiment is an age-old issue. Khair feels that the Golden Gate does not lend itself (because of the Californian subject) to issues of idiom and intonation of Indian poetry in English. Yet he defends the novel: “This is not at all to run down the book which has its own justification and kind of brilliance.”
In her essay on Suitable Boy Neelam Srivastava argues that the novel evolves from a vision of secularism grounded in Nehruvian secularism: “a form of rationalist secularism….. I mean the relegation of religious belief to the private sphere and the subordination of belief to ‘Superior reason’.” She identifies a quote from the novel about Nehru: “a man whose greatness of heart won the hearts of others” as indicative of Seth’s approval of Nehru and Nehruvism. However, Srivastava needs to look at other references to Nehru in the novel which contradict the quote she has in mind. For example, an impartial character states: “the only reason Nehru became PM was because he was Gandhi’s favourite” (Suitable Boy, p.216). Seth’s secularism ought to be compared to Rushdie’s multi-religious texts and Rohinton Mistry’s salvational secularism – also, Seth’s cross-cultural background has to be kept in mind. Perhaps cosmopolitanism adds a dimension to his secularism.
Anjana Sharma in her essay on Equal Music admires the novel as well-crafted but feels uneasy as a postcolonial woman critic with a novel by an Indian which appropriates a male, phallocentric, elitist, western cultural space of western classical music. She refers to the impact of Victorian fiction on Seth’s work.
Indeed the various kinds of intertextualities in Seth’s work and range of literary influences on him have not been adequately highlighted in this collection of essays.
Rita Joshi is Reader in the Department of English, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, Delhi.