I can’t remember if I’ve said this or not already, but it seems to me that the criteria for a book’s admission onto the BBC List is that it mentions another book on the BBC List. While this does seem a bit of a self-congratulatory condition, it actually says a lot about the importance of language and literature in Western society. The authors whose works are featured on The List are not only writers; they’re thinkers, readers, teachers, and consumers of popular culture. When authors mention another work in the pages of their novels, either by having a character read and discuss the book itself, or by allowing their characters to liken their own lives to the lives of other characters (which is, now that I think about it, supremely meta), they are assuming that we, too, understand the significance of the reference. “See?” they ask, “we’re not so different. I, too, have read Pride and Prejudice. And so has my character. Let’s discuss.”
At the very beginning of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, the protagonist, Lata, is browsing for books. After pausing to consider an impenetrable mathematics textbook, Lata gravitates toward the poetry section, because “whatever she thought of love itself, [she] liked love poetry” (50). Picking up a book of Tennyson, she flips through in search of her favorite poem, ”Maud,” which is very Romantic (capital “R”) and goes something like this:
Come into the garden, Maud,
for the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad
and the musk of the roses blown. (Tennyson, ll. 1-6).
The poem describes a lover waiting for his sweetheart, the eponymous Maud, who never shows up. The final stanza speaks of frenzied hope, hope that knows no reason and lives past death, waiting for Maud’s arrival forever, no matter the personal cost. It’s kind of a heavy poem for the pragmatic and carefree Lata, who is ruled by her head alone. “Oh, love, what a boring subject,” she sighs to her friend, the passionate Malati, “I’ll never fall in love” (33). Yet the poem, and Lata’s preference for it, foreshadows the central problem of the novel: that of finding a suitable boy for Lata to marry. The love of Lata’s life is Kabir, who appears in the bookshop moments later, and who is unfortunately Muslim to Lata’s Hindu. The question of their marriage is unthinkable, as Lata’s fiercely-traditional family would never allow their youngest daughter to marry outside the faith. And yet throughout the novel, Kabir waits for Lata, hoping that she will allow herself to be his Maud. Seth assumes that his readers will also understand the parallels, allowing Western readers a point of access into his novel.
The rest of the novel is a cross between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; at once a love letter to an extraordinary and complicated country, and an exploration of human emotions that transcend nationality. By beginning the novel with an intertextual comparison, Seth ensures that his readers will begin to draw these conclusions for themselves. Soon, it becomes clear that Lata’s story is indebted to any Austen novel. Maan’s infatuation with the courtesan Saeeda Bai would be right at home in the work of Dostoevsky. The witty and acerbic Chatterji family seems like something out of Dickens, and the political nuances narrated through the eyes of the Khan family work in the tradition of post-Watergate political thrillers. This collage of references, rather than confusing, encourages the reader to see familiarity in a foreign world.
And the world of Seth’s novel is decidedly foreign, at least to a Western reader. Many times throughout the course of the novel, I wished I were still on speaking terms with an ex from India, because he would have explained to me what a kurta pajama looks like, and what the significance of Holi is to Hindus. (However, in the absence of amicable post-breakup relations, there is a magical thing called Google.) Seth makes no apologies for his use of Indian culture and diction in the novel, rarely stopping to explain foreign words. This necessitates that his reader either assumes from context, or becomes particularly enterprising and looks these words up. A novel with so many unknowns can be confusing, and may even alienate a reader. Yet Seth ensures through cross-textual references that even a reader completely ignorant of Indian culture will not only be able to read his novel, but will enjoy it. With the aid of Tennyson, Shakespeare, Austen, and others, Seth creates a world that is both authentically Indian and authentically global, much like modern-day India itself.
PAGE COUNT: 23,155
BOOK COUNT: 56/100