Category Archives: Vikram Seth

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

unaccustomedearthAn alternative title to Unaccustomed Earth could very well be-“The distraught lives of Bengali Americans”. It is no secret that Lahiri writes about Bengali Americans, their travails and search for identity. It was the prevalent theme in the much vaunted “Interpreter of Maladies.” It was the same theme expanded into a novel in “The Namesake.” In “Unaccustomed Earth”, she continues down the beaten track.

 

Somerset Maugham’s characters were mostly English. In the preface to “The Razor’s Edge”, he was somewhat hesitant, having chosen to write about Americans:

 “I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. … I do not pretend that [the characters] are American as Americans see themselves; they are American seen through an English eye.”

 

Rohinton Mistry’s characters are middle class Parsis in Bombay. Thus it is only natural that Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis. But it doesn’t end there. Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis in New England. More specifically, Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis who grew up in the Boston area, often tied to academics, references to MIT, Harvard, Boston not infrequent. Also, there are two kinds of characters in Lahiri’s works – isolated, second generation children of immigrants torn between the past and the present, and disenchanted, first generation parents out of place in a society they had chosen but are unable to reconcile with. Wait, there’s a third kind – quiet, judicious Americans observant of their lives. And in “Unaccustomed Earth”, she digs deeper into this pattern, at the risk of being repetitive to the extent of regurgitation.

 

This is not to ridicule her writing. Her prose is meticulous, uniform, chiseled to perfection. She is particularly gifted in turning out melancholy stories that are poignant without being sentimental. To me however, most of the stories in this collection lost their resonance, simply for the fact of having read all her earlier works. The quality of her writing is not nearly enough to lift the book beyond the monotony of repetitive themes. Yet two stories stand out, signaling what Lahiri, as a serious, thoughtful artist, is capable of.

 

 

Unaccustomed Earth is a two part book, the first, larger portion devoted to five different stories in the same flavor, of which the opening story is truly extraordinary. Part two, Hema and Kaushik, is a novella, which, if surmised as a sign of things to come in the future, bears the promise of newness.

 

The title story is based in Seattle. Being a Pacific Northwest resident myself, scant references to its landmarks were gratifying. That of course in not the source of the story’s ingenuity. What Lahiri captures beautifully is the landscape of three very different generations – father, daughter, and grandson. We find an estranged, septuagenarian father pulled by the novelty of a relationship with another woman after the passing away of his wife, and drawn to sharing the joys of his only grandson at the same time. The pain of seeing children drifting away is powerfully expressed in a father’s rumination.

“He remembered his children coming home from college, impatient with him and his wife, enamored of their newfound independence, always wanting to leave. It had tormented his wife and, though he never admitted it, had pained him as well. He couldn’t help thinking, on those occasions, how young they’d once been, how helpless in his nervous arms, needing him for their very survival, knowing no one else. He and his wife were their whole world. But eventually that need dissipated, dwindled to something amorphous, tenuous, something that threatened at times to snap. That loss was in store for Ruma too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things.”

 

The story does not ponder upon life and death but merely touches them in passing. Yet Ruma’s awe in her son, and the deep loss she feels in the absence of her mother, manage to evoke something profound.

 

“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times-simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now-that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.”

 

It is portals such as these that elevate the story above its predictable, cloistered theme. Lahiri’s unencumbered prose touches a reader in the recognition of the universal, in way that is simple and powerful.

 

 

 

“Hema and Kaushik”, as the title suggests, is a love story, but one quite unconventional. It begins in the manner of many of her narratives-Hema’s first person reminiscence of her childhood, when Kaushik and his parents put up in their home upon their return from India. There’s a notable difference, in the inclusion of the second person, addressed to Kaushik. A trend breaker-I cannot recall her having used it earlier. But there’s more.

Chapter two of the three section novella shows a totally different point of view-with the adolescent Kaushik now in the first person, as we discover the upheavals in his life in progression. The concluding segment then switches to third person universal, where the principals in their adulthood, having grown up to be very different individuals yet similar in never having found the love of their lives, temporarily converge before the final, heartbreaking end. The final epilogue, barely a page, returns to Hema again, her realization of a permanent loss. The shadow of Kaushik in her life is obliterated by fate, as she herself steps into the mundane, by choice.

 

Here is a writer breaking out of the mould, with the freshness of an experimentation that is both controlled and assured. I can only hope that it is a harbinger of change-at least in narrative style if not themes, for it may lead to other things. It is about time.

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

When Vikram Seth traveled through China almost twenty five years ago, the country was much less fashionable in popular parlance than it is today. Sinkiang and Tibet are likely to be far more accessible to the tourist today, possibly even to the hitch hiker, which is what was Seth’s choice incarnate – an interesting albeit woeful one, but without which the travelogue would likely have remained unattractive or half done.

 

Seth was a Stanford exchange student in Nanjing University when he wrote this book (1983) and the origins of his unconventional journey back to his home in Delhi for the summer vacation was a rather impromptu one – when he, tired of the limiting insights through a conducted tour, broke away from the school party to undertake this extraordinary detour on his own.

 

It is an engrossing read, not merely to discover the ethereal beauty of the harsh high desert landscapes of Western China and Tibet, but also for the human interactions – his bonhomie with Sui, the erratic but good natured truck driver with whom he spends the longest part of his trip, his travails on the way, the family he befriends in Tibet and their unenviable legacy in the gruesomeness of the Chinese occupation, and so on. It is probably well known that Seth, a polyglot, was quick to pick up Chinese during his stay in China (he has published a translation of Chinese poets for that matter) . This helped him immensely on the way, to talk to the people in remote places with little knowledge of the outside world, much less English.

He is observant of the hospitable nature of the Chinese people, despite the secrecy of its Government:

“Time and again, with no thought other than kindness, people have helped me along in this journey. And this experience is merely a continuation of what I have felt throughout my travels in China: a remarkable warmth to the outsider from a people into whom a suspicion of foreigners has so long been instilled.”

 

It is interesting to note that Seth compares the communist autocracy of China and India’s fledging democracy, a theme at the heart of Aravind Adiga’s successful novel The White Tiger. This was when Adiga was nine years old. Yet the similarity of their observations, although via quite different vehicles, is striking, and only helps crystallize the viability of such comparisons.

“I think about what the two countries have done for their people in the course of the last thirty years. One overwhelming fact is that the Chinese have a better system of social care and of distribution than we do. Their aged do not starve. Their children are basically healthy. By and large, the people are well clothed, very occasionally in rags. Most children in the eastern provinces go to school for at least five years; this is in practice, not just(as in India) on paper. Tibet will take a long time to achieve the standard of living of other parts of China; however, in this comparatively prosperous part of Tibet I have not, for instance, seen signs of malnutrition.

….

“I am often asked about the relative success of our two large overpopulated countries in satisfying the most basic needs of their people. What is sometimes forgotten when making this comparison is that, except for the greater mineral wealth of China (a result of its far greater land area), all the a priori advantages lie on India’s side. India’s needs are fewer, and its agricultural production possibilities are greater. First, less clothing and heating are required for the average Indian than the average Chinese: everyone in the north of China needs both a heavy overcoat and heating fuel in winter. Secondly, India has more arable land per capita, more sunshine for double and triple cropping, and a better potential for irrigation. Yet despite all this, the average Chinese is better clothed, better fed and better sheltered that the average Indian.”

 

Yet Seth is not unsympathetic to India’s achievements, its democracy.

“But the Indian achievement of the last thirty years has been in a different, more nebulous, and in a sense more difficult direction. The country has not fragmented: a whole generation of Indians has grown up accepting that an independent and united India is the normal state of affairs. In the first few years of a nation, that is already a great deal: one cannot expect patriotism.”

 

I wonder what Seth’s views would be today, with all the separatist movements in Kashmir and the North East. But while critical of censorship and infringement on personal freedoms following Chinese dictatorship, Seth lauds, and rightly so, the democratic framework in India, however fragile. We do hope to see it pay off in the future, though this appears a distant prospect till this day.

 

Finally, he concludes, rather abstemiously:

“I now see that China’s achievements are solid but have serious drawbacks; and that is about all that that can be said about India’s, too.”

 

Quite diplomatic. But undeniably true.

 

 

I seem to have gone off in a tangent while writing about a travelogue. But these were too relevant and inescapable in my perspective to ignore. Coming back to the travel aspect, Heaven Lake, from which the book derives its title, is actually a pristine lake in the North western province of Sinkiang. It is from here that Seth, deserting his school troop, retraces his path all the way back to Nanjing and then to Beijing in eastern China in order to obtain his passport, money, and a Nepalese Visa (which he didn’t eventually need, being an Indian citizen), thus completing a circuitous loop all the way back to Liuyuan, from where he continues further south to Lasha, then Kathmandu and home to Delhi.

 

I have an interest in Tibet, and have written earlier about an older, marginal turn of the twentieth century book by an European traveler (Amaury de Riencourt), who visits Lasha, virtually unknown then to Westerners, via Sikkim. Since then, Tibet has been far more exposed to the rest of the world. While the political aspect is almost unnoticeable in Seth’s book, it is delightful to read about Lasha once again, the city and its grand monasteries, their resilience and decay. In Potala, the seat of Tibetan Buddhism and once the residence of the Dalai Lama, Seth is overwhelmed by the inspiring experience of the mystical rituals.

 

One thing that distinguishes Seth’s book from the run-of-the-mill travelogue is the occasional doggerel. Besides their literary value, they are filled with quaint observations which are simply charming. Here’s a bit from a longer piece, which he had written while in the truck after a particularly difficult stretch:

 

Here we three, cooped, alone,

Tibetan, Indian, Han,

Against a common dawn

Catch what poor sleep we can,

And sleeping drag the same

Sparse air into our lungs,

And dreaming each of home

Sleeptalk in different tongues.

 

There’s one particular piece, of prose however, which struck a chord in me, perhaps due to the fact that I too, Mystic Wanderer, have been drifting away from my homeland, in this course of life. Seth is in Nanjing, before setting out for Beijing, and enjoys a valedictory meal with a friend, which includes some California wine. This makes him nostalgic, for California, and he observes:

“…I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”

 

How eloquent!

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

Michael, a brilliant but temperamental violinist, finds that the love of his life happens to be living in the same city he calls home: London. Julia, a pianist, his first and only love, is someone he cannot forget, though they had parted on unfavorable terms ten years ago. He clings on to her memories, from their days in the conservatory in Vienna, the deep influence she has had on him. Initially aimless after the separation, Michael eventually finds some footing in life, joins a quartet, has a schedule of sorts and a decent livelihood, though her absence haunts him constantly.  She has moved on, has married, and has a son. But when they meet again, she discovers that she still loves him. Michael, blinded in rekindled passion, refuses to acknowledge the futility of their tryst. Impetuous, the possessive lover begins to form an unbearable threat between Julia and her family. Deeply hurt, she tears herself away with steely resolve. Michael, heedless of his career as a musician, withers away. Yet, despite the irreconcilable separation, it is music that strangely binds him to life, and the cause of living.

 

An Equal Music is a love story. But not just so. Music, and the lives of musicians, is a parallel theme, which becomes inevitable, an outcome of the central character’s profession and the first person narration. Michael’s world, his friends, his activities and interests involve classical music at some level. Seth paints this world with authenticity – whether bringing up an arcane Beethoven Opus, discussing contrapuncts or fugues, or with musicians talking about the finer aspects of playing a piece – everything is very realistic. This is to such an effect that it could lead a reader who is only somewhat familiar with classical music, to delve deeper. Seth’s accomplishment is not merely in the depth of his writing about music, but also his success in keeping the work extremely engrossing at the same time. Divided in short, manageable chapters, the book is a page turner, in the restrained manner of his earlier novel – A Suitable Boy.  Love, the central theme, comes in many forms. The illusory passion possessing Michael, his bonds with his father, and the altruistic love of true friends. Finally, there’s the love of music, which permeates, without intrusion, the entire course of the novel. The fact that Julia, like Beethoven, is deaf, and yet continues playing, which sustains her, as it does Michael, is Seth’s tribute to the redemptive powers of music. There is also subtle humor now and then that keeps one light hearted. The eccentric Piers, a member of the quartet that Michael belongs to, is probably the most memorable of the side characters, his tactlessness reminding me of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.

It is not a dark and serious work like, for instance, Disgrace. With hope and humour, Seth counterbalances delusion and disjointedness. While this makes the work less depressing, it also takes some of the edge off.

 

The title of the book is from a John Donne verse, which appears before the beginning of the novel:

 

And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they 

shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no

darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor

silence, but one equal music…

 

In the course of reading, it becomes apparent that this kind of writing would not be possible without the writer’s love and interest in music. At the end, in the Author’s note, Seth acknowledges that, saying: “Music to me is dearer even than speech.”

It his his love for music that enables such a virtuoso performance.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: A verse in its honour

Here’s rhyme dedicated to Vikram Seth’s mangum opus that I recently concluded. Honestly, the last three lines are more for the sake of the poem and do not refelct my actual feelings. Though managing such a bulky(and mine was hard-bound) book is irksome(just think of carrying around outdoors), one does get used to it.

A fine novel you have, Mr. Seth,

at times it does take away my breath

just wondering of its very size.

I must say it is extremely wise

to bring to life such rich characters,

leaders, idlers, bards and barristers.

Through people, culture, trades and cities,

astute comments and subtle witties

you prove yourself a gifted writer.

But if only the book was shorter

I could wield the work with bit more ease

So next time could you shorten it please?

 

 

© 2007 mystic-wanderer