Indian Music, Sans Sitar
I am an artless serf of Cupid. So are you and your mama--but not Vikram Seth. In The Golden Gate, his novel in verse published in 1986, Seth seemed to find love with casual elegance, in brilliant and funny rhymed couplets. His latest book, An Equal Music, is also about love. It is also profoundly musical. But it is a darker, more anguished work. Inward and intense, the novel is about love's loss--and the recovery, if not exactly of love, then of what endures as understanding.
Seth, the dust jacket of his book tells us, was born in India. He has lived in four places: China, California, England and India. This book is set mostly in England, in London and Rochdale, but we also get to travel to Vienna and Venice.
There are only white people in the book. (I mean this nonjudgmentally.)
This is not a curry novel. (I mean this nonjudgmentally.)
In An Equal Music, there are no arranged marriages and no mistresses of spices. If there is a caste system in Indian writing in English, this is how we would need to describe the major divide: While recent immigrants to the writing scene are building their narratives out of what Western readers will regard as the marks of authentic identity, the better-known cosmopolitan writers, the more secure talents, are also finding their materials elsewhere. This is undeniably a condition of privilege--one that, in another context, the chic cosmopolitan Pico Iyer describes as having "a wardrobe of selves from which to choose."
Seth is not alone in being quite confidently rooted in rootlessness. Take, for example, Hanif Kureishi. Kureishi, too, does not seek the branding iron of cultural authenticity. Yet, Kureishi has also given us Londoners whose self-introduction falters on a difference: "My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost." Seth's narrator, Michael Holme, however, doesn't even know of Karim Amir. How might we understand this particular solitude of the characters in An Equal Music?
Aijaz Ahmad, a literary theorist, has ventured that what was being written in English by Indian writers till recently could easily have been written in any of the other Indian languages. Ahmad goes on: "Even Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy belongs essentially within this tendency, hence Rushdie's well-known contempt for it." This might be accurate, but it is misleading, for A Suitable Boy, a 1,349-page saga about modern India, is not like any of Seth's other books. Rushdie has quite consciously, and very powerfully, set himself up as the chronicler of the subcontinent, but Seth has followed a very different trajectory. Each of his books represents a discrete world caught up in its experiments with language and living.
India has not been for Seth the site for fashioning his identity as a writer. It is true that A Suitable Boy was equipped with the capaciousness of the novel fashioned as a national allegory. It was also a tour de force of unmagical mimeticism, fooling some critics into accepting it merely as a triumph of an authentic Indian realism. Now, in An Equal Music, it is a different world that is conjured with representational exactitude. In this novel, Seth has created another convincing artifact, a universe that is wholly and utterly European.
Seth, like Rushdie's Saladin Chamcha or even like Rushdie himself, is the immigrant connoisseur who has mastered a world alien to him. It is that struggle and, of course, the resulting mastery that is on display in An Equal Music. But Seth also accomplishes more as a writer. This book is a moving tribute to Western classical music and performance. The high Romantic tradition provides the ideological backdrop to this novel, and it sets in relief Seth's characters with their binding solitude, their alienated silences and also their eloquence.