Indian Music, Sans Sitar

Indian Music, Sans Sitar

I am an artless serf of Cupid. So are you and your mama–but not Vikram Seth.


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.

“Tears dim my eyes: earth’s child I am again.” This line from Goethe’s Faust was used by Adorno to define the position of music, because it strongly suggested to him, in the example of the earth claiming Eurydice again, how remoteness must come back into the world. In Philosophy of Modern Music, he wrote, “The gesture of return–not the sensation of expectancy–characterizes the expression of all music, even if it finds itself in a world worthy of death.”

Adorno’s sentiment is one that Seth would understand. His book’s cover shows Il Padovino’s painting of Orpheus Leading Eurydice Out of the Underworld. As it was with Orpheus, it is music that offers the people that populate Seth’s novel a chance to restore, amid shattering loss and yearning, a measure of worldliness and grace.

The suitable boy in this novel is a violinist, Michael Holme. He is racked by the ten-year-old memory of his estranged love, a talented pianist named Julia McNicholl. This yearning remembrance is entangled in the very music he hears, plays, breathes:Bach, Haydn, Beethoven. Michael plays in an English quartet, the Maggiore, but when he thinks of what had brought to life the voice in his hands, he recalls his past in Vienna, where Julia and he were students and lovers…before he had a breakdown and left, without a word and himself wordless. The novel is an account of his journey back to her. It is also a story of Julia’s loss of hearing and her struggle with, and through, music to find her own self again.

Thankfully, this book isn’t about the charms of therapy. It poignantly reveals what haunts loss and eludes recovery. As Julia tells us, after noting how much she has learned in her lip-reading classes even as she is beginning to go deaf, “But, as one of my teachers once pointed out, you will never be able to learn from the lips alone if someone has lost her glove or her love.”

In the notes for the book he was planning on Beethoven, Adorno remarked that “the question in all music is: How can a whole exist without doing violence to the individual part?” The dream of the whole is the drama behind many of the relations in An Equal Music: couples, musical quartets, even the relationship between players and their instruments. The labyrinths of the ear lead to more complex, shared spaces:

A strange composite being we are, not ourselves any more but the Maggiore, composed of so many disjunct parts: chairs, stands, music, bows, instruments, musicians–sitting, standing, shifting, sounding–all to produce these complex vibrations that jog the inner ear, and through them the grey mass that says: joy; love; sorrow; beauty. And above us here in the apse the strange figure of a naked man surrounded by thorns and aspiring towards a grail of light, in front of us 540 half-seen beings intent on 540 different webs of sensation and cerebration and emotion, and through us the spirit of someone scribbling away in 1772 with the sharpened feather of a bird.

In other places in the novel, the question of the individual’s relation to the whole takes a more recognizably political cast. Narrator Holme has his origins in a butcher’s family in a northern English town. A visit to his working-class home provides an occasion to speak of urban decline in a period when “everything civic or social was choked of funds.” It is with feeling and repressed fury that Seth also mocks the venality of bankers and auctioneers. Art in such instances has its stakes in the public sphere: “My small radio, which plucked music from the public air, was everything to me; I would listen to it for hours in my room. As with the public library in Manchester, I don’t see how I could have become a musician without it.” The loss that persists as a shading around the private one is the public ruin. Talking of his hometown, Michael says that “the town which had been the home of the co-operative movement lost its sense of community.”

If we recall Adorno’s injunction that the answer to the question of the whole and the individual depends “on the general state of the productive forces of music at a given time,” we can appreciate the full force of the narrator’s lament: “These sainted powers will starve you of music as surely as the damned. Leave music to those who can afford indulgences. In twenty years no butcher’s son will be a violinist, no, nor daughter neither.” At these moments, Seth moves away from the romantic overvalorization of genius and the imagination–and An Equal Music becomes, as a whole, a sensitive and finely controlled exploration of the structure of feeling that words, music and love produce.

In The New York Review of Books earlier this year, V.S. Naipaul reminisced in a long essay about his early formation in Trinidad. “There was a further world,” he wrote, “of which our colonial world was only a shadow.” It was this outside world that sent to the Caribbean islands their governors and their goods: smoked herring, salted cod, condensed milk, Dr. Sloan’s liniment, the tonic called Six Sixty-Six and all the books that were so crucial in Naipaul’s making as a writer.

But the books didn’t permit easy entry into their imaginative world. Naipaul explains why: “Such social knowledge as I had–a faint remembered village India and a mixed colonial world seen from the outside–didn’t help with the literature of the metropolis. I was two worlds away.”

I thought of Naipaul as I read Seth. A young writer in Trinidad today can read Naipaul or Sam Selvon, one in Nigeria can read Buchi Emecheta or Ben Okri, and in India, Seth, Amitav Ghosh or Arundhati Roy. Those who remain several worlds away are those who live and write, in those same places, in languages other than the one in which Barnes & Noble prints its ads.

If Seth were to tell the story of his own fashioning as a writer, it would be of a world in which there is a greater movement, across the global divide, of workers, students, tourists, bombs, software, arms and even books. Inequality reigns in horrifying ways, and not everyone can even read, but the world of media and advertising withholds very little from the imagination of the dispossessed. Perhaps the marketing of his own book, too, would have to be a part of Seth’s story. To quote a news report from New Delhi: “Orion has reportedly given details of an £80,000 hard-back campaign, a high-profile launch party and a special one-off ticketed evening at London’s Wigmore Hall to promote the book, which, it claims, will be the most widely reviewed in 1999.”

A part of the media hype this literary season, of course, is the fact that Seth’s An Equal Music and Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, both written around the themes of music and the Orpheus myth, are going to be rivals for the Booker Prize. As a part of this media attention, the words “Indian” and “Indians in the West” will be thrown around a lot. Seth’s and Rushdie’s novels will inspire discussions also of music. As a public service announcement, one should remind readers that, especially in the world of music, Indians in the West have been very active. In England, for example, groups like Fun^Da^Mental and Asian Dub Foundation have raised their voices against racist laws like the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA). Radical cultural theorist John Hutnyk has written of Fun^Da^Mental’s Aki Nawaz (a k a Propagandhi) and his anti-CJA video called “Dog Tribe,” which begins with the words “What’s the thing that makes a black man insane?”

One should anticipate that in the feeding frenzy around the Booker Prize, we will be served advance notices of the several new Indian entrants into the English fiction scene this year. To cite one instance, Picador has recently launched its Indian list under a new imprint, Picador India. The literary-ideological map is truly changing. India’s nuclear-test blasts have pretty much put to rest the myth of Indians being peace-loving Gandhians. Is the new spate of successful Indian fiction going to prepare the ground for another stereotype–of Indians being great writers?

Can I foresee a day when one can stand at a street corner with a cup in hand and a sign hanging from one’s neck: “I’m Indian and I write, but I’m not talented”?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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