Rohit Chopra writes of 'The Golden Gate', Vikram Seth’s virtuoso novel in verse, a book that defied categorisation and prompted much bafflement. Seth’s playful hymn to San Francisco should be seen as a landmark in Indian fiction.
Rohit Chopra 15th Jan 2012
Golden Gate bridge, San Francisco
t is a truism well worn that a book has the power to transform one's life. The obverse may be said to be equally true — that a book can be transformed by events in one's life, appearing both familiar and new as one revisits it. Text and context influence each other in this manner, each adding hue to its mirroring of the other, a play of light and shade, point and counterpoint in an ongoing, infinite, conversation. My return, in the sense above, to Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, was gradual, to retrace which I must undertake a very small and partial history of Indian fiction in English. Published in 1986, the novel, a sequence of sonnets emulating the structure of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, arrived in the world in the midst of what commentators at the time triumphantly described as the 'empire writing back.' That period of a decade and a bit, from the early '80s to the early '90s, saw the emergence of a number of distinctive literary voices who could claim Indian provenance and who happened to write fiction in English: among others, Salman Rushdie, I. Allan Sealy, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, and Amit Chaudhuri. A harsh and lonely land cultivated by a few pioneers — Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Anita Desai, G.V Desani and a handful of others — suddenly seemed to blossom into a self-sustaining community. With Seth and Arundhati Roy securing astronomical advances for A Suitable Boy and The God of Small Things later in the decade, the vocation of Indian novelist completed its alchemic journey in the imagination of the Indian middle class. Once an object of derision in an engineering-crazed India, the figure of the novelist now radiated not just respectability but, indeed, desirability. The current frenzy of bloggers and bankers turned novelists, aggressively touting their poor grammatical skills as proof of literary ability, derives, in part, from this longer history.
With Seth and Arundhati Roy securing astronomical advances for 'A Suitable Boy' and 'The God of Small Things' later in the decade, the vocation of Indian novelist completed its alchemic journey in the imagination of the Indian middle class
The best scholarly work on this moment in Indian and global fiction was undertaken in postcolonial theory and centered significantly on Rushdie's writing. Despite Rushdie's later disavowal of what may be understood as postcolonial political commitments, for instance through his acceptance of a knighthood, Midnight's Children shared a symbiotic relationship with postcolonial theory. The text exemplified perfectly many of the themes that engaged scholars examining the postcolonial condition: hybridity, the commingling of identities, the condition of exile and of inhabiting many homes, the relationship between history and fiction. If Rushdie provided fodder for countless dissertations, monographs, and conferences, his critical reputation, in turn, was secured by these very academic endeavors — more so, arguably, than by editors and critics in The New Yorker, Granta, or the like (contrary to what Rushdie himself might have to say about this). Beyond Rushdie however, the critical discussion often floundered. The attempt to assess a number of highly individual literary sensibilities through the categories of the nation or modernity, reflected, for instance, in Frederic Jameson's notorious claim that all third world literature was national allegory, ran the risk of ignoring what was original about the vision of each writer. Equally unsatisfactory was the approach of treating works by these writers as examples of 'Commonwealth literature'—a premise ruthlessly demolished by Rushdie in a brief, pugnacious essay in Imaginary Homelands. In the nonacademic world of popular media, literary magazines, and the arts pages of newspapers, the discussion on "Indian writing in English" (an execrable phrase, if there ever was one) degenerated into a tedious discussion about the ability of urbanised, Westernised English-language writers to represent the real India. In utterly contradictory fashion, these debates were occasionally punctuated by celebratory accounts of the same writers successfully avenging, through the act of finagling the odd Booker, India's experience of colonial subjugation at the hands of Britain.
he Golden Gate was but minimally present in most of these conversations. It was not hard to see why. Aside from questions of form, the book posed a headache for critics (It was also, as Seth recounts, a publisher's nightmare). The story of love, heartbreak, and loss among twenty-somethings in the San Francisco Bay area, the book was laugh-out loud — behold, for instance, in 3.25: Phil's "use of 'quentye' to win at Scrabble,/Resulted in a virtual ban/On Phil from the whole Cabot clan" — melancholic, sad, moving and charming, Seth managing to capture shifts in mood and tone, from restless to reflective, through meter, pause, and word. It described with gently accumulated detail the zeitgeist of 1980s San Francisco and its environs, a fidelity to the forms of social life in California that are still recognisable in the present. It was a tale of friendship and of family. It was a virtuouso performance. It was a book that, on first reading, overwhelmed; a book whose impact was, for want of a better word, cumulative, staying with one long after one had turned its last page. The book also had nothing whatsoever to do with India. It raised the same kinds of questions and generated the same kinds of anxieties about authorial background and cultural authority as did Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. How did Seth's Indianness and Ishiguro's Japaneseness mark their works? Scholars pointed to Seth's formidable technical accomplishment in the text, but no one seemed to have undertaken a detailed examination of the relationship between the techniques of representation and the immense affective power of the work. Cocktail party chatter on the book — and my ear was witness to much such talk — would invariably lose its way into a morass of judgements about the meaning and purpose of literature, the defining characteristics of the novel, or the agonistic relationship between satire and romance. Almost as if to compensate, The Golden Gate also evoked the stock-in-trade cliches of reviewing. It was easy — if thoroughly meaningless — to proclaim that the book like "all great literature" was about "universal values" (whatever these were) or that it was about "the human condition." There is, of course, no such thing as the human condition, as the surrealist René Magritte's great paintings of the name inform us. What we call the human condition is an illusion, an artefact of a philosophical system or way of seeing.
And so, The Golden Gate lay partially submerged in my consciousness, like a shipwreck in shallow water, visibly present but unexcavated. Some years ago, when my wife and I moved to San Francisco, the book began to take on a new life for me, even before I reread it. We started discovering the city a day at a time, walking through neighbourhoods known and unknown, visiting landmarks and ordinary buildings alike, immersing ourselves in the quotidian and the remarkable. Sparked by association, a phrase or scene from the book would occasionally bubble up in memory: the quality of light and sky, the endearing pretension of the San Francisco artiste, the easy acceptance of difference in the city.
Shortly after the birth of our son three summers ago, I chanced upon a hardcover copy of the first American edition of the book, in the beautiful Faber Fiction series, at a neighbourhood bookstore. In the sleep-deprived, love-riddled days that followed, I read the book in between drives with my son around the Bay Area and mile-long walks in the parks and neighbourhoods of the city. I marvelled at Seth's many voices in the text: his descriptions of the bay, hemmed with shining light, as the "unruffled daughter of the Pacific"; his presentation of the cruel irony of Liz having to choose between a powerful but incompatible love and a fondness that could grow into passion; and his philosophical rumination, qua John, of the immeasurable cost of leaving things unsaid and having to live with that ("Do not hanker/For clarity; you cannot find/ It now, or ever").
No doubt a reflection of my own interests and experiences, I now read The Golden Gate as a meditation about place and love and about the roles of life and death in adjudicating that relationship. The webs that link people in the novel are set against changes in the landscape and the passing of seasons. Seth's beautifully etched California landscape by turns converges with, and is foil to, the emotional landscape of the characters. Each cycle of seasons bring renewal but with the knowledge of something utterly lost. To live is to dwell, Heidegger tells us. To dwell, Seth tells us in The Golden Gate, is to love. And to truly know love, in any of its forms, is to to be at peace with one's own mortality.