By Simran Chadha
Perhaps not as furiously as the raging pandemic and certainly not as demurely as the silent passing-on of Aishwarya Reddy – the young LSR student who went into the dark night without as much as a whimper – but talk regarding the unsuitability of Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s magnum opus A Suitable Boy (2020) certainly prevails in chat-rooms and otherwise across the country.
It is the similarity of the gender dynamic that both, the film and the suicide, engage with that prompts the writing of this article when we’re still recovering from a deadly virus. Ideologies, however, invisibly and insidiously continue to plague and even kill.
Across the globe, literati expressed surprise that a sensibility such as Nair’s – one that gave the planet a movie of the stature of a Salaam Bombay (1988) or a Monsoon Wedding (2001) – could produce something as frivolous as this new BBC television drama miniseries seemed to them.
The ensuing babble furthermore iterated that Nair’s portrayal of India and Indians seemed rather extreme, to the extent of being false and most certainly cut off from the reality of life.
What remains missing in these discussions was the fact that when Seth’s novel first appeared in print, more than a decade ago, it was celebrated more for its resuscitation of the canon of Indian-English literature, and Nair’s series in 2020 has literally given the novel a new lease on life.
Clearly there appeared to be a disconnect between the India of the 1950s as set in word by Seth and the viewers of Nair’s 2020 cinematic rendition.
As per the verdict, Nair was declared guilty of racial prejudice and also an obnoxious aping of Western accents by the characters of her adaptation. These moreover were seen as liberties that she as director had taken with the novel.
Now while ‘fidelity’ to the original has long been discarded as criterion for judging cinema or – at least following NYU professor Robert Stam’s dismissal of its efficacy – the same does not hold true for audience-reaction, which evidently continues to demand exacting allegiance.
In this regard none would dispute the jubilatory reception that continues to be awarded to Satyajit Ray’s depictions of the India of the 1950s, particularly the Bengal village as seen in some of his films.
While this earned Ray pride of place with the masters of world cinema – Godard, Fellini, Orson Wells and such like –and also rescued Hindi cinema from being subsumed by consumerist Bollywood tags it offered to Western eyes at Cannes, an India they were most comfortable with – one that agreed with discourses facilitating colonisation.
Not that Ray was on the side of the goras but his films offer a voyeuristic display of the gruelling poverty of rural India while his absolutely brilliant cinematic aesthetic renders palpable the inhumanity therein.
Decades down the line such versions of India continue to prevail; take for instance Danny Boyle’s long-shot of the opening sequence of Dharavi in SlumDog Millionaire (2008) or the much-acclaimed class-divide thematic as touted by Aravind Adiga in his Man Booker Prize-winning debut novel The White Tiger (2008), now adapted into a Netflix film (2021) starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao.
Seth’s A Suitable Boy on the other hand is contextualised against a lesser known India – the India of the Brown Sahibs – a class of upper-class Indians reared as per Macaulay’s A Minute on Indian Education to administer the colony on their behalf – a class that was to be British in all matters except the colour of their skin. Nair faithfully adheres to this and hence the British accents!
For instance, Lata’s brother speaks a perfectly clipped, anglicised version of the Queen’s English as would be the case with most of his ilk but he has never set foot beyond Indian soil. His embarrassment when he admits this to Haresh – who in the final instance is the suitable boy – accrues not on account of an intonation alien to the local landscape but on having to admit the absence of an Oxford pedigree.
The contemporary critic as audience appears to have missed this point altogether confronted as they are on a daily basis with a variety of desi-slangs procured by Gen X through internet forays into distant lands.
As regards the charge of racial prejudice levied against Nair on account of her portrayal of Lata’s mother’s Muslim-hating predilections, need we be reminded that this was a generation that had witnessed Partition firsthand – an event wherein women were mercilessly pilloried on account of their religious affiliations. Even a cursory glance at the research of scholars such as Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon would testify to the veracity of this assertion.
Not that it excuses racial prejudice but it clarifies the realistic portrayal of Lata’s mother. She clearly carries the scars of Partition and while we agree that this does not justify her withering rudeness towards Kabir as a prospective husband for Lata, it certainly adheres with the realist vein of Seth’s text – the portrayal of human nature in all its flawed imperfection.
And yet, in the final instance Lata chooses Haresh over Kabir. A decade ago, Seth’s readers mulled over what they felt was Lata’s deceptive cunning; a cunning nature cleverly cloaked under what had appeared as youthful innocence. However, all agreed that this was a progressive step for Indian womanhood considering choices are often made for Indian women.
As viewers and as readers we may have expected Lata to prevail over her mother’s narrow-mindedness and to fight for Kabir but in a volte face, she just chooses Haresh and all ends well. But then does it?
In the final instance, Lata proves to be the obedient daughter. With this Seth presents before his readers and Nair before her viewers the crux of the problem besetting Indian womanhood. Obedience, submission and compliance as practised, in all probability subconsciously, by the fictional Lata of the 1950s continue to be the hallmark of well-bred young women.
My contention is that this investment in obedience, submission and compliance have existed in an unbroken continuum from Seth’s fictional Lata to the flesh and blood, real-life character of Aishwarya Reddy – the second year B.Sc Mathematics student enrolled with one of the most prestigious women’s colleges of India, who took her life, for sadly she was way too obedient, way too submissive and way too compliant.
Born to a family of moderate means, the daughter of a motorcycle mechanic, living in Shadnagar town in Ranga Reddy district in Telangana, Aishwarya’s family procured a loan enabling her to continue her education at Delhi University.
Since college admissions in India are merit-based, Aishwarya’s academic credentials were certainly sterling showing the markers of a genius in the making. Following the pandemic, however, her family had scant means of repaying the loan. Guilt regarding their plight on her account plagued Lata.
The final nail in the coffin was the sudden order by the college authorities demanding the release of hostel accommodation. Given the formidable living expenses in the Indian capital, the 19-year-old decided to snuff out her existence for the one thing granting her hope for a better existence – her education – was being taken away from her. This sadly appeared the only recourse she could fathom given her situation.
Speaking up for herself, questioning the unfairness and refusing to comply did not seem like viable options for the young Aishwarya, reared as she was with the virtues of obedience, submission and compliance.
Aishwarya played by the rules, she believed the myth to be the reality – the reality of a patriarchal world in which patriarchy is determined not by gender alone but the conduct of those in authority.
The college authorities failed to take this into account and forgot that compliance with authority is the first myth that feminism shatters. Had they applied this textbook awareness to the young lives coping with the reality of a pandemic, perhaps Aishwarya’s tragedy could have been averted.
Dr Simran Chadha is an Assistant Professor of English Literature with Dyal Singh College, Delhi University.