Friday, July 24, 2020

"Some Have Happiness Thrust Upon Them": Playing With "Twelfth Night" in "A Suitable Boy" (2/3)

(Part 2 in a Three Part Series. See part 1 here. Mira Nair's adaptation of A Suitable Boy debuts on BBC One in the UK on 7/26; the U.S. broadcast dates are yet to be announced.)

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, set just after Indian independence, is deeply concerned with what we might call "de-Anglicization" -- the process by which upper-class and -caste Indians began to shed themselves of the Anglophilia that had been thoroughly imposed upon them over two centuries of British rule in India.

Elite English culture was presented to Indians in modes of dress and eating; it was seen as a work ethic and a demeanor to aspire to ("stiff upper lip"); it was visible in architecture and social structures (the "Club"). But nowhere was the pursuit of Englishness more palpable than in the school system the British established and that Indians continued to propagate for several generations. Most major English-medium Indian schools universities remain modeled on the British system; it's only recently that the American approach to "college" has begun to make inroads.

At the beating heart of that system of educative discipline is of course the Canon of English Literature. So it's not at all an accident that in A Suitable Boy one of the main characters is a young lecturer in English at the provincial (fictional) Brahmpur University. And his young sister-in-law, Lata -- the primary protagonist in the novel -- is herself an English major at the same university. 

It's not that the British are still hanging around at Brahmpur University in Seth's novel; even by the early 1950s, they've all departed. All of the faculty we meet are either fully Indian or mixed-race Anglo-Indian. There's no wizened British Department Chair to force the Indian faculty to toe the line and live and die by Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and (Percy) Shelley. The Indian faculty enforce the Canon all the same. But the young people at least inhabit Shakespeare slightly differently than the British might have. And the audience receives the play differently than we might expect.



* * *

(You don't need to have read either the novel or Shakespeare's play to follow along below. Also, while some of my interpretations below point in certain directions, I have been careful not to put in any spoilers about the ending of Seth's novel.)

The Twelfth Night is performed by students at Brahmpur University. It’s first introduced in section 12.4 of the novel (p.838), just after Lata and her friend Malati have returned from summer break. Lata remains heartbroken about her thwarted relationship with Kabir Durrani, and is looking for an activity to keep her mind occupied. The play is going to be directed by a Philosophy instructor, Mr. Barua. Here’s how it’s introduced in the novel: 


‘A play, then. They’re putting on Twelfth Night. Get a part in the play. That’ll make you laugh at love and life.’
‘My mother wouldn’t stand for my acting in a play,’ said Lata.
‘Don’t be such a mouse, Lata,’ said Malati. ‘Of course she’ll agree. After all, Pran produced Julius Caesar last year and there were a couple of women in it. Not many, not important parts perhaps, but real girl students, not boys dressed up as girls. He was engaged to Savita at the time. Did your mother object? No, she didn’t. She didn’t see the play, but she was delighted at its success. If she didn’t object then, she can’t now. Pran will be on your side. And the students in Patna university and in Delhi too have mixed casts now. This is a new age!’
Lata could only imagine what her mother might have to say about the new age.
‘Yes!’ said Malati with high enthusiasm. ‘It’s being put up by the at philosophy teacher, what’s his name--it will come back to me--and auditions are in a week. Female auditions one day, male auditions two days later. Very chaste. Perhaps they’ll even rehearse separately.’ (838)


Here, Malati alludes out the contrast between western theatrical norms in the mid-20th century and those that prevailed in middle-class families in provincial towns in India. Mixed-gender casts are new at the universities in northern India and are gaining acceptance, but they are still “chaste.” (The separate auditions, of course, ends up being an important plot device later.) For Lata, the concern is that her mother might disapprove of mixed-gender performance of a Shakespeare play, but she and Malati know that such a performance should be well within the limits of what will be considered “proper” morality on a university campus. 


It would be a mistake to try and map the plot of Twelfth Night to the plot of Seth's novel too literally: though Lata is soon cast as Olivia in Shakespeare's play, Lata’s path through the novel is clearly not meant to be understood as paralleling Olivia. With respect to plot at least, it might be more useful to think of the allusion as part of the general architecture of the novel -- part of its comedic backdrop. Seth’s novel does of course feature a marriage plot, mistaken identities, a fair amount of drunkenness, and surprise conjunctions and coincidences (such as the delicious scene in the Cricket stand at Calcutta where all three of Lata's suitors are talking to one another -- without knowing that they’re pursuing the same woman). It also contains much material that isn’t really ‘comedic’: as mentioned above, great swaths of the novel explore the history and politics of newly independent India. While the romantic plot of A Suitable Boy keeps readers turning its pages, it’s the thoughtful insights on those historical and social issues that justify the novel’s extraordinary length and give it its staying power. 


A bit of the plot of Twelfth Night, for background: Twelfth Night features Viola and Sebastian, twins of different genders who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, and serves Duke Orsino as a page. Orsino asks him to serve as an intermediary to Olivia, a woman who mourning for her deceased brother, has “abjured the sight / And company of men.” As part of her refusal of all suitors, hroughout much of the play, Olivia appears veiled (though she unveils herself to Viola/Cesario in their first meeting). Olivia falls in love with ‘Cesario’, while Viola (as Cesario) falls in love with Duke Orsino. In the middle of the play there’s a comic subplot involving Malvolio, a steward who works for Olivia. A group of other ‘low’ characters in the play contrive to convince Malvolio that Olivia has fallen in love with him, and only needs him to dress and act in certain bizarre ways to win her love. He is later humiliated and left out of the resolution at the end of the play (where disguised characters are revealed, separated characters are reunited and ‘inappropriate’ same-sex dalliances are corrected). 


Some parallels are obvious, and worth noting. One is that both Seth’s novel and Shakespeare’s play feature women (Lata and Olivia) being pursued by one set of suitors, only to make choices that take them in a different, surprising direction. Olivia indicates she’ll say no to all men for seven years; Lata, initially, seems reluctant to marry at all. Lata’s most serious love-interest, Kabir, is also of course cast in the play as Malvolio. In the Shakespeare, Malvolio is a comic foil with few redeeming features. Kabir is of course a much more serious and appealing character, and Lata’s feelings for him in the novel are real. Perhaps more important than the actual casting parallel is the dialogue between Lata and Kabir about the play, which we’ll explore in some detail below. 


The hints of queer and homoerotic desire in Twelfth Night are also echoed, sometimes subtly, in Seth’s novel -- again, without a direct mapping. The only outright gay-identified character in the novel is the son of the Raja of Marh, identified in the novel as the Rajkumar (which is a title, not a name). At one point he makes a homoerotic pass at Maan Kapoor, though Maan turns him down. There is also a strong suggestion that Maan and Firoz, close friends throughout the novel, have at least one sexual encounter, though both are deeply emotionally and passionately drawn to ‘unsuitable’ women. 


But there are other hints and traces of cross-gender ventriloquism in many places in A Suitable Boy. When Saeeda Bai is first introduced, it is at a Mehfil-like event at the Kapoor house. As she performs various Ghazals by Ghalib, she first flirts with Hashim Durrani (a minor character), and then Maan Kapoor. The poems she recites were written by a man, Mirza Ghalib, in a rhetorical context where the gender of the addressee was typically male. Whether this means Ghalib and other Urdu poets were involved in erotic relationships with men isn’t entirely clear. But in Seth’s novel that gender play -- a woman, flirting with younger men using the seductive words of another man -- provides a powerful kairotic energy when she recites verses and appears to direct them at the young men in the room. This act of ventriloquism is not so different from Viola’s presentation as ‘Cesario’ in Twelfth Night, representing the words and desires of a male suitor (Duke Orsino) to a love object, while being herself disguised as a man. 


The parallels between A Suitable Boy and Twelfth Night are playful and at times somewhat oblique, but at their center is a wordplay over the idea of “suitability.” Suitability and its cognates, suit, suite, suitor, and suitable, all play into it, sometimes through puns and wordplay. And while the extended discussion of Twelfth Night in Seth’s novel would seem to call out for scholarly treatment, in fact no extended analysis of this important allusion has been published that I am aware of [Pier Paolo Piciucco did publish an essay on “Elizabethan Influences in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy” in 2001, but that essay only engages Twelfth Night briefly as part of a broader account of Elizabethan motifs in the novel.] 


The first discussion of “suitability” with respect to Twelfth Night pertains to the suitability of the play itself as well as the prospect of Lata performing in it: 


Having invoked her late husband, Mrs Rupa Mehra had reached an emotional climax, and it was possible now to pacify her and even to reason with her. Pran pointed out that the rehearsals would take place during the day except in an emergency. Savita said that she’d read Twelfth Night at school, and it was a harmless play; there was nothing scandalous in it. Savita had read the bowdlerized version that was approved as a school text, but it was very likely that Mr Barua would have to cut out certain passages anyway to avoid causing shock and distress to the parents who attended Annual Day. Mrs Rupa Mehra had not read the play; if she had, she would certainly have thought it unsuitable. (843)


We see here the seeming contradiction between between the cultural capital of a Shakespeare play and one important version of “suitability” (i.e., the upper-caste Anglo-Indian approach to representations of sex and gender in the arts). While Pran (as an elder brother-in-law) and Savita (as an older sister) can both validate the play as harmless, Pran at least isn’t saying everything he presumably knows about the play and Savita’s knowledge of it is limited in large part because the version of it she read had been “suitably” abridged and censored. 


Ideas of “suitability” and “unsuitablity” cut across the novel and enters into many different areas. What exactly is meant by suitable? In some ways, "suitable" might simply understood as a quality that fits a particular sort of person, without reference to values or social status. So for instance, we see early discussion about what’s suitable in the novel when Lata is told by Meenakshi that a bright pink sari doesn’t suit her. Meenakshi doesn’t say it aloud, but the common-place thinking in northern India is that bright colors aren’t suitable for darker-skinned people. Maan has the same thought, though he doesn’t express it aloud: “Good-looking girl—in a way, he thought again. Pink’s the wrong colour for her complexion, though. She should be dressed in deep green or dark blue.” 


In another, more literal, sense, suitable simply suggests matching: something is suitable because it’s of the same “suite.” Thus, a “suitable boy” would be someone who is in effect similar to Lata. In Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s mind, suitability is connected to caste and social standing. In Arun Mehra’s mind, caste might be deemphasized in favor of a more Anglocentric concept of social standing: the quality of a person’s English-medium education, the nature of their accent and the way they position themselves vis a vis other Indians. For Lata’s friend Malati, the rhetoric of “suitability” as linked to caste and religious identity entirely misses the point -- throughout the novel, she encourages Lata to marry for love (as Lata’s own brother Arun had done some years earlier). 


Through the Elizabethan intertext, we can also explore an additional set of meanings connected to “suitable” around the concept of the “suitor,” where “suitor” suggests a follower, or idea of a plaintiff in a case (think of the "suit" in "lawsuit"; the suitor is the one who "sues"). Lata has three suitors -- three plaintiffs making a “case” to her to gain a contract, and they do so in different ways. Two of them (Haresh and Amit) woo her predominantly through their writing, while Kabir writes indifferent letters but offers an intense personal attraction and physicality. He performs for Lata and -- as Malvolio in Twelfth Night -- with Lata. 


Ultimately, the novel pushes back against the cruder understandings of “suitability” (caste and class), but doesn’t reject the basic concept behind it. For Lata, the prospects for a life-partner are going to be limited to certain compatible social parameters. (I would say more, but I don't want to give too much away for people who are likely to read the novel of watch Nair's BBC adaptation of it.)


The rhetoric of suitability is hinted at in Twelfth Night in passages that are not actually quoted in the novel. Here is a passage from Act 1, Scene II, where Viola first proposes the scheme of going in drag as a man: 


Captain: That were hard to compass,
Because she will admit no kinde of suite,
No, not the Duke's


 Viola: There is a fair behaviour in thee Captain,
And though that nature, with a beauteous wall
Doth oft close in pollution: yet of thee
I will believe thou hast a mind that suites
With this thy fair and outward character.
I prithee (and I'll pay thee bounteously)
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid,
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I'll serve this Duke,
Thou shalt present me as an Eunuch to him,
It may be worth thy pains: for I can sing,
And speak to him in many sorts of Music,
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap, to time I will commit,
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit


Even here there are two meanings of “suites” in circulation. One is the traditional idea of the “suitor” who courts a woman and aims to persuade her to accept his offer of marriage. Here, Olivia is described as not being interested in suitors on account of the death of her husband: “she will admit no kind of suite.” Viola uses the same word differently in proposing her scheme, referring to the captain as someone who has a mind that “suites / With [his] faire and outward character.” Somewhat paradoxically, Viola takes the Captain’s own forthrightness and transparency (his open look reflects an open and honest character) as an invitation to enter into into disguise herself: to wear, on a much more literal level, the Captain’s dress suit (he is the one who will assist her, though it’s unclear whether she’ll actually be wearing his clothes). 


None of this maps directly to the plot of A Suitable Boy, of course. Lata gets cast as Olivia, not Viola, and Kabir is never disguised (though there is an important -- and highly Elizabethan-- misrecognition involving Malati that happens late in the novel). But it suggests an important resonance for the concept of the “suit” that does map to the novel. How do suitors perform while wooing the love-object, and what relationship do those performances have to the true nature of their character? In the context of the lines above, an element of performance (wearing a suit) can be and is appropriate, but only if it reflects a sincere and honest intent. 


Immediately after discovering that Kabir will be performing alongside her in Twelfth Night, Kabir quotes lines from the Duke to Lata: 


There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion,
As love doth give my heart: no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much, they lack retention.
Alas, their love may be call'd appetite,
No motion of the Liver, but the Palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment, and revolt,
But mine is all as hungry as the Sea,
And can digest as much, make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me,
And that I owe Olivia


To paraphrase: here the Duke is suggesting that his ability to love, as a man, is much more powerful and all-consuming than women’s love. On the one hand, he’s trying to articulate the depths of his passion here -- and that lines up well with the idea of Kabir as absolutely committed to Lata. On the other hand, the play will show that he is incorrect -- women can and do love as intensely and ravenously as men. Moreover, the hints here that women “lack retention” -- which suggests they lack constancy -- are also fairly dubious. A man who utters these lines comes across as self-serving and pompous: more interested in avowing his passion than in proving it. 


These lines, needless to say, also echo the famous opening lines of the play (“If music be the food of love, play on. / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die.”) Between those lines and these, however, there appears to be a contradiction. The “surfeit” of emotion the Duke celebrated in his opening lines is here described as a fault uniquely inhering to women. The Duke’s own logic appears to lack “retention,” as he shifts from one metaphor for passion to the other. In contrast to the Duke, the women in the play appear to have better control over their passions (though they are not, needless to say, completely immune to them). 


To return to Seth’s novel, the passage that immediately follows Kabir’s impromptu recitation of lines from the Duke is even more telling: 


Lata felt her face burning. After a while she said: ‘You’re reciting someone else’s lines, I’m afraid. Those weren’t written for you.’ She paused, then added: ‘But you know them rather too well.’ 


‘I learned them—and a good deal more besides—the night before the auditions,’ said Kabir. ‘I hardly slept! I was determined to get the part of the Duke. But I had to settle for Malvolio. I hope that doesn’t mean anything by way of my fate. I got your note. I keep hoping we’ll meet at Prem Nivas or somewhere—’ 


To her own surprise Lata found herself laughing. ‘You’re mad, absolutely mad,’ she said. 


Lata’s comment here (“Those lines weren’t written for you”) is at least partly self-reflexive commentary that follows an extended pattern of remarks along those lines throughout the novel. Of course those lines weren’t written for Kabir -- none of these lines were. To recite those lines is, the thinking her goes, first and foremost a performance. When we recite the lines of a character in a play, we don’t mean them literally as our own. And yet, Kabir’s choosing those particular lines and the Duke’s particular character reflect an ambition and an intent that makes Lata wary: “But you know them rather too well.” 


In the second half is where Seth drops a big hint (“I hope that doesn’t mean anything by way of my fate”): Kabir, in the novel, might be understood as aiming for the Duke (a central role), though ultimately he will be relegated somewhat to the sidelines (and needless to say, he won’t be marrying Olivia at the end of the play).


Just a few moments later in the same conversation, Kabir quotes from Malvolio, only twisting the language slightly to match Lata’s insult:


‘Well,’ said Kabir, making light of it, ‘some are born mad, some achieve madness, and some have madness thrust upon them.’  


Lata was tempted to ask him which of the three categories he thought he belonged to. But instead she said: ‘So you do know Malvolio’s role as well.’ 


‘Oh, those lines,’ said Kabir. ‘Everyone knows those lines. Just poor Malvolio playing the fool.’


Kabir, here is not quite right. Yes, those lines are of course first uttered by Malvolio in Act II, Scene V of the play, but they aren’t ‘authored’ by him. They are, rather, in the text of the letter written by Maria impersonating her mistress Olivia’s handwriting. Here is more from the letter written by Maria: 


'If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon 'em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee.  (Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene v)


In Maria’s letter (interpreted by Malvolio as coming from Olivia), Malvolio is encouraged to “be not afraid of greatness” -- and to perform his aspirations by acting superior to his actual social station. He is in effect, being encouraged to disguise himself as a nobleman in order to prove himself worthy for the one “that sighs for [him]”. Later, the letter will also encourage him to wear an actual costume (the famous yellow socks, improperly gartered), and to smile somewhat wildly. 


All of this has bearing on the meaning of the famous “some are born to greatness...” line, which does not mean what most causal readers might expect. For Malvolio, not born to greatness, the choice would appear to be between “achieving” it and having “greatness thrust upon ‘em.” The former would be preferable given Malvolio’s aims; the latter suggests a passivity that might suggest an innocent accident, though the sexual connotation is hard to miss (especially in this play, replete as it is with R-rated puns). The audience hears all this, however, and realizes that Malvolio will in no way either achieve or be presented with greatness -- the whole statement is a an act of misdirection to encourage him to posture (falsely), leading to his ultimate humiliation. In short, the line “some are born great…” can only be interpreted as ironic. Greatness does “thrust” upon Malvolio, but not in the way he wants. 


To return to Kabir and his twisting of the lines from Malvolio in Maria’s letter. Here the hint is that the pain Lata causes when she says “You’re mad, absolutely mad,” comes from the fact that his mother has in fact had a severe mental breakdown and is at the present moment locked up for her own good (Lata does not know this). Kabir uses the line to hint at his own haplessness -- here the emphasis is on the last clause (“some have madness thrust upon them”). “Madness” has been thrust upon him because Lata has turned him down, and he’s trying to use comedy to accept what is otherwise an extremely painful situation. 


Notably, Malvolio repeats the “some have greatness…” line at the end of the scene in Act III, Scene 4. This scene is is performed in rehearsal with an emphasis not on those particular lines but on another sexual pun that, when uttered, leads to Lata’s embarrassment and laughter among the cast: 


Olivia: Why, how dost thou, man? What is the matter with thee? 


Malvolio: Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs. It did come to his hands, and commands shall be executed. I think we do know the sweet Roman hand. 


Mr Barua [puzzled at the pause, and looking at Lata in expectation]: Yes, yes, good? Olivia: Wilt— 
Mr Barua: Wilt? Yes, wilt thou . . . good, excellent, keep on going, Miss Mehra, you’re doing very well. 
Olivia: Wilt thou— 
Mr Barua: Wilt thou? Yes, yes! 
Olivia: Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio? 
Mr Barua [holding up one hand to still the guffaws, and waving at the dumbstruck Kabir with his imaginary baton]: How now, Malvolio? 
Malvolio: To bed? Ay, sweetheart; and I’ll come to thee. 


Everyone, other than the two actors and Mr Barua, joined in the laughter that followed. Even Malati. Et tu, thought Lata. 


While in the play the joke is always on Malvolio, here, the one who is humiliated is Lata -- nudged by Mr. Barua to recite lines that are obviously “unsuitable” in the cultural context of this provincial Indian university. Moreover, while in the play it is Malvolio whose misplaced desire for Olivia makes him the object of mockery, here the hint is that Lata has trouble saying these words because she, to quote her back to herself  “knows them rather too well.” And while Malati in other moments gives Lata considerable support and assistance (playing a role in the novel that parallels Maria’s role for Olivia in the play rather nicely), here she joins in the laughter. 


The same “greatness” quote plays a role in a pivotal moment in chapter 13.12, when Lata begins to pivot internally away from a vision of life organized around Kabir and towards a different conception: 


Sometimes, sitting here, with the marked script of Twelfth Night open on her lap, Lata substituted the word ‘happiness’ for ‘greatness’ in the famous quotation. She wondered what one could do to be born happy, to achieve happiness, or to have it thrust on one. The baby, she thought, had arranged to be born happy; she was placid, and had as good a chance as anyone of happiness in this world, her father’s poor health notwithstanding. Pran and Savita, different though their backgrounds were, were a happy couple. They recognized limits and possibilities; their yearnings did not stretch beyond their reach. They loved each other—or, rather, had come to do so. They both assumed, without ever needing to state it—or perhaps without even thinking explicitly about it—that marriage and children were a great good. If Savita was restless—and at the moment in the shaded noon light her sleeping face showed no restlessness but, rather, a peace and pleasure that Lata wondered at—if she was restless, it was because she feared the undoing by forces outside themselves of this great good. She wanted above all to ensure that no matter what happened to her husband, insecurity and unhappiness would not unavoidably thrust themselves on their child. The law-book resting on the table on one side of her bed balanced the baby resting in the cot on the other. (951-952)

The three-fold movement of Malvolio’s line is present here, but woven into a thoughtful meditation on the link between a domesticated kind of love and the aspiration to happiness. Happiness here exists not in a state of romantic idealism, but framed by “limits and possibilities.” Pran and Kavita “loved each other--or rather, had come to do so.” At the end of this meditation, Lata begins rethinking her attraction to Kabir: 


But where would these feelings lead? A gradual, stable attraction such as Savita’s for Pran—was this not the best thing for her, and for the family, and for any children that she might have?  (953)


In effect, Seth telegraphs from an early point where he’s going with the relationship between Kabir and Lata, but readers perhaps refuse to see the many palpable clues about Lata’s growth and evolution. The substitution of “happiness” for “greatness,” in other words, is not just an idle thought -- in it we see the kernel of Lata’s shift towards a more domesticated concept of love and a romantic concept framed, as Pran and Savita’s relationship is, by “limits and possibilities.” 

* * *


The final substantial engagement with the play comes on the evening of its actual formal performance. Here we see the entirety of it from Lata’s mother’s perspective as she watches in the audience. 


She [Mrs. Rupa Mehra] was soon entirely carried away by the magic of the play. And indeed, there was no major mischief, other than some incomprehensible bawdy and buffoonery, in the first half of the play. When Lata came on, Mrs Rupa Mehra could hardly believe that it was her daughter. 


The potential for scandal in the play’s pointed humor is blunted somewhat by the play’s archaic language, which gain an added level of complexity by virtue of the cultural milieu of the peformance. The scandal that had been expected does briefly flutter to life as she hears Lata address Malvolio: 


The second half began. Mrs Rupa Mehra nodded and smiled. But she nearly started from her chair when she heard her daughter say to Kabir: ‘Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?’ and she gasped at Malvolio’s odious, brazen reply. ‘Stop it—stop it at once!’ she wanted to shout. ‘Is this why I sent you to university? I should never have allowed you to act in this play. Never. If Daddy had seen this he would have been ashamed of you.’


In the end, Mrs. Mehra stays quiet and the moment passes. Interestingly, while Mrs. Mehra is momentarily scandalized, the audience is not -- perhaps the actors decide not to 'play' the lines for their R-rated subtexts? The narrator attends more to the public impact of a scene later in the play. This is in Act III, scene iv, where Antonio is beseeching Viola (Cesario) for assistance with bail. Antonio, of course, is mistaking Viola for her twin brother Sebastian. Seth quotes extensively from these passages: 


Will you deny me now?
Is't possible that my deserts to you
Can lack persuasion? Do not tempt my misery,
Lest that it make me so unsound a man
As to upbraid you with those kindnesses
That I have done for you. 


These passages lead Lata’s grandfather, Dr. Kishen Chand Seth, to tears. In many ways the melodrama of these mistaken identity scenarios resemble the melodramatic plots of Hindi cinema. Eventually he is shushed by his wife (“Kishy! This isn’t Deedar”) with a reference to that exact context. 


For Lata’s family, and indeed for the audience more broadly, the elements that might seem scandalous or unsuitable are overpowered by other aspects of the performance. From Mrs. Mehra’s point of view, Twelfth Night, with its mix of high concept and low comedy, serious melodrama and romantic flirtation, can be assimilated into an Indian setting: 


Since the play ended with three happy marriages (and even, Indian-movie-style, concluded with the last of four songs), it was a success in the eyes of Mrs Rupa Mehra who had, miraculously and conveniently, forgotten all about Malvolio and the bed. 

Twelfth Night, in the end, can be rendered “suitable” to a middle-class Indian family framework despite its transgressive elements -- and despite the presence of a transgressive suitor (Kabir) in the cast of the play. 

In Seth's A Suitable Boy, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night can be -- and is -- Indianized by the audience (and perhaps to some extent by the performers) as a melodrama with a Bollywood ending. This Indianization renders one of Shakespeare's queerer plays "suitable" -- and becomes an important part of how he and others in the English Canon continued to maintain a foothold in the dynamic literary and theatrical space of postcolonial India. At the same time, this very fluidity makes it easier for Shakespeare to remain in the symbolically dominant position at the center of the imaginative world of many of Seth's characters. 

(Many of Seth's characters -- but not all. For running in parallel with the Shakespeare plot involving Lata and Kabir is a Ghalib plot involving Mean Kapoor and Saeeda Bai. Next week, hopefully, I'll have a third (and probably shorter) post, with an exploration of the role of Urdu poetry in Seth's novel.)







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