His shirt is unbuttoned at the collar, his hair is ruffled and his agile frame is poised to bowl on the cricket pitch. He could be anyone – the boy next door who is unemployed but athletic , or a local rogue with time to spare between run-ins with the law. What makes him irredeemably attractive isn’t, however, the generic erotic prodding of the unbuttoned shirt and messy hair, but the fact that they belong to Kabir Durrani of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
A systematic inventory of the men one has encountered during one’s undergraduate years, and later, when one finds a job, will probably reveal certain archetypes. There is the shy, scholarly type who can quote Tennyson with flair but drowns in a marsh of words when attempting to get a phone number. The flirt is clear in intent, flamboyant in its articulation, but lacking in devotion, his roving eyes confirm. The confounded Leftist wants to walk to the movies, because, “Cars are so bourgeoisie.” The dreadlocked rocker has never held a guitar but has a kitchen garden that yields, chiefly, cannabis.
Only literary fiction allows one to be hypnotised by the idea of a perfect love. Or the perfect lover. For, while real life abounds with experiences that confirm the illusory nature of both, literature nurtures the belief that they do exist, albeit for someone else. One is more willing to forgive a literary hero for his shortcomings, than a real-life wooer, because the fictional lover isn’t one’s own, although one is inadvertently seduced by the thickness of his lashes, and the passion that throbs in his brawny chest for the heroine who lies between the pages of the book.
To bring back Kabir Durrani for the purpose of this argument, his handsomeness and ardour qualify him as the ‘perfect lover’, both for Lata, the character he woos, and for generations of readers, thrilled by the audacity of a Muslim boy who kisses a Hindu girl he has only just met, on the banks of the sacred Ganges.
An epic tale of four families, set in newly-independent India, A Suitable Boy is populated with suitors for young Lata. What makes Kabir Durrani ‘perfect’ is his obvious inappropriateness. Lata’s mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra is horror-struck when she is informed, by the ladies of Brahmpur that her daughter has been spotted walking with a boy. She confronts Lata:
“He has a name, doesn’t he? What is he – Kabir Lal, Kabir Mehra – or what?” Lata’s response, “Kabir Durrani,” leads to expected emotional tumult:
“She slapped her daughter hard, twice, and instantly burst into tears,” the narrative declares.
Kabir Durrani remains unperturbed by the upheaval his surname has caused. With Lata, he is flirtatious, and slowly thaws her icy reserve with his banter, his swift poetry that lampoons more serious-minded endeavours at the Brahmpur Literary Society, his theatrical talents, his sudden kisses. He is never loutish, even when he is brazen by Brahmpur standards of propriety.
The son of a mathematics professor, Kabir’s family life is marred with the premature death of his sister and the gradual descent of his mother into madness. But, unlike lovers in real life who desperately seek delicate shoulders to cry on, Kabir is unwilling to burden Lata with his worries. Despite his playful foppery, his passion for Lata comes through when he says, with a quiet sincerity, “I won’t tell you that I live from our one meeting to the next. You probably know that.”
While Kabir Durrani emerges from the pages of A Suitable Boy surrounded by the iridescent rays of his youth and vigour, other student-lovers make a less flamboyant appearance. Roland Michell, the quiet scholar who describes himself as an “unemployed postgraduate” to the woman he falls in love with, in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, hardly makes a lasting first impression. The London Library is where he finds purpose and happiness, piecing together the life and times of a Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. Unlike his rival in both romantic and scholastic pursuit, Fergus Wolff, Roland is steady and predictable, the kind who provokes an emotional response as bland as “solid approbation.”
Fergus Wolff cuts a more glamorous figure, with his brassy hair, blue eyes and humongous smile. But Roland has his charms too, and they creep up in insidious ways as reminders of an unobtrusive attractiveness.
Unaware of the feelings he is capable of rousing in women, Roland is always self-deprecatory when referring to himself. “I’m an old-fashioned textual critic, not a biographer,” he says to Dr Maud Bailey of Lincoln University, the scholar who becomes a co-sleuth in his academic investigations and the woman he grows to adore, despite her colour-coordinated style of dressing. But there is nothing pretentiously scholarly about Roland – he does not reek of cannabis, his teeth aren’t stained with tobacco, and he wastes no time cultivating facial hair to suit the scholastic fashions of the day. He does not spew poetry from a stock textbook repertoire – Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly – or worse, from a collection of self-made rhymes, to get into bed with impressionable women, or men, of scholarly temperament.
Roland permits himself to fantasise about Maud, but even his fantasies are well-mannered – her body appears under the shower, but in an imprecise manner. Another student lover, in entirely different circumstances, is more accurate in summoning details of the flesh – moles, strawberry scars, pelvic bones – as he lies in his bath. Robbie Turner, the son of a cleaning lady, Cambridge graduate with a first-class degree, and compliant roller of Bolshevik cigarettes, has just witnessed Cecilia Tallis, his childhood friend and daughter of his benefactor, jump into a fountain to rescue a genuine Meissen porcelain vase from its depths. Before she jumps, she removes her blouse and steps out of her skirt.
Robbie Turner, of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, is ‘perfect’ in the many ways that women seek, not merely because his fantasies are potently visceral. He is a wide-eyed student, with the lush summer of 1935 throbbing in his veins, and a future that stretches out languorously, ripe with possibilities. He has just fallen in love with Cecilia Tallis, and must apologise for his “clumsy and inconsiderate” behaviour that has caused the drowning of the vase, in a letter he types and retypes on his Olympia typewriter. Intensely aware of his recent awkwardness in her presence, Robbie Turner removes his work shoes at the front door of the Tallis home, only to become alarmed by the state of his socks. He removes those too, and feels like and “idiot”, following her into the house barefoot.
Apart from this aberrant incident of social awkwardness, brought about, inevitably, by Cecilia’s presence, Robbie has not the slightest trace of queasiness about his humble parentage. But the narrative does not suggest an uncouth arrogance, nor does it charge Robbie with an underlying ingratitude for privileges otherwise inaccessible to him. For one brief summer evening, before his life is caught in the intricate webbing of lies and tragedy, he enjoys the freedom of walking in the dusk, in his only suit, anticipating both the dread and pleasure of seeing Cecilia.
That his future rapidly turns into a sordid exile, during the course of one evening, makes one recollect this Robbie – the one in the suit, the one with supple limbs, smooth skin and loaded cigarette case – with an aching tenderness, when one encounters him again, traversing a war-torn French landscape with two RASC corporals. Lying in a barn for shelter, he keeps Cecilia’s letters close to him – the latest one in his top pocket, the rest, buttoned into an inside pocket of his coat.
Robbie never gets the life he deserves with his Cecilia. There are other lovers, like Florentino Ariza who waits 51 years, nine months and four days to reiterate his vows of love and fidelity.
Florentino Ariza, delirious rose-eater and letter writer, who has fallen into “devastating love” with Fermina Daza, waits for half a century to reappear in her life, on the day of her husband’s funeral. The dark, bony lover of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, is the most sought-after bachelor when he first meets Fermina Daza. His appearance, that of a deranged poet, who is, nonetheless, a good dancer and player of the violin, heightens the agitation he causes among the girls of the day, who conduct secret lotteries to spend time with him:
“He was very thin, with Indian hair plastered down with scented pomade and eyeglasses for myopia, which added to his forlorn appearance.”
Florentino Ariza is prone to emotional excesses – he loses his voice and appetite after he sees Fermina Daza for the first time, and during the prolonged wait for a response to his first letter, he develops diarrhoea, vomits in shades of green and faints frequently. Despite the morbidity of his lovelorn state, what saves him from turning into a caricature lover is his irrepressible charm, and musical talent. He serenades her with his violin in the middle of the night, playing a waltz of thanksgiving for her letters.
When Fermina Daza chooses to marry the highly-skilled and reputable Dr Juvenal Urbino, Florentino Ariza languishes in the throes of unrequited love, losing his appetite and sleep. He subsequently gives in to the hungers of the flesh and develops a vast repertoire of sexual escapades.
Lovers in literature aren’t devoid of flaws or delusions. But unlike their real-life counterparts, with their morning breath and less than perfect physique, literary heroes are redeemed by one’s imagination. For, the fictional lover stretches himself out between the gossamer sheets of fantasy, and performs his mad acts of love, making one ignore, or indulge his failings, as one tumbles helplessly into the inferno of his passion.
Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.