Mrs Bennet in Brahmpur
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On the 200th anniversary of its publication, thoughts on how we read Pride and Prejudice in India.
Seth-Grahame Smith is the American author of what he calls a literary mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), in which he added the excitement of zombie attacks to the—apparently—placid world of Jane Austen's second novel. Perhaps he found the marriage plot, its many twists and turns, its embrace of love and scheming and pragmatism and passion, unexciting. How anyone can find zombies more entertaining than Mrs Bennet, though, is perplexing to me.
It might have been Mrs Bennet herself, who, it is not acknowledged often enough, lives in the heart of all anxious Indian mothers with unmarried daughters, who whispered the idea of A Suitable Boy in Vikram Seth's ears. A phrase that he heard — "You too will marry the boy I choose" — became the starting point of his magnum opus. It transplants Mrs Bennet in Brahmpur as Mrs Rupa Mehra, who embarks on a quest to find a good boy for her younger daughter Lata. Though Seth's doorstop expands into a compendious novel about the India of the 1950s, at heart, it is about the primal plot of all storytelling: the renewal of a family through love and marriage.
Austen's Pride and Prejudice, published 200 years ago in 1813, is one of the most popular novels in English literature, its characters, scenes, and lines having become archetypes absorbed into popular consciousness. While my generation of Austen fans encountered and grew to love her in their teens, for young readers in India, there is an unappealing whiff of the ancient about the imaginative universe of 19th century England. They would much rather read JRR Tolkien and Stephenie Meyer than Dickens and Bronte. When they do encounter its delightful prose, and the quicksilver wit of Elizabeth Bennet (seriously, girls and boys, way more fun than that bloodless Bella), they might find that it speaks to them in many ways.