Christopher Isherwood’s fiction is rarely read these days, but A Single Man (1964) is still known, thanks both to Tom Ford’s 2009 film adaptation and to its status as a pioneering gay novel. A Single Man is never described as a “Hindu novel” – a Google search returns zero hits – but, as Edmund White writes, Vedanta, which Isherwood discovered in the early 1940s, is the “key” to understanding the book. A Single Man deals with a day in the life of an Isherwood-like figure called George, a middle-aged gay Englishman who teaches English in California. George appears to have no relationship to Hinduism, but Hindu philosophy is everywhere in the narrative, which at its climax, pauses for two pages of the most direct distillation of Vedanta in the history of English-language fiction.
So why might A Single Man be worth reading in the India of 2020, and that too for its subversive qualities? It is admittedly not a political book, not conventionally the art of resistance. But at a time when we are being instructed to narrow and cheapen our definitions of “Hindu”, “Indian”, indeed “human”, Isherwood’s novel undermines those efforts. That the great “Hindu novel” in English was written by a gay Englishman in California ought to be something to celebrate. And the book is itself a celebration of perhaps the quality most under threat in 2020 (and under all forms of totalitarianism): individuality. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes, the Preamble to the Indian Constitution was “a charter of liberation...a framework where we can, like artists, develop our individuality”. In A Single Man, Isherwood wrote his first explicit account of gay life and love with moving exuberance and freedom: “The fiend that won’t fit into their statistics...the bad-smelling beast that doesn’t use their deodorants, the unspeakable that insists, despite all their shushing, on speaking its name.”
This is as stirring an affirmation of individuality as any I have come across: read it in 2020.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.