There is nothing that can beat the advantage and the absolutely euphoric feeling of reading an original text. After all, if I we talk about ‘From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet’ by Vikram Seth, I get closer to what the writer really had in his mind if I read the original text and not just a thin anorexic book claiming to be its critical study. However, there are multitudes of students thronging our colleges and universities who are probably more interested in every other activity than sitting long enough to read books.

When I was a student of literature some decades ago, I asked a few friends who I spotted reading help-books, ‘Why read this? Why not read the original text?’

‘No time to read any original text, buddy,’ said the friend, ‘This book anyway hand-holds me into the heart of the most relevant and expected questions and does all the slog work.’

‘Ah!’ I said and turned my back to such a concept. Why must I head towards a path that teaches me not to slog, I reasoned then… and I must admit that I did the right thing. I have nothing against those students who wish to drop the original texts and spend their student years lapping up these critical notes… but they need to realise that what they are losing is the ability to interact with a text and will probably never develop the art as well as the craft of analysing critically. After all, they have supped on ready-made critiques and learned to like dependence.

To those who may respond to my words by saying that the critical studies have their own importance in assisting a student understand how to formulate examination-oriented answers, I can only say that I have one such book right in front of me. The volume that I have with me is a thin 88 pages of hurriedly edited text on Vikram Seth’s book mentioned earlier. The author is Dr Rabi Kumar Jha who is heading the department of English Literature in SMD College in Sevasagar, Assam. Let me add here that the printing and binding aren’t anything to speak about and the publisher (Prakash Book Depot from Bareilly) has given minimal focus on the formatting as well as the quality of paper used.

Let me not diversify and just remain focused on the review of this book claiming to be a critical study of Vikram Seth’s travelogue. The content for the initial chapters on Vikram Seth, travel literature, and on the social and political impact of the Gang of Four in China has nothing that is not already there for reference on the websites. The writer of this critical study tells us without reservations that the content has picked up its facts from a website on Vikram Seth as well as the one on Chinese Communist Party. Come on, I think students are bright enough and have the tech know-how to reach out for the tomes of information that online portals and sites store these days. Is it possible to know everything about travel literature by through a small article of barely a thousand words that this book has? Must a student’s understanding of socio-political impact of the Gang of Four in communist China depend on reading just three pages? One perspective is that such texts are the easy way out and are actually doing a great job of culling information from multiple sources and presenting them all together for the benefit of the students.

This may be true and these villainous help-books need to be given the credit for bringing together information bits that exist sometimes on undiscovered pages kept in remote nooks of unknown libraries… but every student who falls for such traps must also know that he would then have no chance of being known as a scholar who deserves an applause. So if you’re happy with just moving on with your degree, go ahead and pass your exams by reading through such critical studies. You WILL need to read original texts if your ambitions are anywhere above such a mundane existence… you WILL need to learn how to analyse texts… and you WILL need to browse through multiple books to be able to analyse with precision.

Let me give you an example from this critical study by R K Jha. Jha quotes from Vikram Seth’s book:

”I walk slowly, groping along the slippery clay walls, bumping my head against the low roof. The light dies. I am guided solely by my hands and submerged feet, both suddenly numb with cold. There is a slight bend in the karez; I realise I had better feel the walls to make sure that there are no branches in the channel.”

Now all that Mr Jha does is to add that ‘the karez are maintained by commune members. The author Seth was tempted by this karez and he himself experienced the beauty of it’. Jha helpfully points out that ‘there are more than two thousand kilometres of karez in the deserts of Xinjiang. A karez is usually less than ten kilometres long, but the bigger karezs are as long as forty kilometres.’

As I read the text written by Vikram Seth, I am actually tempted to buy the book and read it. The flow is unbeatable and I am sure the other facts that Jha has helpfully added to seem helpful, will be there somewhere. Well, even if they are not there, I am suitably intrigued to hop on to the internet and search for more details on karez etc. This is one advantage of studying literature in computer intensive times. Such book, I guess, were popular a few decades ago as students in tier 2 and smaller towns did not have adequate access to information… and the internet did not exist. But times have changed… and I am sure these ‘critical studies’ or help-books are poised to dive into the dustbin of eternity where they rightfully belong.


Book details:
Title: From Heaven lake – a critical study
Author: Dr R K Jha
Publisher: Prakash Book Depot
ISBN: 978-81-7977-510-3
Price: Rs 45/- (in 2016)



‘From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet’ by Vikram Seth,... A critical study by R K Jha

‘From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet’ by Vikram Seth,… A critical study by R K Jha




Arvind Passey
18 June 2016