Re-reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad they ,merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignore weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends.” – Thus, wrote Vikram Seth in his magnum opus A Suitable Boy published in 1993, and I am guilty of these sentiments both times I have read the book. With 1349 pages of closely written text and another 20 pages at the beginning, this is not just a long book, it is huge both in length and the story it tells.

I first read this book in 1994, in one of the long summer vacations and I was mesmerised by the story and the language. Taking a cue from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which I believe I read two summers before that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.“; A Suitable Boy starts with “You too will marry a boy I choose.” and the theme carries the narrative forward.

I have been thinking of picking the book up few times in the last decade, but the sheer size of it felt prohibitive for the second read. When I read it the first time, it was with a teenager’s lens of seeing the world but 27 years later, the experience of reading this long novel has made me understand its nuances better. I have enjoyed the language even more, understood the context of the period in which the book is based – the social norms and prejudices, the culture and political situation of the period immediately post Independence.

While many readers have loved A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, there are some discerning readers who prefer his second novel An Equal Music over this one – a book I also read when it was released in 1999, and perhaps will read again this year. For me, as a reader, this unabashedly Indian book trumps over many other books not just by this author but others too; and I have enjoyed An Equal Music equally.

The book is a vast and richly woven tapestry of subjects, characters and their stories. Centered around the main protagonist Lata Mehra and her mother’s search for a suitable boy, it is a tale of not just the four principal families – Mehras, Kapoors, Khans and Chatterjis; but with a secondary cast of Home Minister Agarwal and his daughter’s married family the Tandons, Rashid – the tutor and his family, musicians Ustad Majeed Khan and Ishaq Khan, Saeeda Bai and family, Prof Durrani and Kabir Durrani, other members of the University fraternity, Lata’s friend Malati Trivedi, and the man who got the girl Haresh Khanna – we come to know the equations and history of not just the main cast but their families, friends and the people they know as well. In fact, this vast characterisation is described in the book itself by a poet and a first time novelist, where he compares the flow of a Indian classical raag to a novel “I’ve always felt that the performance of a rag resembles a novel – or at least the kind of novel I’m attempting to write. You know first you take one note and explore it for a while, then, another to discover its possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it’s only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the tabla joins in the beat … and then the more brilliant improvisations and diversions begin, with the main theme returning from time to time, and finally it all speeds up, and excitement increases to a climax.

Each character is introduced slowly so as to not overwhelm the reader, the hero doesn’t even make the appearance till Chapter Four of the novel. It really is like the Jane Austen’s world – the food, the parties and the dances, the clothes, and the relationships and emotions – the world which we live in is presented in a colourful kaleidoscope. Staying true to the era in which the novel is based – the lifestyle of British India represented by Kolkata and its inhabitants, the life in a political family or of a service class family, or even the rural life is presented such that the dissimilarities are visible but not jarring.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth has a bit of everything – music and poetry, politics and religion – intimately intertwined pillars of India, Bollywood and cricket – the other two religions of India, festivals and funerals, nepotism and corruption – signs that were to be deeply rooted in the future of India, and celebrations and despair. The juxtaposition of Hindu god-loving (or god-fearing) families vs the Muslim families living under the shadow of partition against a more cosmopolitan lifestyle of families influenced by Britishers; or between the rich and the poor of the country including the not-so-rich-or-poor in between the two extremes is presented through the style of clothes worn or the kind of food eaten, even in the mannerisms or the language spoken. These contrasting worlds add to the drama and romance of the novel, but sometimes they do overwhelm and slow the pace of the story.

This couplet narrated by the writer was an oft repeated one by my Nani (Grandmother). She was from UP and Bihar and would have heard this during her growing up years too. Whenever we were sick and she would sit at our bedside, she would always talk about this couplet. According to her, this was the secret to good health and for me, a memory from childhood.

Beyond entertainment, books are also a medium that preserves and presents our history and traditions to the future generations. This is especially true for novels as they use anecdotes and stories to carry the narrative forward or fill in the blanks. The debut novel by Vikram Seth does this brilliantly, and it is seen in those very details that sometimes overpower the main narrative – the author’s painstaking research efforts on politics of the times, the long and difficult process of shoemaking or the land reforms undertaken by the first Indian Government or the first elections held in India are showcased in detailed pages of the book. Even the smaller nuances like playing pithu on the farm, the music or films played in the theatres or clubs of newly independent India, or in the detailing of the clothes worn by the many, many characters each distinctive in its own style that is inherent in the personality of that character – while to many readers this may appear irrelevant but in the hindsight provide a picture of the life and times of India in 1950s inherently valuable for any researcher or even a reader who wants to go beyond the usual research material available to them. This is especially true when it comes to documenting the religious conflict inherent in the idea of the creation of India or the status of women in the Indian society – the grim reality that is portrayed within the storyline which adds to the poignancy of these issues still prevalent in the country which celebrates its 75th Independence Day this year.

“No man is an island” – and thus, the author takes inspiration from his family like Rupa Mehra whose character is based on the author’s Grandmother, or of Haresh Khanna whose character is inspired from the author’s father Premnath Seth, or the characters of both Lata and Savita – the sisters who are inspired in different ways by the author’s mother Justice Leila Seth, and even the character of a poet-novelist in the book which eerily resembles the recluse author himself!

Set in a fictional town of Brahmpur, the city resembles a lot of my hometown Banaras which is portrayed in the boat rides on the river Ganga, in the setting of temple adjacent to a mosque which was built by demolishing an old temple on the very same site; though traces of other cities like of Patna from where the author’s family lived once or of Allahabad through the depiction of Kumbh Mela are also incorporated to build the character of this mythical city.

Dedication Page of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Only a poet could have penned these sweet words to express his thanks.
Describing the chapters in verse
Describing the chapters in verse – this is definitely a poet’s book

In the author’s words from the book itself – “this is my first novel, and I’m in the process of finding it out. At the moment it feels like a banyan tree.” … “What I mean is, it sprouts, it grows, and spreads, and drops down branches that become trunks or intertwine with other branches. Sometimes branches die. Sometimes the main trunk dies, and the structure is he’d up by the supporting trunks. When you go to the Botanical Garden you’ll see what I mean. It has its own life—but so do the snakes and birds and bees and lizards and termites that live in it and on it and off it.” … “Of course, it’s also like the Ganges in its upper, middle and lower courses—including its delta—of course.” A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth in its meandering ways still endears to the readers even 28 years after its publication, so much so that BBC decided to create a mini series based on the novel which was released last year.

Had this book with its Hindi translation been published an year before, my Grandmother would have thoroughly enjoyed the story reflective of the period of her youth and the good and the bad times – she would have also shared her stories, tales similar to what Vikram Seth has told. And I would have loved those stories!

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