When BBC dropped the trailer for its latest mini-series ‘A Suitable Boy’, an adaptation of Vikram Seth’s popular book by the same name, my interest was piqued. A few days later, when a friend learnt I hadn’t read the book, I was upbraided and informed it’s a book worth devouring.
Well, it has taken me exactly 10 days (and nights) to read this magnum opus of sorts, which is spread over a laborious 1500 pages and is set in the 1950s India, when the country was still settling into its newly attained freedom from the clutches of the British Raj. However, most of the plot unfolds in the fictional city of Brahmapur.
The book primarily focuses on three families that are linked to each other through marriage. First we have the Mehras, led by an emotional widowed Mrs Mehra, whose sole purpose in life is to find a ‘suitable boy’ for her younger daughter Lata, after she marries off the older one to a good Kapoor boy. The Kapoor clan is headed by the practical Congressman Mahesh Kappoor, who is vexed by the antics of his free-wheeling younger son Maan. The third family comprises of the Chatterjees, who are seated in Calcutta, an intellectual-poetic lot, who break into impromptu little ditties and talk in riddles.
While the easiest way to describe this book is by calling it a ‘quest’ of an Indian mother to find an apt groom for her daughter, Vikram Seth spares no theme under the sun to fill its pages. And declaring that it is merely a book about groom-hunting would do it gross injustice.
What struck me the most about the first few pages was the way ‘fair complexion’ was given so much importance, and how the central character – Lata, was pitied at for being dusky. It irritated me as a reader, but of-course ‘fair-skin obsession’ is a reality even in the 21st century. And that is what makes ‘A Suitable Boy’ such a delightful read, it takes place almost a century ago, well 70 years ago at least, yet, the themes it explores are so relevant even now. The fixation of Indian parents about finding the ‘right match’ for their children; the rising tensions between Hindus & Muslims; the uncomfortable caste equations that divide communities; the rampant corruption plaguing the political class; lascivious uncles molesting minors; toxic bullying in boarding schools; extramarital affairs and accidental pregnancies; mental health issues that are not taken seriously and what not. Reading this book made me feel like perhaps we are still stuck in the 1950s, just under better technological conditions.
Quite frankly, I couldn’t make myself like Lata much. For an educated nineteen-year-old, she is too emotional and weak-willed; one day she proclaims she ‘never wants to marry’ and the next day she is already head-over-heels in love with the first handsome man who gives her some attention. For someone who is portrayed as shy and intelligent, going on dates with a man without even bothering to find out what his full name is, seemed too out of character. Perhaps Seth tried to pander to readers and make the novel exciting, even though he had plenty of opportunities to do so throughout the course of the book and yet he chose to be rather austere & discreet in his descriptions of the love affairs of the other protagonists.
It looks like Seth deliberately played it safe with his novel and didn’t venture into anything that could be branded scandalous. The book came out in the early 1990s, after all. Despite striving to be conservative in his narrative, there is a lot of subtle hinting that Maan Kapoor shares more than a platonic friendship with his male ‘best friend’ Firoz. It is implied that the two men had an intimate friendship when they were younger. So there are a few fleeting scenes of homo-eroticism, that might even be missed by most readers. For example, the first such scene in the book was not between Maan and Firoz, but with the Rajkumar of Marh; the prince makes a sly pass at Maan but the latter laughs it off and warmly warns the prince against repeating his action (he strokes Maan’s thigh). But I liked how Maan seems to be very comfortable with his sexuality and is probably pan-sexual. However it’s his heterosexual attraction towards the devastatingly charming Saeeda Bai the singer that reigns supreme in his heart. In-fact, Maan who is intended to be the liveliest character, is indeed the most likable of all the hundreds of people that make their appearances in the book, despite his fatal flaws.
Another character that I liked was that of Haresh Khanna, a prospective candidate for Lata’s hand. While he is almost caricature like, there’s a lot to him that’s so ordinary, that it makes him lovable. He is a hard-working self-made man, who is honest to a fault and overtly optimistic. Lata’s older pompous prick of a brother is vehemently opposed to him as a potential suitor, owing to the superficial fact that he has an Indian accent and is not from a distinguished family. This bit brings me to another facet of the novel- most of the story takes place in the upper echelons of the Indian society. The Chatterjee patriarch is an affluent high-court judge in Calcutta, while the Kapoor head of family is a minister in the cabinet of Purva Pradesh, the fictional state of which Brahmapur is the capital. So there are a lot of fancy parties and interesting nightly jaunts that serve as excellent distractions for the younger players in the book.
Owing to the gargantuan scale of the book, Seth has the luxury of drawing each protagonist in a way that the reader begins to recognize who is who, even if they forget their names. I’ve always had this trouble with Jane Austen novels, where I would have trouble recognizing people, since she always crowds her stories with many individuals. This was not a challenge with Seth’s book. I would sometimes do a double-take at a name but then understand who it was due to the dialogue.
My biggest problem with the book is that it unnecessarily delves into a lot of sub-plots and some of the descriptions are so expansive that they serve no purpose at all and do nothing to further the plot. “For example, if Y is going to the market, Seth takes two pages to describe just the market and the shops, that’s just too much!” I complained to a fellow reader. Seth also goes into too many details of political canvassing in rural areas, which was absolutely boring in my view. I think I must have skipped a total of 100 pages, if not more, throughout the course of reading this book. That’s still less than 10% of the book, but even then, it’s just frustrating to know that a writer took so much effort into writing things that just don’t matter. Seth could have chopped 300/400 pages off this book and it would have probably gained more readers. The kinds who would run the other way by just looking at the book’s size.
It’s Seth’s effortless writing style and the delightful poetry that is peppered throughout the novel that makes ‘A Suitable Boy’ a fun reading experience. A lot of philosophical insights are injected in between, either borrowed from other English masters (and fairly attributed) or from the corners of Seth’s own mind. Sample this –
The girl persisted: ‘Don’t you remember?’
Amit suddenly became voluble. ‘I am so forgetful—’ he said; ‘—and forgettable,’ he added quickly, ‘that I sometimes wonder if I ever existed. Nothing I’ve ever done seems to have happened. . . .’
As a forgetful person myself, I could quite relate to these lines, for if we don’t remember certain things, maybe they never happened at all? Our memory obliterates their existence. I wondered if Seth fashioned the character of Amit Chatterjee, the poet, after himself. But a little reading up revealed that it’s the youngest of the Chatterjees, the 13-year-old Tapan, who was inspired from Seth’s own experiences at a boarding school. In an unexpected little twist, it is revealed that Tapan is the object of obsession of a senior boy, who spares no efforts in harassing him or feeling him up. A fact that he finally confesses to his second brother Dipankar in tears. The affection, proximity and understanding between all sets of siblings in the book is quite endearing.
What is worth mentioning here is the unique relationship shared between each couple that appears in the book. Women are not just mere household fixtures, and in some relationships, it’s the lady of the house that calls the shots. I enjoyed the brief but fiery appearances of Begum Abida Khan who is a MLA in the opposition and constantly tears into her Congress rivals in the Assembly. While there are docile characters who are completely overshadowed or oppressed by their husbands, there are also carefree women on the other side of the spectrum, who refuse to be chained by the ties of matrimony or to one man.
Seth does a lot of brilliant juxtaposing in the novel, on one page you would read about the lively jazz nights in the ‘city of joy’, but after a few pages there would be a religious congregation gone wrong in Brahmapur; young men would be slitting each other’s throats and filling the streets with corpses. At one point, I felt like the writer overdid the religious rioting, even though each one is written in a chilling and gripping manner. How an innocent celebration can turn into bloody carnage is succinctly described. Amid this madness and chaos, all the Mehra matriarch can think of is the matrimonial prospects of her youngest darling Lata.
Despite finding myself skipping pages at points, never did I think of abandoning the book altogether. The narrative kept me hooked. It’s a kind of love-hate relationship that you share with someone you love, they are not going to be interesting all the time, there will be times when you’d desperately need a break from them, they would bore you, irritate you and tire you out, but you would still go back to them and stay with them till the end. Reading Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ was like that.
P.S. If contemporary fiction & short-stories interest you, following are the links to my latest book ‘Love, Loss, Lockdown’ –
If I’ve missed your country, look for it on Amazon or on your kindle store.
Lovely review! Wanted to read the book. Haven’t been able to yet! Now I have to!
It’s definitely worth checking out. A friend of mine wants to read it a second time.