‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth stayed on my bookshelf for the longest, of course owing to its intimidating length. But the hype about this book in the literary circles and amongst a group of book lovers always made me curious about what am I missing out on! And the Netflix series only resurrected whatever popularity was lost for this book, which was published in 1993.
So, earlier this year, I pledged to read ‘A Suitable Boy’ and to get over with the hoopla and my fear of its length.
‘A Suitable Boy’ is simple in structure and complicated in its narrative with manifold stories within one. Even with 1474 pages, it isn’t confusing as the story-telling flows linearly, but sadly, I didn’t find anything exceptional.
Owing to its length, I read a cross-section of characters set in an extraordinary timeline of newly independent India. The best part about this book is the true Indian flavour it offers to the readers and the timelessness of the story. The budding romance between Lata and her three suitors against a backdrop of a huge family saga with festivities and some squabbles constitutes the core of the story. Every aspect of Indian living, barring perhaps the long letters remain unchanged till today.
The story is set in the fictional town of Brahmpur in a fictional state ‘Purva Pradesh’, quite like Uttar Pradesh. Rest of the places in the story are real – Kanpur, Delhi, and Calcutta.
India has got its independence and Nehru is the popular, charming Prime Minister of the country. Religious tensions lurk in the background at large and come to the forefront in smaller towns like Brahmpur. The Hindu-Muslim relationship during the early post-independence days sit on a tinder box. Not just in the personal realm but also in the political space.
Mr.Mahesh Kapoor is a major politician from the area, civil and highly committed towards his work. His views run contrary to his deeply religious wife. Pran and Maan are his sons. Pran is married to Mrs.Rupa Mehra’s elder daughter.
Mrs. Rupa Mehra holds the other spectrum of the narrative. She is a widow, the hyperactive religious-motherly stereotypical Indian woman set to find a suitable boy for her younger daughter, Lata. Her elder son is married to the daughter of the Chatterjis and is settled in Calcutta. The entire quest is to find a suitable boy for Lata.
Inside my head, I could see the family trees growing and branching and bringing clarity to my reading. Or, perhaps vice versa – clarity springing up family trees inside my head! The two main trees to be remembered are Kapoors – Mahesh Kapoor, his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law. And the second with Mrs. Rupa Mehra. Add the Calcutta bit with her son, Arun and his wife Meenakshi and their daughter Aparna and Meenakshi’s whole family and her social circle.
Back to Brahmpur, these are the days of courtesan culture. Saeeda Bai, the most infamous courtesan of Brahmpur takes the center-stage wooing young and old, wealthy men of the town. Through her, we get to read about Ghalib and Mast and thumris and ghazals. And a hint of exploitation and regressive societal norms. And Mahesh Kapoor’s son Maan has lost his heart to Saeeda Bai.
However, I wanted to come back to the blossoming idyllic love between Lata and Kabir, pulled away from each other by the socio-religious strings. Their togetherness at the literary circle meetings and listening to poems and boat ride to Barsaat Mahal viewing the beauty of the palace by the Ganges was beautiful to read.
But somewhere while I was engaged in the Lata-Kabir story, I was forced into the Chatterji household. A peculiar Bengali family with five grown-up children and a hostile dog. And by the time I had invested in the interesting Chatterjis’ of Calcutta, I was forced to come back to Brahmpur. The redemption here, I got to know the second suitable boy!
Lata has three choices – Kabir Durrani, the young handsome cricketer from her college but belonging to a different religion, second is Amit, the young almost famous poet and writer but a Chatterji, or the third, Haresh Khanna with his bad English accent and low-key professional profile.
“You’re throwing away the golden casket and the silver one, and you seem to think that you’ll be lucky with the bronze casket as your English literature tells you you’ll be.”
There are multiple storylines that you follow. There are love stories of the younger generation intertwined with the animosity of the older generation.
Politics is one of the mainstays in the book. There are instances of riots, the prejudices of the two communities and political incites. The efforts of the administration in curbing notorious incidents that are read beyond the line in the political circles. It takes you through the ups and downs of the post-partition period and while the Zamindari system was proposed to be abolished. Vikram Seth writes with ease about the Nehruvian period, critiquing him as a party leader and as Prime Minister. It is interesting to read about the ‘well-meaning’ Prime Minister of the country sending letters to the Chief Ministers about McArthur’s surrender and Egypt and suggesting formation of food committees.
The problem with the narrative is just when one has invested in a particular story, Vikram Seth forces you to devote yourself to other characters. I was excited reading about shoe manufacturing, office politics, and Praha (modeled on Bata) through Haresh’s character but then found myself coming back to something else. How does one keep an emotional connect with the characters if the stories are fragmented and you need to come back to the main thread after 200 pages?
But now that I look back on my reading, I think I could have easily finished reading it in a month at the most. ‘A Suitable Boy’ is an easy book to read with simple Indian characters full of colours and vibrancy – love stories, saas-bahu staples, friendships, familial relationships, best garden contests, a Pul Mela (kind of Kumbh Mela), shoe manufacturing, and a political contest. Perhaps, I set the expectation a bit too high that wreaked havoc, and I didn’t enjoy reading it as much. So, if you choose to read this book, expect a subtle romance intermeshed with many subplots and dive into the lyricality of this gigantic book.