Reprise Books

‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth

Flames: A scene from the upcoming BBC adaptation.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When poet and writer Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was first published in 1993, with a gorgeous Varanasi silk sari on the cover and gossamer pages, the excitement was palpable. It had been in the works for eight years, and whispers of a phenomenal advance added to the buzz. Seth mentioned the length — it runs into 1,349 pages — and the price tag (₹500 at the time), in his rhyming word of thanks: “Buy me before good sense insists/ You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.” Twenty-seven years later, and as the Mira Nair-helmed BBC production is here, what does it offer to a new generation of readers? The deeply-researched history of a young country drawn into a story is a wonderful starting point.

Panoramic view

Set in newly-independent India of the 1950s as it prepares for the first general elections, at the centre is a love story, of Lata Mehra. Her mother is searching for a suitable boy for her to marry. The Mehras live in the fictitious town of Brahmpur (in Purva Pradesh state) and the story revolves around three other families — the Kapoors, the Khans and the Chatterjis. But as Seth describes their lives — the Kapoors, Mehras and Chatterjis are related by marriage — it’s a panoramic view of the thousands of strands that make up India: mindsets, culture, religion, caste. What is eerily familiar is that some of the biases are still intact more than 70 years after Independence.

Seth’s magnum opus talks about an India which has recently become free from colonial rule, but in the shadow of Partition, tensions simmer. When the irrepressible Mrs. Rupa Mehra comes to know of Lata’s friendship with Kabir Durrani, for instance, she implodes, “What did I do in my past life to bring this upon my beloved daughter?”

The story begins with a wedding, of Savita (Lata’s sister) and Pran Kapoor, who teaches English literature and loves James Joyce, and is the son of the Minister of Revenue, Mahesh Kapoor. Father Kapoor is intent on getting the Zamindari Abolition Bill passed, which would inevitably ruffle feathers. He is particularly concerned about his friend, Nawab Sahib of the Khan family, who would lose land if the bill came through. Kapoor is also worried about his younger son, Maan, who falls in love with the beautiful musician/courtesan, Saeeda Bai, who sings thumris for him. In Calcutta, Lata’s older brother, Arun, is married to Justice Chatterji’s daughter, Meenakshi, and thereby hangs another tale.

Allegory of nationhood

Lata has to choose between three suitors — Kabir, Amit Chatterji (Meenakshi’s brother, England-returned and fluent in verses) and Haresh Khanna, a self-made professional in the shoe trade. By the time she makes up her mind, a lot of water has flown down the Ganga, a key character, and unimaginable violence erupts, announced with these ominous words in the contents: “The flames of Karbala and Lanka blaze/ Igniting madness through the city’s maze”. Some of the madness is because old wounds are reopened, a flare-up over a mosque/ temple, to give one example. Yet there are several people who work hard to bring about harmony, with Gandhi’s words lingering in the background, “Uth jagh musafir bhor bhayi…— Rise, traveller, the sky is light./ Why do you sleep? It is not night.”

In An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, Jon Mee, analysing the post-Salman Rushdie/ Midnight’s Children writers, calls Seth’s novel “classic realism,” but says despite that it is difficult not to see it “as an allegory of nationhood…, subscribing to an idea of Indian history as a progress towards the goal of a secular, commercial society in the image of conventional Western models of national development.” Although Lata shows signs of independence, “the novel is ultimately one of conformity and what it represents as the inevitability of bourgeois life,” argues Mee.

Critics have compared Seth to the greats, from Tolstoy to George Eliot and Goethe. One called him the “best writer of his generation.” Seth told The Washington Post, “The kinds of books I like reading are books where the authorial voice doesn’t intrude too much — 19th-century novels, and some 20th-century novels as well. They don’t try to pull you up with the brilliance of their sentences as much as pull you into a world.”

For some years now, Seth has been working on a sequel, A Suitable Girl, with Lata now a grandmother. India, a land of million mutinies, as V.S. Naipaul said, faces new and old challenges, and Lata and her creator’s work is cut out.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 1:04:56 AM |

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