Friday, February 17, 2012
Book Review - Contemporary Classics - A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth’s gigantic (it’s close to 1,500 pages) novel, A Suitable Boy is set in Brahmpur, a fictionalized Northern Indian city on the banks of the Ganges River. The action takes place from about 1950 to 1952, four to five years after India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. As such, there’s been a lot of political turmoil in India, with Partition, etc., but even though politics plays a big role in the lives of the characters, Seth never lets politics dominate his story. A Suitable Boy is, first and foremost, a book about people.
The book opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra and Pran Kapoor, two people who are entering into an “arranged” marriage and have barely laid eyes on each other prior to their wedding day, something that doesn’t seem to bother either bride or groom. The mother of the bride, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, who might be said to be the character around whom the book revolves, informs her younger daughter, Lata, that she, too, will someday marry “a suitable boy” her mother chooses. Lata, however, has ideas of her own.
The wedding of Savita and Pran, like the wedding of Arun Mehra and Meenakshi Chatterji, which took place prior to the book’s opening, helps in uniting the novel’s four main families: the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans. Seth has provided a family tree in the front of the book, but readers soon learn “who belongs to whom” and there’s no confusion when reading the novel. As the reader follows the triumphs and tribulations of the four main families, India during transition impacts their lives, and a richly textured portrait of life among the upper middle classes on the subcontinent emerges.
Although a part of the book, of course, follows Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s quest to find “a suitable boy” for Lata, and Lata’s quest to choose a husband for herself, this story thread is by no means the only one in the novel. Maan Kapoor, the younger brother of Pran, might be said to play as large a role in the novel as do Mrs. Rupa Mehra and Lata. And it’s Maan, primarily, through his friendship with the lawyer Firoz Khan, who unites the Hindus and the Muslims in A Suitable Boy.
Everything these characters do impacts the lives of the other characters. All the lives seem intertwined, and the reader gets to know everyone just about equally. For example, when Pran falls ill, it’s not only the Mehras and the Kapoors who are involved. The Chatterjis have reason to visit the patient as well, and Pran’s physician is none other than Imtiaz Khan, the twin brother of Firoz, Maan Kapoor’s best friend. I loved the way Seth intertwined the lives of his characters. It drew me more fully into the book.
The themes in A Suitable Boy are family themes, of course, but the book also abounds in political themes given the fact that it’s set in India only a few years after independence and partition. I admit to being least interested in the political sections, but still, I did find them somewhat interesting, and there’s no doubt they were well written. We see, though the eyes of the book’s characters, the struggles between Hindus and Muslims, between governmental parties, between the city and the countryside. India is in the process of defining itself, without the British and without the northern states that were partitioned to Pakistan. Most of the time, when reading the political sections of the book, I just wanted to hurry and get back to reading about the characters I’d grown to love, though I didn’t skip any sections, and really never wanted to, long as the book is.
The caste system in India might be confusing to some readers, though Seth doesn’t make it overly so. I knew the upper classes wanted their sons and daughters to marry within the same class, but I didn’t know the difference between brahmins and khatris, for example, and really, I still don’t know completely. I just know they usually don’t intermarry, though one couple in the book, the already mentioned Arun Mehra and Meenakshi Chatterji, are a khatri and a brahmin. I learned that “Mehra” is a khatri name.
While Seth lets us know that “caste matters” in 1950s India, he doesn’t over-burden the Western reader with details. What came as an even bigger surprise to me was that lighter-skinned Indians were very strongly opposed to the darker-skinned Indians, and I was even more shocked when a friend from Sri Lanka assured me this is still true today. I was a little shocked when Mrs. Rupa Mehra told Lata in no uncertain terms, “I will not have a black grandchild.” However Meenakshi Chatterji is described as being quite a bit darker skinned than the Mehras, and Mrs. Rupa Mehra dearly loves Meenakshi’s daughter, Aparna, so I guess complexion wasn’t always a factor in the choice of marriage partner.
Some people have criticized A Suitable Boy as being “too sentimental” and “not gritty enough.” It’s true that Seth only glossed over the gritty underworld and the petty criminal element that form a part of any large city in any country, but I think he can be forgiven for that. This book isn’t meant to be a police procedural or a detective novel. It’s not, for instance, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, which does take a close look at a police detective in modern day Mumbai. And, Seth was writing about the upper middle classes and the upper classes. The characters in this book aren’t the kind of people who are going to become involved with the criminal element. That said, there was some glossing and sugar-coating in this book. The women, for example, were too free to do as they pleased, even the Hindu women. Lata Mehra, for example, an unmarried, nineteen-year-old girl, at one point, accompanies Amit Chatterji to his bedroom in the Chatterji mansion. Granted, it was entirely innocent, and they were only going to look at some of Amit’s books, but really, in 1951 India, I don’t think any nineteen-year-old girls would be accompanying thirty-year-old men to their bedroom for any reason. This didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book in any way, though.
Seth’s prose is plain and unadorned, and that’s as it should be. In a book this size, anything else would stand out and become difficult. The author even employs a third person, fully omniscient narrator, and it works. Perfectly. I can’t imagine the story being told any other way.
Although this book is one of the longest I’ve ever read, it’s not a difficult read, and the pages fly by. I found myself fully engaged with the characters by the end of page 1, and I hated to put the book aside every night to go to sleep. The book, and the characters, became my constant companion, and I was truly sorry to see the novel end.
A Suitable Boy is a beautiful book. It’s Dickensian in scope, and it will pull you in and keep you there for the duration. It’s become one of my all time favorites. I really can’t praise it highly enough.
Recommended: Readers who love big, old-fashioned books that really tell a whopping good story will no doubt love this one. Don’t let its length scare you away. The pages fly by, and you'll love spending time with these characters.
Note: Seth is publishing A Suitable Girl in 2013, which will tell the story of eighty-year-old Lata’s search for “a suitable girl” for her grandson. I can’t wait to meet a Lata who will be old enough, in the new book, to me the mother/grandmother of Mrs. Rupa Mehra (Lata’s mother) in A Suitable Boy. It will be interesting to see how Lata has evolved.
Edit: It's been several weeks since I've finished this book, and I really miss both the story and the characters. It's that kind of book.