Monday 26 October 2009

77 - 'A Suitable Boy' by Vikram Seth

On the front cover of my copy of 'A Suitable Boy', there is a quote from 'The Times' saying:

"Make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life".

I'm sure it's meant as praise, but, with this book running to 1474 pages, it could just as easily be a warning to slow readers that this will not be a quick one. This book is very much an epic.

'A Suitable Boy' is storytelling at its best, the kind of novel not often seen since the rise of post-modernism and the demise of the great Victorian novel. The book is peopled with a whole cast of characters intermingling across the length and breadth of post-independence India. Through these connected stories, over the space of eighteen months, Seth explores the life of his home country and examines the political, social and religious institutions which existed after the departure of the English.

The story begins and ends with a wedding, and, in that sense, nods just as much in the direction of Jane Austen (who receives a few mentions throughout the book) as of Bollywood. However, despite the frequent allusions to British literature, it is Russian novels which come to mind; the multiple strands with characters appearing in several different cities and households is strongly reminiscent of the way 'Anna Karenina' makes use of its characters to broaden the reader's horizons.

Of the major plot-lines, the foremost one is, as you would expect from the title, a search for 'a suitable boy'. At the wedding of her elder daughter, Savita, in the (fictional) city of Brahmpur, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (or 'Ma', as she is known to one and all) decides that it is time to find a husband for her younger daughter, Lata. This 19-year-old student is, understandably, not overly pleased at the prospect of an arranged marriage and becomes even more obstinate when she falls in love with a fellow student she meets in a bookshop. However, as the story progresses, Lata's character develops, and she comes to see the importance of family and the necessity of pleasing everyone, not just oneself, when choosing a life partner. Eventually, she is faced with the choice of three men, each of whom wishes to make her his wife...

Each of the men has his good (and bad) points, and, predictably, each of them is connected to the main families of the story somehow. Kabir, a young Muslim student (and cricketer) who crosses paths with the Mehras at several points; Haresh, the English-educated shoe manufacturer whom Ma puts forward as her candidate for an arranged marriage; and Amit, the brother of Lata's sister-in-law and a published poet. Despite the great size of India, and its vast population, the mischievous Seth even manages to create a casual meeting for Lata's three suitors, of whom only Amit knows the intentions of the others (the fact that the meeting of Lata's three lovers occurs in Calcutta on the third day of the third cricket test between England and India is especially cheeky!).

The other main strand is the 1952 general election, the first 'real' election, after the rubber-stamping of Congress at India's first (restricted) election. The reader follows Mahesh Kapoor, the State Minister of Revenue, in his struggles of both power and conscience. While he is initially concerned merely with the passing of a law transferring land ownership from powerful local barons to the peasants who have tilled the land for generations, he gradually becomes disillusioned with the Congress party (which is being taken over by a right-wing Hindu element) and considers leaving the party.

Of course, in post-partition India, politics cannot be separated from religion, and the unprejudiced Kapoor becomes more and more dismayed by the increasingly heated nature of the political scene. Matters are not helped by the plans of the Hindu community to rebuild a Hindu shrine to the west of the local mosque - and install a giant statue of a phallus inside... This religious tension comes to a head when the festivals of Dusserah (Hindu) and Moharram (Muslim), taking place simultaneously by chance due to the Muslim use of the lunar calendar, cause blood to be shed in the streets of Brahmpur, events which will continue to have repercussions for the main characters.

The third main story concerns Kapoor's younger son, Maan, and his relationship with the courtesan, Saeeda Bai. His passionate love for the famed songstress and their subsequent affair lead to a break with his family and exile to the countryside while he sorts himself out (a move which, as with everything else in this book, has much wider ramifications than first expected). This forbidden love causes tension not only with Maan's family but also with their friends - especially the family of Nawab Khan of Baitar, which has its own links to the alluring Saeeda...

While I have outlined a few of the main plot strands, it would be impossible to discuss every sub-plot of this gargantuan book. I haven't touched on Pran's (Savita's husband) struggles with his health and his promotion prospects, Haresh's attempts to find a suitable position in the shoe-making industry, Mrs. Kapoor's ongoing attempt to win Brahmpur's best garden prize... All minor tales, yet inextricably linked to the main strands and, once the reader has immersed themself in the book, just as important.

For such a long novel, 'A Suitable Boy' is very easy to read. The story comes together as a whole so well, its structure so masterly, that the reader is compelled to press on as quickly as possible, desperate to find out what happens next. Like life itself, long sections seem to move on slowly with no real drama, only to be interrupted suddenly by chilling, unforeseen events. Good as the book is, however, there are a couple of criticisms that could be levelled at it. Firstly, this is not really a book which concentrates on characterisation (and if it had, it probably would have been a few thousand pages longer): with a few exceptions, most of the characters are described rather than felt, and the books stands on its storytelling rather than on the complexity of the psychology of its protagonists. It's also true that, as with many 'big' books, characters can go missing in action at times. With so many parallel settings to deal with, Seth handles this side of the writing well, but the reader can feel a few seconds of confusion when a character is reintroduced 300 pages after their last appearance. Amit, especially, is treated in a very cavalier way for such a major character.

However, these are minor quibbles, and the fact is that 'A Suitable Boy' is an incredible achievement. It is little wonder that Seth spent over a decade working on what was originally to be a short tale about Indian marriages. Anyone who reads it will quickly get caught up in the intricate web of interconnected lives, turning page after page in the hope of finding out how the election results will fall, whether Pran will get his promotion, who Lata will eventually choose...

As mentioned, the book finishes as it started, with a wedding, and we are able to compare the two scenes and the people present at both. Some are better off, some have loved and lost; there are some new faces, and some loved ones are no longer with us; some friends have fallen out while others have reconciled old differences. It seems as if all the loose ends have been tied up neatly for us by the end of the novel. And yet... The final scene, with Lata moving away on the train, looking back from the window but unable to see what is happening behind, is a metaphor for the reader's experience. Despite the apparently 'clean' ending, life goes on, and the characters we have come to love will continue their lives after we (finally) put the book down. Which is, in a way, slightly depressing :(

But there is good news in sight! According to Vikram Seth's wikipedia page, the novellist is tentatively planning to revisit his most famous novel, skipping a generation to look at Lata's attempts to find a good wife for her grandson; yay! This book is scheduled to be released in mid-2013 (by which time, any slow readers should have finally finished the original!). And the proposed name? 'A Suitable Girl', of course. I, for one, am counting the days...