A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

See below for my thoughts on this excellent novel, when and why I read it (twice!), and a list of other books I’ve read that are about India or by Indian authors.

My write-up of the premise, characters, themes and what I liked about the book contains some details about the characters that could be considered spoilers but does not give away the climax or resolution of the tale.

My thoughts on this book

Oh, where to start? Clocking in at 593,674 words, it’s longer than almost any other novel written in English (Les Misérables, War and Peace, and Remembrance of Things Past don’t count). Possibly it’s longer than any other book I’ve read. Even Atlas Shrugged is shorter, according to some reports, though wordcounts are finicky things…

  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: 593,674 words
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: 565,223 words
  • Gai-Jin by James Clavell: 487,700 words
  • A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin: 424,000 words
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: 418,053 words
  • Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: 401,905 words
  • The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan: 393,823
  • The Stone of Tears by Terry Goodkind: 391,375 words

Published in 1993 and set in the early fifties in India, A Suitable Boy is so full of characters and subplots that if it weren’t for the title, it would be easy to forget that it’s about a girl choosing from three suitors. Her name is Lata. The men who propose marriage to her are:

  1. Kabir, who she meets by chance and who makes her heart flutter. He’s a classmate, a cricket player, and unfortunately for Lata, a Muslim. She sneaks around with and kisses him. Lata’s spunky friend Malati is in favor of the match because she thinks passion trumps everything; Lata knows her Hindu family will never approve a mixed-faith marriage. Kabir, Lata and Malati act together in a production of Twelfth Night.
  2. Haresh, a prospect suggested by a friend of the family. He’s a practical, self-made man who works in the somewhat tainted footwear industry, and he keeps a photo of his Sikh sweetheart, to whom he writes letters, in his room. Lata’s mother is in favor of the match for most of the book because Haresh is responsible, hard-working and attentive.
  3. Amit, a brother of Lata’s brother’s wife. He’s a successful poet and someone Lata and her family are comfortable with, but moody and dependent on his own family and household. Amit’s siblings are in favor of the match because they think Amit and Lata understand and feel for one another.

It is helpful to refer to family trees to understand the relationships between the characters.

  • Rupa Mehra (Lata’s very sentimental doting mother)
  • Savita  (Lata’s elder sister, whose marriage begins the novel)
    • Pran (her English professor husband)
      • Maan (his undisciplined brother)
      • Veena (his sister)
      • Mahesh Kapoor (his father, an important but grouchy and conflicted politician)
  • Varun (Lata’s unsuccessful brother)
  • Arun (Lata’s arrogant brother)
    • Meenakshi (his selfish wife)
      • Amit (her poet brother)
      • Dipankar (her philosopher brother)
      • Kakoli (her social butterfly sister)
      • Tapan (another brother but not a major character)

One of the subplots involves Mahesh Kapoor’s political life. Through him, we get an earful about the Congress Party, Nehru, campaigns, elections, and so on. His pet piece of legislation, if approved, will dispossess major landholders, one of whom is the Nawab Sahib of Baitar, a good friend. Which party and which constituency should he represent in the elections? Will he succeed, and maintain or expand his influence? Can he do so without compromising his beliefs? Or his friendships and loyalties? And beyond that, will India’s entire political landscape improve or deteriorate?

Another involves Pran, his health, and his wrangling to improve the syllabus of the English department and secure a promotion in spite of an overbearing and powerful colleague. Can he provide for his wife and baby when even his own modest job becomes virtually impossible?

Another involves Haresh’s career. He is single-mindedly interested in doing the most of the best work he can and wants others to do the same. He sometimes fails because his pride and perfectionism does not countenance laziness, corruption, or disrespect. Will he find an employer who understands and values him for his experience, skill and dedication?

Another subplot, arguably the most important one, involves Maan’s love life. He falls for a well-known Muslim courtesan and becomes her lover in spite of his father’s disapproval. When he becomes a little too obsessed and possessive, she sends him into the countryside with an Urdu teacher, supposedly to learn her language. Does she love him? Whether she does or not, what will become of him? Will he ever make himself useful in any way—or will his impetuousness break lifelong bonds between a dozen of people and unsettle the lives of thousands more across the whole province?

Broad themes in the book are:

  • Religious tolerance in various contexts, especially relating to tensions between Hindus and Muslims, especially in the wake of post-partition violence.
  • The nature of religious practice, superstition, and secularism.
  • The role of women in their families but their changing roles in politics, education, and other public spheres.
  • The nature of happiness in the context of both arranged and non-arranged marriages.
  • The appropriate and inappropriate uses of political power and influence; just and unjust political structures.
  • The duties of and relationships between siblings, parents and children, and families with their in-laws.
  • The horrible, gut-wrenching, snowballing scope of unintended consequences.

The novel is a delight to read; I finished the last 15% of it by the simple expedient of sitting down and doing nothing else for almost an entire day.

I was glad I didn’t remember the resolution of the plots from having read the novel once, a decade before. (What stood out for me from that reading was the provocation felt by the Muslims as a result of the reconstruction of the Shiva temple, something about a guy who knew a lot about making shoes, and possibly a stampede at the Ganges.)

The characters are depicted with humor and kindness, from a precocious mathematical boy seeking names for all the powers of ten to the sentimental Mrs Rupa Mehra, who confers honorary Indian citizenship on Shakespeare while watching her daughter perform in Twelfth Night, but revokes it after a bawdy scene. The narration gives us insight into each major character’s thought patterns. Letters written by some of the characters are included, and they are fittingly and amusingly characteristic.

There are admirable bits of articulate cleverness embedded throughout; readers can enjoy everything from carefully selected and surprisingly apt nouns and adjectives to pithy proverbs to entire poems (including the table of contents in the paperback edition) that say just what they should, in the dialog of the characters and in the gently wry narration. There are even sentences about sentences that showcase awareness not merely of words but of the way they work. (Pran notices when ‘volunteer’ is used as a transitive verb.)

There are some words and phrases (such as ‘swaroop’) that will be unfamiliar to Western readers because they come from a foreign cultural context, but in general they are intelligibly used and can be deciphered in context, or are in fact explicitly but deftly explained. The five swaroops are the heroes of a Hindu play. Sherbet is not an ice-based desert like sherbert, but rather some kind of refreshing non-alcoholic drink; nimbu pani is lime juice.

The style is literary without being, as many reviews point out, experimental, post-modernist, or obscure. The tone of the book, even in moments of danger to the characters and their relationships, is contemplative, optimistic, and forgiving, rather than gritty, dark, or crude. The events of the plot are dramatic without being sensationalized; I felt that the characters were feeling their own (very plausible and natural) emotions, not being made alternately to feel artificial extremes of suffering and exaltation for the purpose of manipulating the emotions of the reader.

Does the book have a happy ending? I would say so, but I would also say that it depends quite a bit on the values that you bring to the narrative, and on how large a negative impact you allow the unhappy events to have. Certainly Seth takes time to wrap up all the loose ends of the story in a calmly satisfying way. And as one of the characters points out:

“[W]hether things are for the best or not, that’s how they are.”

A Suitable Girl, a sequel revolving around Lata as grandmother/matchmaker, is due to be released in 2017.

*Edit: After attending the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup discussion of this book, there are a few points I’d like to add:

  1. I’m told that Lata is based on Vikram Seth’s mother, which somewhat explains the subject matter of the sequel. It also goes a long way towards explaining why Lata takes a backseat in her own novel: she’s not the plot; she’s the premise. Maan, who I believe is not based on a real person, is the plot. He’s totally fictional, whereas Lata is real, so his choices can be bent to fit a narrative arc more easily than hers.
  2. Someone pointed out that many of the characters serve as foils for one another. Maan is the likable useless son/brother, whereas Varun (for most of the book) is the hangdog version. The Nawab Sahib is the responsible landlord, whereas the Rajah of Marh is the irresponsible one. Arun is ambitious and arrogant, whereas Haresh is ambitious, proud and even vain, but not arrogant. Meenakshi is the discontent wife, whereas Savita is the content wife.
  3. The book is about relationships between people and the consequences of characters’ actions on other characters, so if there is one theme to this intricate, sweeping book (and maybe there isn’t, or wasn’t intended to be), I would say that ‘interconnectedness’ fits the bill.

When and why I read it

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it.

Genre: Fiction (contemporary fiction, literary fiction)

This year:

  • Date started / date finished: 26-Dec-2015 to 24-Jan-2016
  • Length: 591,552 words (1,478 pages at  400 words/page)
  • ISBN: 9781780227900 (Kindle)

Previously:

  • Date started / date finished: 26-Mar-2006 to 14-May-2006
  • Length: 1474 pages
  • ISBN: 0060925000 (paperback)
  • Amazon link: A Suitable Boy

“Related” books

Below are listed books that are in my collection or that I have read by Indian authors or about India. (I have not read the ones listed in grey.) I read several of them before I traveled to India for three weeks in 2007, trying to get some sense of the history and culture.

  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  • The Conch Bearer (The Brotherhood of the Conch 1) by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (mid-grade novel)
  • The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (The Brotherhood of the Conch 2) by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (mid-grade novel)
  • Shadowland (The Brotherhood of the Conch 2) by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (mid-grade novel)
  • Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier (young-adult novel)
  • The Ramayana retold by William Buck
  • The Story of My Experiments with Truth by M.K. Gandhi (autobiography)
  • Suburban Sahibs by S. Mitra Kalita (non-fiction)
  • Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald (non-fiction)
  • India by Stanley Wolpert (non-fiction)
  • Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  • The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • The Bhagavad Gita of the Mahabharata