A SUITABLE BOY
Vikram Seth (Phoenix Fiction: UK, ISBN 978-1-8579-9088-1)
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, famously one of the longest novels written in English, is a sprawling and eloquent tale of love, family, politics and any number of other themes, set around a fictional Indian city in the mid-1950s. Evoking Middlemarch with its breadth of characters, its thematic investigation of momentous political events and human relationships, and its realism, A Suitable Boy is, as its blurb alleges, a love story—but as with Middlemarch this love story does not emerge as expected. The novel, focusing on the Mehra, Kapoor, Khan and Chatterji families, contains many interlinking plot threads which draw slowly together and apart to form a magnificent story.
Beginning at the wedding of the widow Mrs Rupa Mehra’s eldest daughter Savita, A Suitable Boy is framed by Mrs Mehra’s quest to find a suitable husband for her youngest daughter, Lata. Other key plots include the Maan Kapoor’s pursuit of a seductive musician and his friendship with the Khan family; Savita’s marriage to Pran Kapoor; and the eldest of Mrs Mehra’s children, Arun, and his marriage to Meenakshi Chatterji. There are many tens of characters, all drawn beautifully. Seth guides them expertly in revealing his story and exploring its many themes.
Those unfamiliar with the 20th century history of India will have some difficulty contextualising this novel. It is set in the shadow of the violent Partition of India and Pakistan, less than ten years’ past at the novel’s commencement. The differences between Muslims and Hindus, and the lingering animosity between those communities, are a central theme to the novel. So too is the discovery of India’s identity in the wake of colonialism and the Partition. This is emphasised in several of the characters’ stories, as they discover their own identities and desires, and learn to shape their futures over the course of the novel. While it is touched upon rather than interrogated, a passing familiarity with the Indian caste system is also to be advised. This is not to fault the novel; Seth writes of his country and assumes the reader’s awareness of aspects India’s history and culture.
A Suitable Boy has lingered on my mind since I finished it. I intend one day to reread it. It is superbly written and subtly told. From the daily life of women inside the zenana to the state Congress chamber; from the traditional-living rural poor to the westernised urban elite, this novel explores life in all its forms with attention and care. I look forward to the planned sequel, estimated for release in 2016. In the meanwhile, I recommend A Suitable Boy to anyone with the time to commit to such an epic and moving work of fiction.