By Sahir Avik D’souza
This lockdown, I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Our copy, a hardback first edition from 1993, runs to 1349 densely packed, tissue-thin pages. I am a slow reader and it was only through a daily schedule and commitment that I read this book: it took me thirty-eight days. Perhaps it was the time, perhaps it was the book’s magnitude, but I became very involved in it and I felt I had come to know its people (and there are many people) intimately.
Almost any writing on this book comments on how long it is. It is the longest book I have ever read. And the funny thing about writing about such a very large book is that the normal rules of spoilers just cannot apply. If you were to say that talking about events in the first half of a book does not count as spoiling, then you should remember that half this book is already double the length of a short everyday novel. But if I were to only speak about what happens in the first hundred pages (which seem so long ago to me), then that would mean not having to mention significant characters who hadn’t appeared yet – including an entire family! So I will be eschewing all such rules altogether and if you plan to read this book in the coming weeks then you should skip this essay.
Does A Suitable Boy have a story? The short answer is no. But the long answer is that while it does not have a plot in terms of a rising and falling action, a single conflict and its resolution, it is the story of North India in the early 1950s, told through the lives, loves and jobs of a multitude of Indians, young and old, and a few foreign nationals. One of the first things you will notice when you open the book is a double-page of four separate family trees.
These, as the book’s jacket has also informed us, are the four central extended families of the book: the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans.
The closest focus is placed on the Mehras and the Kapoors: the book opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra and Pran Kapoor. We are introduced at this charming wedding to Savita and Pran’s families: Savita’s siblings Arun, Varun and Lata (who is the book’s heroine of sorts), their overbearing and loving mother Mrs Rupa Mehra, and their grandfather Dr Kishen Chand Seth; Pran’s siblings Veena and Maan (who is the book’s other leading protagonist), their parents Mahesh Kapoor and Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, and Veena’s husband, son and mother-in-law.
The Khans and the Chatterjis, despite taking up major chunks of the book, largely appear through their association with the Mehras and the Kapoors. Arun Mehra is married to Meenakshi Chatterji; the Khan patriarch, the Nawab Sahib of Baitar, is an old friend of Mahesh Kapoor’s.
And then as we begin to live with these characters, a multitude of others come in, as suitors, co-workers, political rivals or associates, employers, friends, professors and so on. Even Nehru makes an appearance! The characters, almost without exception, are beautifully drawn. They become flesh-and-blood people, with motivations, flaws and drive. Nearly everyone is given a chance to shine, so to speak, a moment in the spotlight, which Seth bestows generously all over his large stage.
But A Suitable Boy is also about India: a new, independent India. A young country, struggling to find its feet in a swiftly changing world. (This is also probably why the two principal protagonists are both young and, each in his and her own way, floundering and trying to find a path.) The book covers a year-and-a-half in the lives of its characters, roughly from late 1950 or early 1951 to April 1952. As Lata and her mother search for a suitable boy for Lata to marry and Maan’s love affair with Saeeda Bai Firozabadi the courtesan sets in motion various events in his life, India gears up for its first massive General Election in January 1952.
The General Election becomes a personal one for us, the readers because Maan’s father Mahesh Kapoor is an MLA from the Congress Party and Minister of Revenue for the invented state of Purva Pradesh. We see Mahesh Kapoor (who, like Mrs Rupa Mehra, Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, Mr Justice Chatterji and Dr Kishen Chand Seth, is always referred to by his full name) in this crucial year in his life when he comes up against forces of evil and discord both within and outside his party. He has been a freedom fighter and has served jail time in British India. He has now introduced the Zamindari Abolition Bill in the state legislature.
One of Mahesh Kapoor’s close friends is the Nawab Sahib of Baitar, a zamindar himself, who will have his enormous lands taken away should the Bill be made an Act and declared constitutional by the courts. And yet, and this is amongst the book’s many wonderful human portraits, the Nawab Sahib and Mahesh Kapoor do not let the devastating consequences of this piece of legislation come in the way of their decades-old friendship.
Their sons, especially Maan and Firoz, are fast friends. Indeed, Maan and Frioz’s friendship has in the past involved an affectionate fling as well.
Maan falls in love with Saeeda Bai, a courtesan who is patronised by the Nawab Sahib. Maan’s relationship with her, a woman ten years his senior and of a profession that would not be discussed in polite society, directs his life and the various decisions he makes. He is a young man without much professional ambition, but his personal relationships with those around him inform our understanding of him. His father thinks he is a wastrel, but he – Maan – is able eventually to come to his father’s aid during his election campaign. When Pran falls ill just as Savita goes into labour, Maan swings into responsible action during the long, detailed and very involving birth scene.
The book, of course, is devoted in large amounts to the story of Lata and Mrs Rupa Mehra. Lata, a student of English at the local university, falls in love with an entirely unsuitable boy (in her mother’s eyes), the Muslim Kabir Durrani. She also, in the course of the year, acquires two more suitors, one supplied by her mother and another by her brother Arun and his wife Meenakshi. Whom, if any, will Lata marry?
Lata’s life is most interesting because it is filled with women. Her father has died. She is influenced in her decisions and choices by her mother, her best friend Malati, her calm and supportive sister Savita, her sister-in-law Meenakshi and Meenakshi’s airy sister Kakoli. These women, each distinct, each fond of Lata, each harbouring a different opinion about the other women, are all part of Lata’s life in some way or another. They offer opinion, criticism, affection, suggestion, and conversation to Lata as she makes her way down the romantic and nuptial path women in her times were expected to tread.
Lata herself is an interesting woman. Quiet, but not oppressed, she is independent but not unconcerned. She loves her mother and is also exasperated by her. Their relationship forms the bulk of the book: a back-and-forth push-pull, as each one seeks the other’s approval while also wishing to assert her own will. Seth draws on his and his family’s experiences a lot: Mrs Rupa Mehra is based on his maternal grandmother; his mother’s life filters into both Lata and Savita.
I was especially fascinated by the various marriages in the book (unsurprising for a book whose primary focus is marriage): Pran and Savita, Arun and Meenakshi, Veena and her husband Kedarnath Tandon, Mahesh Kapoor and Mrs Mahesh Kapoor. Each is very different from the other, each is shaped by various influences; here, I will only talk about the
Significantly, Mrs Mahesh Kapoor is never given a first name. Her life and identity revolve around the force of nature that is her husband. It was an arranged marriage, of course, and so it is not built on foundations of mutual love, admiration or respect. However, when two people are made to spend their entire lives together and they don’t have any serious problems with one another, a certain dependence develops. Their marriage is a testament to Seth’s study of the times his book is set in.
The most telling episode in their relationship is when we learn that Mahesh Kapoor, who pooh-poohs his wife’s ritualistic faith, has her read him many of his parliamentary documents. This is because, in the new post- Independence India, a lot of speeches are written in Hindi, in the Devanagari script. Mahesh Kapoor was educated in pre-Independence India when the state language in North India was Urdu; so he can read the Urdu script fluently. His wife, on the other hand, was born in the first generation of women in her community who were taught to write by the Hindu revivalist organisation, the Arya Samaj, which naturally only taught the Hindi script. As a result, she, a housewife, not very well educated, and not in possession of her husband’s progressive irreligious views, is able to read political papers better than Mahesh Kapoor!
A Suitable Boy is a rich, many-splendoured book. It is a gigantic undertaking and it occasionally sags. But the thing to remember is that the sags will be different for everyone – if you love shoes, you may actually enjoy the detailed descriptions of shoe manufacture! What is striking as one reads is that this is not a book about a certain kind of India, but rather about some of the many Indias that exist. Seth takes us into the homes and lives of Chief Ministers and Justices, rich zamindars and wealthy courtesans, middle-class professors and students, Muslims and Hindus, poor untouchables and village children, settled upper-class English- speaking residents of Calcutta and destitute landless labourers. He is unafraid to draw complex characters, some of whom are immensely likeable and some of whom are deeply repulsive. And the detail, the expansiveness, begins to make sense.
Could parts of this book have been cut out? Yes, of course. The episode at Lata’s uncle Mr. Sahgal’s house, the character of Dr. Kishen Chand Seth, Tapan Chatterji’s school experiences – these could have been dropped without much being lost. But Seth’s endeavour is not to tell a focussed story but to describe the lives of this large bunch of people. And we all have elements of our lives that we wish we could do without. What shines
through, in all of this book, is Seth’s love of people and his love of India. I think anyone who loves one or both will find resonances in this big, big book.
Sahir Avik D’souza is a student and writer based in Mumbai. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @sahiravik