A Suitable Boy

Vikram Seth's novel reviewed
By Ali Lakhani

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"You too will marry a boy I choose." These words are spoken by Mrs. Rupa Mehra ('Ma') to her daughter, Lata, at the wedding of Savita (the other daughter) to Pran Kapoor, a lecturer in English at the local university in Brahmpur, a fictitious town which is the setting of this acclaimed novel by writer, Vikram Seth.

A Suitable Boy is the latest offering in the protean oeuvre of the Calcutta-born, Oxford and Stanford-educated Seth, whose previous works include three volumes of poetry, a travelogue (From Heaven Lake, which describes how Seth hitchhiked four thousand miles across China from Nanjing to Delhi via Tibet and Nepal in 1981), a play (Lynch & Boyle, set in Molieresque alexandrine couplets) and a novel (The Golden Gate, comprising some 600 interlinked sonnets in iambic tetrameter modelled on the stanza form of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin).

The travelogue was hailed by New Statesman as 'the perfect travel book' and earned its author the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1983. The previous novel drew for its author comparisons with the works of Pope and Byron, and was described by Gore Vidal as 'the great California novel.' Seth's poetry has won him two Commonwealth Poetry Prizes, while his new novel—his first in prose—has already drawn comparisons with the likes of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Austen, and has earned over $1 million in advances, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a prominent spot on most bestseller lists (the book apparently went into three printings within weeks of its publication in Britain).

The inspiration for the novel was apparently the character of Mrs. Rupa Mehra (an Austenian equivalent of Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice), who is modelled after Seth's own grandmother. The central story deals with Mrs. Rupa Mehra's attempts to find a 'suitable' husband for Lata, whose notion of what is suitable does not necessarily coincide with that of her mother. For Ma, Lata's suitor must be of the right religion (Hindu) and caste (khatri) and must have a good family background, education and job, and must not be too dark in complexion. Lata, like her sister, is expected to conform to the view that Mother knows best, and to accept in marriage only a husband approved by Ma. Like the vine after which she was named, Lata is expected to cling, first to her family, then to her husband.

As the novel progresses, three suitors emerge, not all of whom are acceptable to Ma. One, Kabir Durrani, is the suitor of Lata's dreams, intelligent and good-looking, but with whom marriage would by her family's standards be unthinkable because he is Muslim. Another, Haresh Khanna, is a khatri boy approved by Ma, a practical, straightforward and hardworking businessman in the shoe trade, but hardly Lata's ideal of a husband, and not acceptable to her haughty eldest brother, Arun Mehra (a brown Sahib and one of the few privileged Indians employed by a prestigious British trading company in Calcutta), who views Haresh as an unsophisticated upstart, a mere cobbler. The third suitor; Amit Chatterji, is related by marriage to the Mehras. He is the brother of Meenakshi, Arun's wife, and is a celebrated minor poet who has abandoned the law, for which he was trained, in favour of the arts. Being a Chatterji, Amit has the support of Arun and Meenakshi, but not of Mrs. Rupa Mehra who sees the Chatterji children as frivolous and insensitive.

Seth did not intend this to be a long novel, although at over 1,300 pages and nearly 800,000 words, the book turned out to be longer than War and Peace. As he wrote his story about Mrs. Rupa Mehra's quest for a suitable husband for her daughter, Seth found that he was unfolding a vast canvas of landscapes and characters, seemingly as wide and varied as India itself. Each of these is lovingly recreated and explored, not with the swashbuckling penmanship of a Rushdie, but with an urbane virtuosity and realism of detail that achieves the same sweep as Midnight's Children, but in slower motion.

Dealing with the interconnected lives of four Indian families (the Mehras, Kapoors, Chatterjis and the Khans) following Partition and leading up to the first great Indian elections of 1952, the book takes us from landscapes that range from squalid to opulent, and characters that range from desperate peasants to idle super-sophisticates. The story is told in scenes that shift between Brahmpur and Calcutta, with sorties to Kanpur, New Delhi, Lucknow, Banaras, and some district towns and remoter district villages. There are detailed descriptions of the natural landscape (Seth is a skilled natural historian and provides his reader with impressive details of ornithology and flora), of the shoe trade (Seth's father is a consultant in the leather industry), of proceedings in the Provincial Legislature and the courts (Seth's mother is a judge at the High Court in Delhi), of religious celebrations (Holi, Pul Mela, Dussehra, Muharram and Bakr-ld, among others) and of Indian music (in particular, a vivid recounting of a ghazal performance by the courtesan, Saeeda Begum, which appears at the beginning of the story, and which captures the mood and interaction between the singer and the audience that is typical of Indian music parties).

The book is animated by the presence of many memorable characters: there is Lata's grandfather, the irascible Dr. Kishen Chand Seth ('Kishy,' who tyrannizes the world but melts like ghee in the presence of his young wife, Parvati); Lata's younger brother, Varun (who is cowed by his domineering elder brother, Arun, and who is happiest in the company of his 'Shamshu'—drinking and gambling friends); Lata's brother-in-law, Pran (whose attempts to influence the English faculty at Brahmpur University are continually thwarted by the whale-like Professor Mishra); the child prodigy, Bhaskar Tandon (who is happiest when discussing obscure mathematical matters with the eccentric and absent-minded Dr. Durrani); Pran's father, the acerbic Mahesh Kapoor, Minister of Revenue of Purva Pradesh (whose passion is politics and in particular the implementation of the Zamindari Abolition Bill for the expropriation of landholdings as part of an economic redistribution scheme on behalf of the Congress Party); Pran's brother, the carefree and prodigal Maan (whose obsession with Saeeda Begum provides the impetus for an important part of the plot); the Nawab Sahib of Baitar (one of the anachronistic Muslim gentry haunted by the glories and secrets of the past); the boorish Raja of Marh (who is dangerous and comic at the same time); and the irrepressible madcap Chatterjis (with their fizzy brilliancies).

As the story is told—of Lata and her suitors, of Maan and his foibles, of Mahesh Kapoor and his political battles—there emerges a picture of the stresses and constraints that infuse and make up the Indian mind, a picture in the end of India itself. To define what is 'suitable' is to place oneself in society, to define one's balance amid certain tensions. There are the tensions of caste (between the jatavs, chamars, khatris, banias and brahmins), of religion (not only in the story of Lata and Kabir, but also in the incidents that presage the calamitous Hindu-Muslim riots that took place over the Bhabri Masjid in Ayodhya last year), of politics (for example, in the multifaceted discussions among the proponents and opponents of the Zamindari Abolition Bill), of status (not only in the snobbishness of Arun Mehra, but also in the rivalry of the classical and popular musicians, each of whom strives for the patronage of the gentry), and of gender (depicting a patriarchal world where a visible—or invisible, yet no less effective—purdah shrouds the lot of women).

It is in his ability to identify and explore these tensions through his characters that Seth demonstrates the true richness of the book, and enables thereby to elevate the novel, to make it more than merely a fine comedy of manners. Admittedly, there are no deep anatomisations here. Rather, there is the magic of interesting characters who come alive for us in a world into which we as readers get drawn, whose failings we understand, whose tensions we share. Throughout, the author remains unobtrusive, seeking (as is implied by the two quotations from Voltaire that preface the book) not so much to explicate as to attentively observe, letting his characters speak for themselves, yet portraying them with a sympathy and intimacy that makes us sorry in the end to let them go.

Seth is one of that new breed of writer referred to by Pico Iyer in his recent Time magazine article titled The Empire Writes Back. It is refreshing to note that this is neither the work of an Indian 'outsider' (such as a Mukherji or Naipaul) nor of a non-Indian 'insider' (such as a Jhabvala or Scott). It is however a book about India and Indians that is neither condescending nor judgmental, told by an Indian 'insider' (another example is Rohinton Mistry) who writes with an amphibious dexterity that puts both the Indian and non-Indian reader alike at ease. While there are no doubt some nuances of meaning that would be lost to those unfamiliar with the Indian culture (for example, the appropriateness of the fattabla player being named 'Motu Chand,' or the rustic fibber being nicknamed the 'guppi'), this is a work that is written with an intelligence and simplicity that renders it accessible to all readers.

Nor should the reader be intimidated by the size of the book. Despite its appearance, this book has a buoyancy that might easily lead the critic to (unjustifiably) misconstrue its content as lightweight. This buoyancy is achieved in both structure and content by a combination of rhythm, mood and humour. The rhythm of the book is modulated by its division into nineteen parts, each nicely subdivided into manageable morsels for the reader, while the author bounces back and forth, in thrust and parry, between the different stories he is telling, not allowing any one story to stale by too great an insistence on any one aspect of the plot. The mood of the book as a whole is optimistic (as in his previous novel, Seth manages to handle grief in a touching manner without either trivialising or wallowing in it), which derives in no small measure from the fact that most of the characters are young (the widow, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, for instance, is only 45 years old when the story begins) as it does from the author's use of comic verse and humour. From the Table of Contents to the numerous poems and rhyming couplets which intersperse the story (the Chatterjis have a habit of firing off rhymed couplets in ordinary conversation, for example: 'Rhyming, rhyming so precisely/Couplets, they are coming nicely'), the verse contributes to a sense of levity. Seth's use of humour is a definite highlight of the book. There are so many comic characters and hilarious conversations that appear in the novel, that for this aspect alone the book is to be recommended. The characters of Mrs. Rupa Mehra, Kishy, the Raja of Marh and Biswas Babu are truly Dick-ensian. And when Seth leads us to the breakfast table of the Chatterjis, it is like having stepped in mid-performance into the drawing room of an Oscar Wilde comedy.

In the end, Seth's genius lies in drawing the reader into his world, and telling his story in a straightforward and compelling manner through generous and intimate characterizations that reflect a reality as complex and panoramic as India itself.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Ali Lakhani
Ali Lakhani is a lawyer and a writer living in Vancouver.
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