My God, I love Vikram Seth’s writing. An Equal Music has been near the top of my “favourite books” list for ages, and often makes an appearance on my Desert Island list. A Suitable Boy may join it there.
I expected to like A Suitable Boy – besides Vikram Seth, it was recommended and loaned to me by someone whose opinion I trust and value. But I didn’t realise how absorbed in it I would become. I lived with those families while I was reading. I empathised with everyone (even Mrs Rupa Mehra, much as I wanted to strangle her at times). Once I reached the point where I had a handle on who was who, and who was connected to whom, there was very little that I wanted to do except find out what happened to them. And this was a little bit odd to me, because India doesn’t particularly interest me. I’ve never had a burning desire to go there, to learn Hindi or Urdu, to figure out the details of the caste system or the Raj. But after reading A Suitable Boy, I feel like I have a sense of India’s history – at least their colonial and post-Partition history. It’s kind of like Wild Swans in that way: Wild Swans gave me an incredible sense of 20th century China. I still don’t want to go there (although I wouldn’t say no), but I feel like I understand a little bit more about it.
It also helps me understand a little bit about one of my friends. A close friend of mine – one of my best friends since high school – is a first- generation Indian. Knowing her gave me a little bit of a basis for understanding the basics of the culture in A Suitable Boy, and reading it gave me a bit more of a sense of what her family life (may) be like. I’m not saying that her life is exactly like that, of course, because I don’t know – but her family lived through that time period in India, and I know that at least some of the underlying attitudes are still similar.
There’s so much to say about this book that I hardly know where to start. I suppose the first place to start is the story. It’s not a “story” in that it doesn’t have a “plot” in the page-turner sense. It’s more of an exploration – an exploration of the family events in some interconnected characters with an integrated background of the political and national events of India after Partition (into majority-Hindu-India and majority-Muslim-Pakistan). The main “story” is about the attempts to find a “suitable boy” for the youngest daughter of one of the families, but the book incorporates many other stories: political stories, personal stories, professional stories. If I wanted to be all philosophical and stuff, I’d say it’s an exploration of what makes someone “suitable”: who decides what is suitable, and in what situations? What is suitable in one situation is not necessarily suitable in another. What makes one person suited to another is what makes them anathema to someone else – sometimes someone else closely connected. What makes someone suitable for his (or her) profession may be what makes them unsuitable for something else. And sometimes what you think is suitable in the short-term may turn out to be unsuitable in the long-term. …..and now the word “suitable” and all related “suit-” based words look odd to me.
At the top, I mentioned Vikram Seth’s writing. He’s just amazing and captivating. He comes up with images that could be clichéd if anyone other than him used them, but when he does so, they are fresh and beautiful. The first one I noticed and marked – that sticks with me – is the image of 2s as “swan-like” – the exact quotation is something like “swan-like digits bumping into each other” (in the 2+2=4 idea). It makes me want to come up with creative images for all the other digits as well – and then personalities for the bigger, multi-digit numbers based on their digits’ images.
There are also just lines that make me giggle, like “Dipankar was fond of making remarks such as, ‘It is all the Void,’ at breakfast, thus casting a mystical aura over the scrambled eggs.” Mystical scrambled eggs amuse me. Also the inherent humour and imperialist attitude (on the part of the character, clearly undercut) in something like this: “Twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound was infinitely more logical than four pice to the anna and sixteen annas to the rupee.”
He’s also got a nearly perfect sense of character. I knew I was going to love Lata near the beginning, and my identification with her was cemented with this line in chapter 3: “ ‘Oh, I love you too,” said Lata, stating a fact that was completely obvious to her and therefore should have been obvious to him.” That is so much how I feel sometimes about my emotions that it’s almost scary. And the rest of the book carried that identification through – caught between doing what she wants to do and fulfilling the expectations of her family, caught between doing what she longs to do and doing what she knows or believes will be best long-term, even if it means short-term pain.
Seth is also really, really good at educating without lecturing. There were parts of A Suitable Boy that reminded me of Tolstoy, in the almost info-dump “state of the world” descriptions. But where Tolstoy puts lectures in the mouths or minds of his characters, Seth uses his characters to show the lectures. It’s a subtle distinction – and other people might see it as just as intrusive as Tolstoy’s – but to me, the information sections seemed more organic. It made sense for the political minister to ponder the state of the country when he was one of the authors of the land reform bill (and when a Muslim friend of his would be most affected by it). It made sense for the participants at a Hindu festival, or a Muslim festival, to reflect on the meaning and motivations for the festival. It made sense for the older women – both Hindu and Muslim – to think back to the struggles for independence and the chaos surrounding Partition. It felt natural to the characters, in a way that Levin’s agricultural obsession and reflections on the life of the peasants (in Anna Karenina) didn’t always.
There’s so much in this book – so many issues that it deals with, so many personality types it covers, so much history that it incorporates. After finishing it, I just wanted to read it again. One of the cover blurbs says that “it will stay with you for the rest of your life” – and that’s not an exaggeration.