I just spent the last month reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, 1400+ pages long, ten years in its writing and finally published in 1993. I selected it because a) although not an award-winner it’s an English language classic b) I love epic novels and c) it’s about India. As a piece of literature it is unparalleled for both its scope and characterizations, and for Bollywood addicts it will seem both familiar and highly explanatory. A novel like this can provide insights into culturally-driven motivations that no film, even the most melodramatic ones, could handle. I simply adored it.
The time period is 1951-52 and the setting is (primarily) the fictional state of Purva Pradesh, in the the fictional city of Brahmpur, a large university town along the Ganges that seems to be a couple of days’ train ride to both Lucknow and the “big city” of Calcutta. The story centers on three extended and interrelated upper-middle-class families–the Mehras, the Kapoors and the Chatterjis–and their friends, the family of the Nawab of Baitar (the Khans). Every character in every family, as well as several of their friends, acquaintances and bosses, gets a narrative arc. Some of the tales are poignant, such as feckless and citified Maan Kapoor’s sojourn in a rural village where he learns some key life lessons, and a tragedy that befalls a young character during a religious festival. Some are joyful–I loved the story of Savita Mehra Kapoor’s pregnancy and birth experience. And, frankly, some of the narratives, particularly those discussing finance, verge on boring. Seth even inserts himself, as a character writing a very long and meandering novel.
Although the thread tying the novel together is Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s search for a suitable boy for her youngest child, Lata, to marry, it
actually ranges very widely from city to rural village, from politics to academia to industry, to religion and cultural customs, to fashion and movies and literature and food and gardening and law enforcement and astrology and…you get the picture. In fact, I can’t think of anything that isn’t addressed in some form in the novel. Love, or rather, marriage, is the book’s central theme, with Lata accumulating no less than three suitors and proposals and trenchantly observing several other marriages for clues as to which choice will be best for the life which she intends to lead. (interestingly–the choice of no-choice does not occur to her despite several unmarried-woman role models) Who will she choose? Will it be Amit Chatterji, the published writer ten years her senior but with whom she has so much in common? Or will her mother’s preference prevail–the up-and-coming shoe executive Haresh Khanna who has not a few personality flaws? Or will Lata follow her heart and marry Kabir Durrani, a fellow college student who is the one boy her family has deemed completely off-limits to her because of his religion?
Even though translating this novel to the silver screen would be absolutely impossible, I could see it done on television as a mini-series. In fact, it was released as an episodic, five-hour BBC radio play in 2002 with some actors Bollywood fans might recognize: Boman Irani, Roshan Seth, Rahul Bose and Ayesha Dharkar.
But as a novel it’s as entertaining and diverting as Bollywood’s best. Described by most readers as “Jane Austen meets Tolstoy,” A Suitable Boy will likely excite devotees of the Yash Raj imprimateur, stuffed as it is with cultural mores, wicked characterizations (Meenakshi Chatterji Mehra is hilarious in her social-climbing vacuousness, a perfect match for her husband Arun Mehra’s Anglified snob), oh-no-she-didn’t gossip, affairs, secret identities and several instances of unrequited love (some of them hideously tragic) before the inevitable happy ending. There are even song interludes–or rather, poetry interludes that serve the same purpose as filmi songs. One can have a great deal of fun casting the novel as a film from among current stars, and in fact I would encourage it to make the book come even more alive. There is even a bit of film fandom: the characters are obsessed with the current film release, the Nargis/Dilip Kumar starrer Deedar, which has been showing to packed audiences for months and its songs are on everyone’s lips. This movie is described in the novel as being so emotional that it makes grown men sob uncontrollably, and has “…an unusually tragic ending, but one which did not make one wish to tear the screen apart or set fire to the theater.” In fact, it is so popular that the ticket-buying queue retaliates on an annoying woman by blurting out the ending, spoiling it for her. In short–it’s the perfect movie. (watch it online free here, unfortunately without subtitles)
And for those who completely fall in love with A Suitable Boy and want more, rest assured that Seth is working on a sequel called A Suitable Girl, set in modern-day India and nominally concerned with 80-year-old Lata’s search for a match for her grandson. Even though it’s set to publish in 2013, look for it in…oh…2020 or so. (I’m so mean)