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Rich and Panoramic, but Not Perfect,
This review is from: A Suitable Boy (Paperback)Vikram Seth's first book, A Suitable Boy, is an epic tale of India, set in the turbulent period following independence and partition. Although extremely long, this is a book that never plods or bogs down. It takes a look at India through the lives of four very extended families, both Hindu and Moslem: the Mehras; the Kapoors, whose most prominent member, the charming if rather feckless Maan Kapoor, falls deeply in love with a Moslem singer and courtesan; the Khans, who are Moslem, and whose son Firoz is a close friend of Maan's, a friendship which eventually results in near-tragedy; and the Chatterjis a family of brilliant and highly Anglicized young men and women: Amit, the poet and novelist, Dipankar the would-be mystic, and Meenakshi and Kakoli, two beautiful and amoral sisters who continually exchange verse couplets with each other in a sort of verbal tennis match of wit. Rounding out the cast of characters are the families' friends, enemies, neighbors, servants, gurus and lovers. The central plot involves a love story that runs through the book like the Ganges.
The most fully-realized and emotionally-engaging character in A Suitable Boy is Mrs. Rupa Mehra. Based loosely on Seth's own grandmother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra has only one mission left in life: to arrange a proper marriage for her youngest daughter, Lata. In other words, she wishes to find Lata "a suitable boy." Mother and daughter are a generation apart in their ideas, but, surprisingly, they eventually do reach an agreement of sorts, and, as they do, they find that they are closer than they had ever imagined.
Mrs. Rupa Mehra, however, is a woman who is determined to take care of her family at any cost, to take care of them even if they do not wish to be taken care of. Seth sums her up this way, "Mrs. Rupa Mehra, torn between solicitude for Pran, concern for Savita, who was due to deliver any day now, and desperate anxiety on behalf of Lata, would have liked nothing better than to have an emotional breakdown. But the press of events would not allow it at present, and she therefore abstained." Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is indeed, a remarkable character, and not one that is soon forgotten. She is vividly drawn and seems to leap off the page with energy, vitality and wit.
A Suitable Boy is straightforward, no-frills storytelling. There are, mercifully, no verbal pyrotechnics here, no extended dream sequences, no magic realism or any of the other literary devices that can be so wonderful but only when employed by an author who really knows what he is doing. Seth wisely sticks to his story and the result is an almost-Victorian rendering. This is one of those books in which the author's "voice" is almost anonymous or silent and that is just as it should be. With a sprawling plot and a large cast of characters, a strong sense of "style" or "voice," sometimes so essential, would have only been an intrusion in a novel such as this.
One of the themes of A Suitable Boy is religious intolerance. In 1952, India was still recovering from the horrors of partition. Muslim Pakistan had separated from the sub-continent and Brahmpur, the invented city where much of the action of A Suitable Boy takes place, is involved in the construction of a Hindu temple adjacent to an existing mosque. In fact, the temple was deliberately erected on that very spot so that when the Muslims gather for their daily prayers and kneel to face Mecca, they will be forced to face Hindu idols as well, idols they, themselves, consider obscene. Seth, himself, has said that he has no sympathy for Hindu fanatics and considers A Suitable Boy to be a plea for religious tolerance in India.
Politics also plays a role in A Suitable Boy and Nehru, himself, makes a few appearances. The sections in which Seth does veer off into politics or religion are less successful than the sections that involve the four families directly. I was tempted to skip many of the more political sections of the book, but didn't. Another minor problem crops up in a certain vagueness about the language the characters are speaking. Although this might not seem to matter, it does matter and matters greatly because the characters, themselves, make much of it. Lata's very pompous brother Arun, for example, often scorns Haresh, Lata's husband-to-be, because his English is less than perfect, although Haresh has studied in England while Arun has never even been there. A delightful bit of irony.
Although not a perfect book, and one that, at times, could stand a little more smoothness, A Suitable Boy is a rich and panoramic look at India during a crucial time in her history as well as being a delightful and incisive novel that is well worth the time one must devote to its more than 1500 pages.