Total immersion in 1950s India: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy is a very long book, and physically very large, so after I bought it, it took me a while to get around to reading it, and although I’ve been wanting to re-read it for a while, I put it off until I was well ahead on posts and had a long train journey. It’s long and it’s very immersive and now that I’ve finished it I miss it, and I can’t quite believe I’m not still reading it. It’s a complete story with a shape, but it would be all right with me if it went on forever. I loved it the first time and I loved it again. I’ve also loved all of Seth’s other work. I’m really lucky to have found him. Things published as literary bestsellers tend not to get onto my radar unless they have genre elements—I found Seth because I mentioned that there wasn’t a lot of modern poetry I liked, and both the friends I was talking to immediately and enthusiastically recommended Seth’s The Golden Gate.

A Suitable Boy is a historical novel set in India in 1950. What it’s closest to in feel is Eliot’s Middlemarch. Like Middlemarch, it is concerned with a made up town in a made up province that’s a microcosm for the real historical problems of its time and place. Both books contain significant elections—which is surprisingly unusual in fiction. Both books are about love and marriage and money and family expectations, and both books are long enough to sink into. But the strongest resemblance is that A Suitable Boy is a nineteenth century novel in pacing and expectation, even though it was published in 1993.

Yet in another way it couldn’t have been written before it was. It’s a very Indian book—there are only a few minor white characters, and they are mostly comic relief. It’s not about the struggle for Independence like Midnight’s Children—Independence was achieved several years before, though it is about the struggle to run a country that’s recently emerged from colonialism and gone through the upheaval of Partition. All the major characters are Indian, and it’s entirely taken for granted that it should be so. English is one of Seth’s mother tongues, and he’s writing from an deep familiarity with and understanding of English literature. The result is a novel that really is unique. It’s speaking back to English literature through its own filter. There’s a moment where Lata, who is acting in a production of Twelfth Night, considers the uses Shakespeare would have made of the Hindu festival that celebrates brothers and sisters if it had existed in Elizabethan England. It’s familiar and unfamiliar at once. You can read it as a visit to an exotic world, but it isn’t written like that, no more than Middlemarch.

I love how close the families are, and how intertwined the marriages make them. I come from a large and complex family myself, but even so the thought of staying with your sibling’s parents-in-law, who you’ve met once at a wedding, wouldn’t occur to me, and yet to the characters it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Seth is writing for an anglophone audience but he doesn’t hold your hand and explain everything. Nor does he throw you in at the deep end to sink. There’s a very well done structure of explanation that will feel very familiar to a science fiction reader. He sometimes explains things, but he doesn’t keep on doing it, and he sometimes just gives enough context that you can work it out. The whole way he uses exposition and incluing is very smooth and very much like what we’re used to in genre. India in 1950 isn’t as unfamiliar a world as Arrakis or Annares, except where it’s weirder and even less familiar.

I very much like the way there are several strong friendships shown and persisting, though they’re often across lines where people aren’t supposed to be friends—Maan and Firoz especially. The whole theme of the Zamindar abolition, and the consequent problems, is very well done. The whole political thing could easily be too much and overbalance the novel, which is primarily domestic, but it doesn’t, it just gives it a wider context.

It’s terrific about work. Haresh’s shoe-making, Pran’s teaching, Mahesh Kapoor’s politics, even Arun’s insurance business—we really get a strong sense of the daily work the characters do, and in the domestic sphere, the women’s lives too. This is a book with as many strong women as men, strong female friendships (Lata and Malati, Rupa Mehra and Kalpana) and although it’s a time and place where women are only just beginning to be liberated, we see much of it through their eyes. We can understand their choices and lack of choices, whether it’s Saeeda Bai’s sad life or Savita’s happy one. The passage dealing with the death of Mrs Mahesh Kapoor made me cry.

What’s really unusual is the way all romantic love we see is purely disruptive and cut across the grain of people’s lives. This is so different from Western storytelling conventions! I’m sure I’d get tired of it, but I found it very refreshing. Maan and Saaeda Bai, Tasneem and Rashid, and most of all Lata and Kabir. Real spoiler coming up—I was astonished the first time that Lata and Kabir didn’t end up together. When you have a story like this that offers you a young lady and several suitors, it’s always obvious that romantic love will win out. Not here. This is a book about a time and place where arranged marriages are the norm and normally work and romantic love is a destructive and untrustworthy force. Apart from Cosmonaut Keep, and that story in Fisherman of the Inland Sea, I can’t think of much that goes against the expected view of the universe like that. Most people writing books even set in places where people did not believe that true love conquered all, can’t get away from their own faith in it.

In conclusion: not only a big book, but also a great one.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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