Apr 23 2010 10:23am

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.

Jon Evans
1. rezendi
One of my all-time favourites. I reread it last time I was in India, and didn't for a moment regret sacrificing almost two full days of my travels to its 1349 pages.
Ruth X
2. RuthX
Read it while in Italy and loved it. I had a lot of time to read but not the space for a whole mess of books so I just brought it as the one really big one.

I agree about its being like Middlemarch. I like a good protagonist, but I can get very excited about discovering a whole society through a book (one of the things I like in sci-fi).

I also own An Equal Music but haven't read it yet.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
RuthX: An Equal Music is wonderful. I read that first, as I was intimidated by the size of A Suitable Boy and after reading it from the library immediately rushed out and bought all Seth's books.
4. dmg
Ahh, Jo, you speak to my heart now. Vikram Seth -- on

A small (and minor) story:
A long, long time ago (23 years, if you want me to be precise) I was young and innocent. I began a relationship with a delightful woman who was intelligent, incisive, learned, and loved books. Oh, and she was beautiful. I hoped that I would impress her favorably by sharing a few of my favorite books. I shared Leigh Kennedy's, The Journal of Nicholas the American; she shared Vikram's The Golden Gate... She introduced me to Raymond Carver (he put in an appearance at a local bookstore)... She introduced me to...

Long story brief: She impressed me (obviously); I failed to make a similar dent.

Although dated now, The Golden Gate is fun and clever and witty. But it did not prepare me for the utter brilliance of A Suitable Boy.

Thank you. No, really, thank you.
John S Costello
5. joxn
I've added this to my "to-read" list, and thank you for the recommendation. In turn, if you haven't read it, you might like Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which is not quite as long and has something more of the fantastic about it.
Karen Lofstrom
6. DPZora
One of my favorite books. I've read it three times, I think. Vikram Seth is a wonderful writer.

This book was responsible for launching me into the fairyland of Bollywood movies and then into world music. A number of the characters in the novel have watched the film Deedar; there's a fair bit of chatter about the movie. I went on a search (back in 1999 or so, I believe) for a DVD copy of Deedar. I bought a copy, online, bought a DVD player just to watch and then ... decided I didn't like it. The DVD did have promos for other movies, however, which looked fascinating. I found Netflix, hunted down the only store in Honolulu renting Bollywood DVDs, and explored a new cinematic world. I liked the music in the films and that set me off on explorations of pop music from Morocco to South India.

Highly recommended. If I've made you want to see a Bollywood movie, try Lagaan, Lage Raho Munnabhai, or Om Shanti Om.
7. The Bookling
This is one of my all-time favourite reads and I've enjoyed it at least three times now - fantastic to see it reviewed so beautifully here.

A Suitable Girl is due in 2013 and centres on Lata looking for a "suitable girl" for her grandson. I can't decide if I am excited or nervous about that though- perhaps both!
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Bookling: Wow. Wow! Thank you for telling me! How can I wait until 2013? Oh to know what happened to them!
Jess Nevins
9. jessnevins
Oh, bless you for this! I love the book, but nobody I know has read it, and I'm thrilled you're giving it the attention it deserves.
Sumana Harihareswara
10. brainwane
SUCH a great book. And you just made me mist up thinking of Mrs Mahesh Kapoor's death.

I think I started it when I was a teenager, and it helped me understand my family better.

A white British colleague of mine read the book and couldn't get his head around Lata choosing the suitor she did. It really is a refreshing change.
11. Yves from France
Hello Jo,
What a nice review of a much beloved novel! Good point about Middlemarch: it's true this novel comes to mind when reading A suitable boy!
Would you like to read my take on it? I'd be pleased if you could tell me whether you agree with me on that "astonishment" of yours concerning the fact that Lata and Kabir didn’t end up together. You'll find the reference (Let's talk about Bollywood) on the wikipedia page, where I found yours!
12. Psevdonoma
If you read Two Lives (not sure I entirely recommend it as Seth includes some stuff in there that doesn't seem appropriate for public consumption which disappointed me) you realise that Lata and her eventual husband are based on his own parents. Certainly his father was a shoe maker. Whether Kabir is based on a real person I don't know though.....
14. deese
A great book.
15. Tristram Shorter
I couldn´t agree more with all the above comments. I think "A Suitable Boy" must have been one of the books I´ve enjoyed most. Perhaps I enjoyed "The Jungle Book" as much, when I was a boy, I don´t know. It´s such an amazing kaleidoscope of Indian society in the 1950s . Also, the characters are so good I keep finding they resemble people I know in one way or another.

My only regret is that, my wife being Chilean (and not an english speaker) I felt I couldn´t give her a translated version. That is because the available version is Spanish spanish... to latin American readers, it makes all dialog sound as if uttered by 16th century nights in armour crazily chasing windmills.
To anyone who hasn´t read the book: as all the above have sayed, by the time you reach the end of the 1300 odd pages, you´re regretting they weren't 2600 pages.

Thank you , Jo

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