A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

British-Indian author Vikram Seth

The story begins:

‘You will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra to her youngest daughter, Lata.

Seth doesn’t waste time, which is well to remember as you turn from page 1276 to page 1277 with several hundred to go.

It is a novel of rich history, set in the years 1949 to 1951 in the fictional city of Brahmpur on the banks of the Ganges, only a few years after the separation of the subcontinent into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh): Hindus from Muslims. It has been reported that 2 million Muslims were killed in the violence that resulted from partition. There is little evidence of the bloodshed; Muslim and Hindu families feature prominently in the story; they mix socially and even politically but their social and political differences are only as severe as those of the other stratas of society: caste, employment, race, and education.

The three Hindu families: the Mehras, Chatterjis, and Kapoors are all connected by marriage. The Muslim family, the Khans, are linked to the other families through politics, friendship, and wealth.

Through the course of the story three suitors emerge, Kabir Durrani, a fellow student, whom Lata Mehra, the potential bride, befriends over their love of literature; Amit Chatterji, a poet and the brother of Lata’s sister-in-law, and Haresh Khanna, an ambitious and enterprising young man and the one favoured by Mrs Rupa Mehra as the most suitable boy. However, Kadir, whom Lata really loves, is Muslim.

There is also a subplot – the main among many – of Maan Kapoor, the son of the respected state Minister of Revenue and his relationship with Firoz Khan and with a beautiful singer and courtesan, Saeeda Bai.

It would be foolish to precis the plot as it may end up far longer than a precis should ever be. However, Seth uses these interconnected characters and families, history and society, time and custom, to weave a colourful diorama as entertaining, instructive, and dense as the book’s size suggests. Religious observance, sexuality and desire, hypocrisy, infidelity, colonialism, independence, tragedy, humour, parental and social power, love, and duty are all interwoven and treated with honesty and skill by a writer whose command is never in doubt.

The language is plain and sometimes surprising in its forthrightness. Standout scenes: a highly comic cocktail party with the remaining but slightly bewildered British and the newly empowered locals; the description of the near-tragic religious festival (Kumbh Mela called Pul Mela in the book) where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims bath in holy rivers all over India; and the consequences of a wayward condom.

Seth has been working on a ‘sequel’ called A Suitable Girl but as of 2019 it was unfinished; a suitable ending has proved elusive.

A Suitable Boy has been on my to-read list for years. If you decide to tackle it, give it your best. It deserves it.

Highly recommended.

Here is a charming interview with Seth from 2015, mainly about poetry and writer’s block filmed at his home in England.

The BBC produced a 6 part television series released in 2020. Directed by Mira Nair with a teleplay by Andrew Davies, you can watch the trailer here. The series is available on Netflix.

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