Published in 1993, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy runs for almost 1,500 pages and is deemed as one of the longest novels. Seth’s densely populated world has been adapted into a six-episode series by Mira Nair which will soon stream on Netflix. And before you start watching, here’s a primer on what the novel is about.
Seth’s ambitious and expansive novel is set in post-Independence India and begins with an Austenesque mother telling her daughter she too will marry the man the former chooses for her. They had all gathered for protagonist Lata Mehra’s elder sister Savita’s wedding to university lecturer Pran Kapoor. Post this, lives of Mehras and Kapoors are intertwined but Seth’s world is hardly that limited. He places the domestic turmoil against the country basking in the afterglow of its new-found independence and recovering from a colonial hangover. But in 1951 there were fissures in India ran deeper than one could perceive. Post partition, anti-Muslim sentiments too were rife. Placing his story in a country so divisive, Seth explores the enduring mending quality of love and harmony.
A Suitable Boy is about four families — the Mehras, The Chatterjis, The Kapoors and The Khans. Through their interpersonal relationships, Seth presents the India that is eroding, the one that fails to keep up with time, one that is aspirational and hopeful one and the other that persists.
In many ways, training her ears to hear the voice of her heart and discovering herself through the lens of her heart, Lata is the face of new India. When the novel opens she is a student of English Literature in Brahmpur college and comes across fellow student Kabir in a library. They fall in love between meetings even before she could know his last name or that he is a Muslim. After the initial heartbreak, she goes to Calcutta and from there, her journey through suitors brings her closer to herself. She meets an author and brother of her sister-in-law, Amit Chatterji and later a shoe-businessman Haresh Khanna.
On the other side stands Maan Kapoor, brother of Pran and son of politician Mahesh Kapoor, the state Minister of Revenue. Hopelessly and recklessly in love with courtesan singer, Saeeda Bai, Maan represents an India which is aspirational but also one whose world views are sustained by privilege. His journey runs in parallel with Lata but is coloured with darker hues and tempered with more traumatising tragedies. By the end, the road he travels on runs divergent with Lata. If she finds a suitable boy, he loses his, quietly underlining how in the new India the ability to love too is a privilege.
Owing to the scale of the novel, many compared it to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But it probably comes closer to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in its ability to encapsulate the essence of post-independence India and upholding the changing contours of the country as well the different meaning of freedom to people in the country.
In the article, Vikram Seth’s Big Book Richard B Woodwork had written about Seth’s ambivalent reception in India and the author, in turn, blamed it on the book. “Seth believes that his years of sequestered labor on A Suitable Boy when he didn’t speak to journalists and saw few friends, has given him an undeserved bad name. His brow wrinkles and his voice registers distress as he answers the charges. This book has gouged out my 30s. I don’t want to spend my 40s so isolated. That’s one of the reasons I want to write plays, which take less time and are very intense and put me in touch with people. I have a reputation for being hermit-like. I’m not. I’m just obsessed with my work.”
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