“And, gentle reader, you as well,
The fountainhead of all remittance
Buy me before good sense insists
You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.”
(From the “Word of Thanks”, A Suitable Boy)
I have no idea how Vikram Seth (or his agent) persuaded an editor to even look at A Suitable Boy. Who in their right minds accepts a 1500 page realist novel for publication in a lit fic market where 800 is seen as a terrible, practically unreadable excess? (Even Fantasy novels, despite their legendary girth, rarely push 1000 pages.) My paperback edition is somewhat akin in weight and size to a house brick (hence the “sprained wrists” of above); the pages are thin, the type is small. It’s certainly daunting – as long as Clarissa and (almost) as densely peopled as George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. I had set aside a week for it in my Summer Reading Challenge and it took two, with a 500 page, all-day marathon at the end. But it *was* worth it, justifying its length by dealing expansively in character and working humanely with its enormous subject matter, which is simply (or, rather, not simply at all) lived lives.
Set in the early 1950s during the run-up to India’s first General Election, it is ostensibly about marriage: it begins with one wedding and ends with another. The first bride is the quiet and amenable Savita Mehra whose arranged marriage to Pran Kapoor, an asthmatic English lecturer, turns out to be both happy and contented. The second is her younger sister, Lata, whose ideas about love and marital bliss have been irreversibly “modernised” by a university education and who, consequently, proves rather less tractable. Broad swathes of the novel are given over to finding her that most rare of things, a boy both “suitable” for Lata’s family – a Hindu of the right caste - *and* suitable for Lata. To the horror of her overbearing and emotionally manipulative mother, the widowed Mrs. Mehra, she repeatedly sets her heart on entirely inappropriate young men – Muslims! Poets! Shoemakers! – before finally making a resolution that is (mostly) satisfactory to all.
The potential for parallels between this face of the Indian marriage market and, say, Pride and Prejudice has been noted before (think: Bride and Prejudice) and is also evident here. Savita is Jane, Lata is Elizabeth and Mrs Mehra, with her opening line “You too will marry a boy I choose” and her jangling nerves, is akin to Mrs. Bennett. The exact similarities end there though – there isn’t really a Darcy to Lata’s Elizabeth – but Seth remains deeply influenced by Austen’s style and form throughout. His social comedy is not far removed from her parlour satire and they’re both students of the poignancy and absurdity of human relationships.
I think comparisons can also made with the great nineteenth century realist novelists, particularly Dickens and Tolstoy. Like them Seth writes a huge world of people and politics around his main “marriage” thread – the novel leaves the Mehras for significant periods of time to focus on families and events that satellite around them (and then upon the families and events that satellite around the satellites). These include Pran’s family, the Kapoors (especially his father, Mahesh, a minister in the government of the province in which the novel is set, and his feckless romantic brother, Maan), the Muslim Khan’s of Baitar and the cosmopolitan Chatterjis from Delhi. The genealogies in the front of the book are more than useful for remembering the names of them all, not to mention which person belongs to which family and who is married to whom. It is an example of family saga at its most expansive and generous, and the length of the novel means that nobody (and I mean nobody) gets short-changed of their page-space: Seth sets aside narratorial time with them all. ‘Tis character, in Technicolor and unabashedly detailed.
The range and role of politics in the novel is even wider still, initially revolving around the land reforms of a single (fictional) province but later taking in the national machinations of Nehru’s post-Independence government, the General Election of 1951 and the disintegration of India’s Congress Party. Seth stands firmly by his epigraph from Voltaire - “The superfluous, that very necessary thing…” – writing in characters and events which seem incidental but actually serve the weft of the whole. He plays and muddles the worlds of the personal/private and the political confidently, bringing them together in a cohesive portrait of life in a nascent post-colonial democracy. It’s true that sometimes the more overtly politico-historical sections, in which our favourite characters fade to ciphers, begin to read a little more like a text-book than a novel. But generally the dips in momentum are short-lived and the general mood of the text – heartful and munificent – makes up for loose tension. It’s history-meets-fiction in the lower registers of gripping perhaps but in the highest registers of absorbing – I learnt all kinds of rarefied details about Indian government post-Independence (and, incidentally, about Partition and Pakistan…must read more on those issues).
I feel as though I’ve had a good year for Anglo-Indian novels all in all. To qualify: it’s not that I’ve read so many of them – only two in fact - but that the couple I have read have left such rich impressions. Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain (which I wrote about for one of my first posts on Alexandria) and now Seth’s A Suitable Boy rank high amongst my favourite reads of 2006.
The two novels are whole worlds apart, both stylistically and thematically: Chandra’s is a fiercely Indian piece of magical realism, while Seth’s is an anglicised and realist comedy of manners. (If you were so inclined you might even read Red Earth…’s play on mythical theatre as a riposte to the mundane drama of A Suitable Boy.) Chandra is a prose-poet, while Seth writes in bare, uncomplicated sentences and, occasionally, in couplets. Both, however, are infinitely readable and similarly evocative of the cultural conflicts at the heart of post-colonial experience: between the old and the new, the religious and the secular, between Hinduism and Islam, between the English language and native languages (like Hindi and Urdu).
I noticed how regularly, for example, Seth references writers straight out of the Western Canon and how rarely Indian writers. Pran is an English lecturer pushing to put James Joyce on the department syllabus; Lata is an English student reading Austen, Dickens and the Brontes; Amit Chatterji is a poet who writes in English rather than his native Bengali and who “still bears the scars of Middlemarch” (again a novel with parallels to A Suitable Boy. Set in an imaginary town, exploring a year in the life of a close-quartered but divided society, incredibly long etc); Haresh, one of Lata’s suitors is reading all of Thomas Hardy’s novels in alphabetical order. Meanwhile Tagore gets decidedly short shrift and the ancient Indian epics like the Ramayana become street plays instead of literature; the Urdu poet Mast is sidelined as dusty and obsolete. This is all one with Seth’s wider vision of India’s in the 1950s. Through the example of literature he considers the impact of imperial culture and what he sees as its irreversibility. Still, unlike some of his peers, he makes no authorial value statements. His characters do that for him: “Englishness” – the language, the accent, the culture - and the aspiration to it is a matter of caste (or, if we like, a matter of class) and of religious taste. Whiteness is still at a premium. Arun, Lata’s eldest brother, has risen right up to the glass ceiling in the Delhi-based British firm Bentson Pryce and continues to believe that, if he memorises London theatre listings and reads all the latest English novels, he will eventually break through. English is the language of communication for all A Suitable Boy's characters: in a way it universalises, cutting across religious and pariochial differences, and allowing for cross-culture connections. I think the English language can almost be seen as a character in itself. This is so different from Chandra’s pro-native language diatribes (admittedly very beautiful):
How in English can one say roses, doomed love, chaste passion, my father my
mother, their love which never spoke, pride, honour, what a man can live for and what a woman should die for, how in English can one say the cows’ slow distant tinkle at sunset, the green weight of the trees after monsoon, dust of winnowing and women’s songs, elegant shadow of a minar creeping across white marble, the patient goodness of people met at wayside, the enfolding trust of aunts and uncles and cousins, winter bonfires and fresh chapattis, in English all this, the true shape and contour of a nation’s heart, all this is left unsaid and unspeakable and invisible.
Which is, of course, partly ironic since Chandra wrote this passage in English…but nevertheless, while his novel disavows the possibility of expressing the quality of Indian-ness in English, Seth’s embraces it. Marshalling his huge cast, he brings them forward to express what it is being Hindu, being Muslim, being a woman of marriageable age in a newly post-colonial society, and all this *in* English. It must be difficult, this question of language, when English has been both a signal of personal prestige and of national betrayal. But Seth admits to linguistic reality in India: the collision of Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and English in his novel is enacted as personal, political, cultural and religious.
Religion is also key of course, it being India in the early 1950s. The Partition of Pakistan is only years old and the brawl over Kashmir is already obdurate. And as with language Seth brings these problems down to a human level and to the individual: the friendship that binds the Hindu Kapoors to the Muslim Khans is only as strong as their will to compromise their beliefs and their cultures. Equally vital is the conflict between generations, between traditional India - purdah for women, widespread serfdom - and modern India with its universal suffrage and land reforms.
A Suitable Boy, it seems to me then, is all about transitions, about cycles at personal and national levels and the turning of some things into other things. Only a book so unapologetically long could hope to fulfill such a scheme, and it really is a narrative to keep company with, so round and fat and creamy. It’s a cry of triumph for the traditional realist saga in a "post-realist" market, and why not?