Sim's Reviews > A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
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Dec 04, 2013

it was amazing
Recommended for: everyone!
Read from July 01 to August 01, 2004 — I own a copy

** spoiler alert ** *Spoiler alert*

I finally finished reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. For some reason, I used to avoid picking it up and kept putting it off. I suppose it was mainly the size (it’s one thick book - approximately 1500 pages!) but I also think it had to do with this misconception I had that it would be a tough read, that Seth’s writing would be pompous and saturated with flowery descriptions of rivers winding through the green and yellow village of GraamNagar. Imagine my surprise when I find that the language is smooth, his tone light and his narrative interesting. The fact that Seth managed to keep the threads of the numerous plots and subplots clear in his head is an accomplishment in itself, but even more impressive is how each characters of his story is real; they are people we recognize, with mannerisms we’ve noticed in ourselves and others, and dialogues we’ve heard, thought or spoken.

The title might suggest that it’s the story of finding the perfect marriage candidate for the central character but that would be belittling the grand work that is A Suitable Boy. It is the story of the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans, the Chatterjis and a myriad of other characters, such as Saeeda Bai and Kakoli, many of whom are fleshed out substantially, even when their appearance is minimal. The beauty of the story arises from their interactions with each other, their thoughts and their ups and downs. Little details that create vivid images of a decaying courtesan’s world, a cosmopolitan Calcutta, the shoemakers’ rank (as in rancid) neighbourhoods and so on. The story covers about a year of the characters’ lives, detailing the day to day mundanity. Little decisions — a smile here, a letter there, a glass of nimbu pani (lemon-water) every now and then - are what makes the story. Yet these little decisions, these microsteps that are taken, culminate in huge changes that are noticed only in hindsight.

I’m probably not giving away any surprises when I say that I was thoroughly pissed off at Lata Mehra’s decision to marry Haresh Khanna. I shouldn’t have been surprised because Lata does say in the first few pages, ” I always obey my mother” and so the ending wasn’t so much a surprise as it was a disappointment. I did understand why she did it, but I couldn’t help my acute disappointment in her all the same. I was genuinely frustrated at her pigheadedness, her thought process that led her to this decision. I was angry because I am afraid that her reasoning resonated with the coward in everyone, especially south asian girls who have had to, or will have to, at least discuss the concept of arranged marriage at some point in their lives.

Ironically, her mother later suffered a number of qualms herself about whether Haresh would be the right boy for her daughter. Had Lata decided against the marriage, Mrs. Mehra would have been perfectly amenable, especially since Lata’s yuppie brother Arun did not condone the marriage either. So why did Lata decide to snub both Kabir, the Muslim she fell in love with, or Amit, the Bengali poet she could fall in love with easily? Her reasoning in the last few pages was scary because it reminded me of how we would rather our lives be a smooth ride of mediocrity than a roller coaster of brilliance that plummets from time to time. We choose to be mediocre-ly happy - the utilitarian idea that the “aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (http://www.m-w.com).

She says, “I’m not myself when I’m with him [Kabir]. I ask myself, who is this - this jealous, obsessed woman….I don’t want to [passionately love him], I don’t know want to. If that’s what passion means, I dont’ want it.”

Once Lata makes her decision, we know that she will lead her life contently enough. It upset me because I saw Lata in a number of people I know in real life, including myself. Mind you, I am not advocating against arranged marriage as a whole because I know they can work. Lata’s sister Savita, who marries Pran after meeting him only once in front of her elders, does genuinely fall in love with him and go on to lead a happy life. So it’s not that arranged marriages are wrong. I just felt that Lata was wrong in her decision to marry Haresh. Even if he was considered fair and good looking, confident and ambitious. Ironically, from Haresh’s side, it’s not exactly a traditional arranged marriage. He arranges his nuptials himself because he doesn’t like the parents getting involved in this matter; his parents already know that he will run away (metaphorically speaking) if they try to set him up. So to Haresh, this is a decision he’s making by himself for his own benefit. Haresh had already been in love with someone else before, had neatly folded away his Devdas romanticism for that girl and was ready now to live a contented life with someone else (it just happened to be Lata). He is oh so bloody honest about his feelings for this girl, and that he knows it won’t ever happen and so must move on… Lata wanted his practicality, his forceful ability to get things done, his willingness to help out her family members. What angered me was the underlying assumption that Kabir/Amit couldn’t be all those things, that they would be selfish beings simply because they would also love her, and she would have to him (either him) back.

My favourite characters in the book are Amit Chatterji and Pran Kapoor. I know Vikram Seth denies fashioning Amit after him, but to be honest, for some reason while I was reading about Amit’s tendencies for the necessary inactivity that comes with being a writer, I thought of Seth. What I liked about Amit was that he was the uber intellectual: his tone was oft-sardonic, his amusement frequent, his observations of people accepting and piercing. He talked a lot and said very little. He was cryptic in his cynicism. I loved him. Lata rejects him on the basis of his being "high-maintenance" type - someone who needs his meals laid out for him, who wouldn’t have time for her if he was working on a novel, and whose moodswings are as frequent as her own. I don’t buy that completely. He did make the time for her, he knew how to be charming and behave in society (he wasn’t an absent-minded intellectual), he knew what he wanted and he knew how to get what he wants. Lata was right in that he wouldn’t fall apart at her rejection, but I think it’s not his insensitivity that would allow him to be friends with her after her marriage, but his excessive civility, his sophistication and his writer’s acceptance of life.

My other favourite character, Pran Kapoor - a thin, dark quiet professor - is a sweetheart. The kind of nice guy who doesn’t begrudge his mother-in-law’s long vacations with them, who plays April Fools Day jokes on people because “those who aren’t conscious of the date must take the consequences”. He is the ultimate good son, who quietly accepts his arranged marriage and falls in love with his wife. His was the real arranged marriage, in the true sense of the word, and yet you cannot dislike him or his wife Savita because they are both so lovable people, that you just know that they were destined to be together, no matter how they got together.

For those of you who haven’t read it, do. Trust me, I can’t begin to describe the many shades there are to each character and how nothing I say will completely do justice to them. I got mad at one character’s one decision, not at the book. Seth is amazing. His voice is uninstrusive and style very graceful. That’s the word: graceful. Despite its size, you get a soft feeling reading it. True it is a tad tedious at times. Some of the political parts and some of the characters could have been done without. But in the end, you can’t get angry at someone who gives you the whole cake when all you asked for was a slice.

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02/16 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Tas (last edited Jul 31, 2008 12:46PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tas I love love love your detailed review of the book even if, as you know, I liked the ending.
And not only because I prefer sad endings.
I thought it was happy ending for everyone.

I have thought about it actually.
Why, despite me falling in love with Kabir (Amit to some degree as well) and not liking Haresh at all, I condoned Lata's decision to marry Haresh.
The way I saw it, she wasn't settling down with Haresh just to please her mother and society. As you noted, her mom had qualms about him as well. Lata chose Haresha as a marriage with him has more chances of surviving mainly because of the type of person he is (old fashioned like our fathers) and the expectations she has out of a marriage. They both have experienced the verb love and decided love should be action in the form of a marriage or elopement (as Lata requests Kabir to do at the beginning of the book). I got the feeling they might never 'fall in love' with each other but love each other.

Not that Kabir or Amit are not wonderful people who would be equally commited to makinga marriage work, but in the end it is Lata who is not a good match for them. She could not trust Kabir to act and Kabir needed someone who would. As she says, she couldn't give Amit what he needed from a Poet's wife. So it wouldn't have lasted and she didn't seem the type who wanted to risk divorce, esp when marriage was her way out of living with her mother.

Just my two cents :)


Neha i liked your review and I also felt that your being angry with Lata is just.. but you know what I agree as well as disagree..

Lata knew what she was doing, but she didn't know what she was doing when she was with Kabir & Amit was too much of an intellectual for her. She was a simple girl and wanted a simple man.. if that explains it.. ultimately she did not sacrifice or give up anything.. cos we realise that she herself stopped talking to Kabir even when she could.. we don't know much about Mr Mehra from the book but whatever little snippets here or there but as a daugther we generally prefer someone like our fathers as our husbands.. being taken care of, protected, loved no matter what, mutual respect..

i just thought of sharing it with you.. my two cents tooooo


message 3: by Sim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sim You know, it's interesting you should say that. I read the book back in 2003/2004, but I've been thinking about re-reading it again to see if I feel differently now that I'm *ahem* older, and uhm...wiser ;-) Thanks for the comment!


Sylvia Tedesco I just finished the book and despite some slogs, thought it wonderful and a classic favorite among my books. I came to Goodreads because I am so eager to discuss it now. I kept hoping Meenakshi would get some sort of comeuppance. Love all these reviews.


message 5: by Sim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sim Yes exactly, I can relate to that feeling!! I remember floating around after I finished the book, unable to get the characters out of my head! As for Meenakshi, the sad thing is, I actually know a couple of people who're like her (in spirit, if not in actual actions) . I totally understand the seething need to put her in her place! Unfortunately, people like that usually breeze through life! :(


Sylvia Tedesco It was quite a different experience for me reading this book. It took me two months or so. I never wanted to skip over so much as a paragraph, but after a few pages I was drowning in words, images, unfamiliar names for people, flowers, trees, clothing, etc. It must be the way a child feels learning a language when things just wash over you. I found that with such a big book to hold that I would sit in a reading chair with good light - I'd get up an hour early in the mornings to read. It was like a total immersion class on India. The author could tie in music, religion, politics, poetry, festivals and people in such a miraculous way. I read that the author's father worked for a shoe company. I also read that he is working on another novel, "A Suitable Girl." You really couldn't make a single movie based on this book. It would have to be a series and cover several seasons. Many many thanks to my friend Dildar Gill Pisani who recommended this book!


message 7: by Sim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sim I hadn't heard that he was writing A Suitable Girl. That's something to look forward to ! Do read his "Two Lives" - it's a wonderful memoir about his great-uncle and his German-Jewish aunt. Given that it was set pre-WWII, it's a wonderful insight into being Indian in the Western world back then.


Sylvia Tedesco I will read that - as soon as I rush through the next book due for our book club week after next. I have read "A Fine Balance" by Rohanton Mistry (rather I listened to it on tape while commuting) and was very moved and impressed. "A Suitable Girl" (according to Wikipedia) will be about Lata trying to find a match for her grandson! It would be wonderful if they made it into an ebook with a full glossary, word definitions and pictures. We were watching the Occupy Wall Street pictures on the news last night and I thought of Vikram Seth's masterful depiction of Pul Mela and later the riot set off when two religious ceremonies ran into each other.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez This is my all time favorite book! I loved every second I spent with it. My favorite characters are Pran and Mrs. Rupa Mehra, though I really liked Amit, too. I liked the fact that Lata chose Haresh even though I thought Kabir was a wonderful person. I think the difference in religion - and lifestyle - would have hampered the happiness of Lata and Kabir both, and their children as well. Haresh "suits" Lata better, I think.


Sylvia Tedesco I just ordered a copy of the book and the companion book for friends we spent the weekend with. It makes me so pleased to share reviews of this book. It is almost as if these people are friends. About a year ago I took on a Facebook friend in India -- he had talked to me during a computer tech call! You might like the journalistic book out recently called "The Instant City" about Karachi. Author Steve Inskeep of NPR. I couldn't put it down and read it through - "Suitable Boy" helped put it in context.


message 11: by Sim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sim G: You know, I think I'm starting to understand that. Definitely to re-read the book again though :)

Sylvia: Will have to check it out! Thanks for the suggestion. You might also want to check out "Kartography" by Kamila Shamsie. Cannot recommend that book enough :)


Vardaan Aggarwal You know, Vikram Seths's mother, Leila Seth, in her autobiography On Balance says that the entire Chatterji clan (except Mr. Chatterji) was based on their own family. And really, Lata was too dumb to settle for Haresh. ( Leila says that Haresh is a portrait of her husband!)


message 13: by Sim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sim I did not know that ! Will have to read this book! Thanks for letting me know about it.


Sylvia Tedesco Our library system does not have it yet. I will ask them to order it.


Carol Sim's critique is spot on! what I love about it is that Sim loves or despises the characters in the book as real people, because they *are* real. That is the major part of Seth's gift to us. The other part is the panoramic view of a millennia-old society/toddler-young democracy. I eagerly await the sequel.

PS: I no longer have young eyes and postponed reading it for years, until my son bought me an ebook version.


message 16: by Rupa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rupa the EXACT thoughts, disappointment, and love I felt for the book - you said them all!


message 17: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Love your review, Sim. I just finished reading A Suitable Boy. I had to check it out of the library (where I discovered it) about 3 times. But I HATED THE ENDING!!!! I had the proverbial feeling of wanting to throw the book across the room b/c the heroine chose the wrong hero! (As a romance writer, it comes down to that). So, it wasn't "at its core a love story," as the book jacket suggests, but a story of the road more traveled. Lata took the path of least resistance and accepted her mother's choice for her. Family ultimately was more important for her. I agree that she won't be unhappy, but neither will she know the heights she could have enjoyed with a true soul mate. What she didn't realize when she allowed her fears to rule (not feeling in control when she was around Kabir) is that she would get over those things once she spent more time with him. I did love the book as a whole. What an insight into post-Colonial India. It made me want to read more about the period. And I just read an article about Vikram Seth and realized that much of the characters are based on his own family, so the Lata-Haresh union is probably understandable (given his father's work in a shoe company). But it was a disappointing ending, esp. since he gave Kabir so little attention in the end. Lata wasn't very heroic at the end...


Jennifer I have to say, I don't think I am disappointed in Lata's decision...I cant see her being or being comfortable as a Chatterji. Kabir...her feelings for him changed who she was and she didn't like the person she became. That is a reasonable explanation to me. There would have been a lot of burned bridges if they had gotten together, and when the flames of passion cooled, would they still have made that decision? Haresh, I thought him to be sweet, utterly honest (to a fault - the word 'mean'), a very hard worker...and remember when Lata was picturing everyone...pictured ruffling his hair (his co-resplendent shoes hidden under the table of course, lol), she felt love for him. When the pedophile uncle came up to her at the wedding, she squeezed her hand...already he was a source of safety, of comfort. And she seemed quite content and even happy when she got on the train to Calcutta and then to Praha. I think he will help her to use her education to do what she desires. Honestly, I am quiet happy for them, and REALLY hope for a sequel so we can find out more. (IMOHO, of course.)


Sylvia Tedesco Yes, I would love a sequel! I think they could make a Gone With The Wind spectacular television series of this book!


message 20: by SJG210 (new)

SJG210 Yes, I felt the whole Meenakshi story line was forgotten in the end. Saeeda Bai too was never really finished or completed. Overall great book. I enjoyed the writing style and also love all the comments here.


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