Joyce Lagow's Reviews > A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
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Apr 20, 2010

it was amazing

A massive (1474 pages), quiet novel that superficially is something of an Indian novel of manners much in the style of the 19th century English novelists, but which also is a history of India at a critical time the early 1950s as experienced by the members of four middle class families and a host of characters from others.[return][return]The central thread of the novel is the search for a husband a suitable boy for Lata Mehra, the younger daughter of Mrs. Rupra Mehra, a widow who lives in the fictional state of Purva Pradesh. Mrs. Mehra s older daughter, Savita, has just been married to Pran Kapoor, a lecturer at Brahmpur University; Pran is the son of the Minister of Revenue for Purva Pradesh, Mahesh Kapoor, who was one of the original freedom fighters for India s independence, and who is now an influential member of the ruling Congress Party. The Meharas and the Kapoors, along with the Chatterjis, an upper-class Hindu family of much more modern habits and the Kahns, a Muslim landowning family, provide the bulk of the characters through whose lives the reader sees India. [return][return] It is 1951, 5 years after independence, and 4 years after the agonizing partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. The politicians have taken over from the British, and Seth s account makes it clear that as everywhere else in the world, mediocrity for the most part rules and those who have risen from powerlessness to power are no different in their ambitions than in any other country. India is still fragile, still troubled with tensions between Muslims and Hindus, floundering in many respects held together mainly through the people s devotion to their Prime Minister, Nehru. While the novel concerns itself with the lives of those in the four families, who are either related by marriage or by ties of friendship, the political life of the country, as seen through the affairs of Purva Pradesh, is a prominent subthread. Hindu-Muslim riots and the elections of 1952 are an integral part of the story and affect the lives of all the families. Since one of the families is that of a powerful Muslim landowner who is affected by the land redistribution act promulgated and fought for by his best friend, Kapoor, Seth s narration shows the consequences both intended and unintended of a well-meaning legislation aimed at giving poor tenant farmers their own land. Some of which actually wind up harming terribly the very people the legislation is meant to help. Seth does this seamlessly within the framework of the lives of his characters.[return][return]Another fascinating aspect of the book is the description of the Hindu religious celebrations. Since the story takes place over a time period of slightly more than one year, all the major religious celebrations are presented as seen through the participation of the characters both the devout older women of the story, the somewhat skeptical younger generation who participate more out of a sense of tradition than piety, and of the men in the families, who are almost universally scornful and impatient with what they view as superstition. A panic during one of the major festivals that causes the deaths of hundreds. The inadvertent intermingling of a Hindu and a Muslim religious procession which results in a horrendous riot. These and more are skillfully interwoven into the main story.[return][return]But what leaps out more than anything else in this vast book is the way that the Indian middle classes have become Anglicized. It is a remarkable description of how an oppressed people long dominated by a ruling class of another race has taken on the prejudices and practices of their oppressors. A suitable boy must be able to speak English without accent. A suitable boy must not be too dark as one of the characters says she does not want her grandchildren to be black. Lawyers in the courts address judges as my Lords . Cricket is a passion.[return][return]One minor flaw that is from time to time irritating: Seth uses a large number of Hindi words for all sorts of things, from the names of trees to fruits to common household items. Most of the time, this is not a problem because either (sooner or later) the meaning becomes clear from the context or the singularity of whatever it is, such as a tree, doesn t get in the way. But from time to time, it s a puzzle to understand exactly what Seth is talking about. Is it a chair? A stool? A bed? Some other piece of furniture? The book would benefit from a glossary.[return][return]There is more to this book, but these are the main threads. It s a quiet book, that at first keeps to its innocent appearance as a book of manners, but slowly draws the reader in to the lives of the characters and the times in which they live. It becomes a page-turner simply because these lives, while quite ordinary in one sense, are caught up in extraordinary times and in a quest to live and be fulfilled when the world around them is changing from the traditional to the inescapably modern. The struggle to adjust, to keep what is valuable and also expected of the traditional to keep purdah in the face of women s voting rights, to accept arranged marriages in a world where young men and women can mingle far more freely than is traditional while adjusting to the freedoms and dangers of the modern world Seth has done a brilliant job of showing us ordinary, believable people caught up in this transition and making their lives absorbing to a reader 50 years later.[return][return]Highly recommended.[return][return]
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John Trum I just have to say I couldn't have said it better myself. I would just like to add that I think it is incredible that Seth has woven this story together with out a visible crack or contradiction. It is so good for us non-Indians to be able to understand the problems among people of different origins that inhabit the sub-continent but are just as much Indians (or Bengalis) as the others. It's like saying that the Basques are the only ones in Europe that have any rights because they are the only ones that can trace their ancestry back to before Indo-European speaking peoples invaded. What I would like is another book like this but set in 2009 or 10 to be able to understand the situation 60 years later.


Joyce Lagow I agree--I'd love to have an "update".


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