A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth [A Review]

A Suitable Boy is epic! One of the longest novels to be published in a single volume. Despite its considerable length, it has enjoyed enormous popularity since it was published and has recently been adapted into a mini-series. On the surface it is an Austenian romance of the search for a good match between a woman and a man. But told in parallel is the story of a new nation struggling to find its identity, of the shortcomings of the older generation which delivered independence but not the rewards that were supposed to come with it, of the restrictions of tradition and the younger generation yearning to make their mark. The two threads are hardly unrelated; the difficult choice faced by a young woman have their complement in the choices faced by the young nation.

Cover image of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

In the city of Brahmpur, India, in 1950, Savita Mehra is marrying Pran Kapoor, a popular English professor, at his family home of Prem Nivas. Hosting and paying for this wedding is Pran’s father, Mahesh Kapoor, the Minister of Revenue for their state of Purva Pradesh and a former freedom fighter in India’s Independence Movement.

Savita, the bride, is the eldest daughter of Mrs Rupa Mehra, a widow whose husband died eight years ago of a sudden heart attack. Fiercely traditional, even to the point of intolerance, Mrs Rupa Mehra exerts strict control over Savita and her other daughter, Lata. Though, she in turn is dominated by her father, Dr Kishen Chand Seth, whose affection she craves and advice she respects but who gives her little more than cruel rebukes and criticism. Its effect, other than to make Mrs Rupa Mehra miserable, sorry for herself and melodramatic; is to give her an outsized perception of her responsibilities and to spur her to be as harsh and determined to force what she believes is right.

With Savita married, Mrs Rupa Mehra turns attention to finding a match for Lata. Barely a few months pass since Savita’s wedding before her search begins in earnest.

Meanwhile, Lata, a university student, finds herself continually running into the same young man – at the library, at her exam, at a music recital – who she learns is named Kabir, each time learning a little more about him. Her intrigue building, she asks her best friend Malati to find out more about him.

Malati Trivedi’s surgeon father and her brothers all died when she was a child. As such, Malati grew up with the experience of family men who try to take advantage of her situation to steal her father’s wealth and with strong women around her who fought them off. Her mother encouraged her daughter to pursue education and independence. A medical student, Malati is notorious for her outspokenness, her activities for the Socialist Party and her love affairs.

Just when Lata thinks she might be falling for Kabir, Malati returns with bad news – Kabir is a Muslim, would never be accepted by her Hindu family, best to forget about him. Though Lata tells Kabir they should not be seen together, Kabir now knows enough about her to get through her defences. Their mutual love of art, culture and history makes his suggestions of outings together too hard to resist. To her protest that her family would not allow them to be together, Kabir is untroubled, saying his family is not terribly religious.

Kabir held her hand and said, ‘You love me. And I love you. That’s all that matters.’

Lata persisted: ‘Doesn’t your father care?’

‘No. Unlike many Muslim families, I suppose we were sheltered during Partition – and before. […] I don’t see why we have to talk about this.’

When her mother discovers the truth, it leads to an ugly confrontation. Lata turns from apologetic to defiant, declaring she will marry Kabir. Her mother’s response is to buy tickets for Lata and herself to leave immediately for Calcutta to force a separation between Lata and Kabir and to visit her sons. Sneaking out Lata meets Kabir and suggests they run away together. Kabir demurs, advises patience and asks her to be reasonable. Lata says she does not have that luxury, she will be married off before then. She declares she never wants to see Kabir again and leaves for Calcutta heartbroken and humiliated.

In Calcutta, Rupa Mehra and Lata visit Arun and Varun; Rupa’s two sons and Lata’s brothers. Arun is an executive at a prestigious, mostly white, firm of Bentsen and Price. An arrogant man, Arun is displeased with the marriage of his sister Savita to a Kapoor. Despite the position the Kapoor’s have attained, they occupy a lower caste to the Mehra’s. According to Arun, if the family had not fallen hard after the death of his father, this wedding would never have happened.

Arun is a bully to his other siblings. No one suffers this more than his brother Varun, who lives with Arun and Arun’s wife Meenakshi while he studies mathematics. A sweet but meek and unsure young man, Varun spends his spare time gambling with his friends, avoiding his studies and listening to his brother’s taunts about how he will never amount to anything if he does not shape up.

The British knew how to run things, reflected Arun Mehra. They worked hard and they played hard. The believed in command, and so did he. They assumed that if you couldn’t command at twenty-five, you didn’t have it in you. […] What was wrong with this country was a lack of initiative. All that Indians wanted was a safe job.

Arun’s wife, Meenakshi Mehra nee Chatterji, is as much a snob as her husband. Their quick marriage came as a shock to both families. While in Calcutta, Lata starts spending a lot of time with Meenakshi’s family, the Chatterjis, which her mother welcomes as it seems to be taking her mind off Kabir. The Chatterjis have wealth and position, and Lata enjoys the diverse conversation with a sophisticated, cultured and modern family. But she still thinks of Kabir often, is conflicted by letters she receives from him – unrepentant but full of declarations of love – and observes that she was happier before she met him.

With a mutual love of literature, Lata starts spending a lot of time with Meenakshi’s brother, Amit. After studying law at Lincoln’s Inn, Amit had seemed on a path to follow his father, a judge in Calcutta’s Supreme Court. Yet he has turned his back on a career in law, preferring instead to become a writer. He already has a book of poetry published and is working on a novel.

There was something so pleasing, natural and unpretentious about her gesture that Amit found himself thinking: She may be more intelligent than my sisters, but I’m glad she’s not as sophisticated. She’s the nicest girl I’ve met for a long time.

Lata for her part was thinking how much she liked Meenakshi’s family. They brought her out of herself and her stupid, self-created misery.

When it is pointed out to Mrs Rupa Mehra that Amit’s interest in Lata may be more than just friendly, Mrs Rupa Mehra experiences an angry panic. She does not want another Chatterji in the family, another grandchild speaking Bengali and thinks Amit a wastrel.

Meanwhile, back in Brahmpur, Pran has recently made the acquaintance of Haresh Khanna, a young man in the footwear trade. Pran thinks Haresh might be right for Lata. Haresh, though, is still in love with a Sikh girl who he could not marry because his family would not accept the match.

Mrs Rupa Mehra, in desperation, travels to Delhi to visit family friends and ask their help in finding a suitable boy for her Lata. Unimpressed with their candidates, Mrs Rupa Mehra is ready to move on and try contacts in other cities, when who should walk in but Haresh Khanna. Though their first meeting is short, Mrs Rupa Mehra is already impressed and summons Lata to Delhi. Lata is furious when she finds out why she has been summoned.

When they were alone, Mrs Rupa Mehra told Lata about Haresh: ‘a very suitable prospect.’

Lata was speechless for a moment. Then in a tone of disbelief she said: ‘You treat me like a child.’

Mrs Rupa Mehra wavered for a few seconds between suppression and placation, then murmured: ‘What is the harm, darling? I am not forcing anything on you.’

[…] Lata looked at her mother, amazed that she should defend herself.

‘And it was for this – not because you were unwell or needed my help – that I was summoned from Calcutta.’ The tone of Lata’s voice was so unloving that Mrs Rupa Mehra’s nose reddened. But she pulled herself together and said:

‘Darling, I do need your help. Getting you married is not easy. And the boy is of our community.’

‘I don’t care what community he belongs to. I am not going to see him.’

Haresh too finds the situation strange. But both have their preconceptions softened by their mutual friends in Delhi. Lata and Haresh’s first outings together are cordial but awkward. She is not a fan of his showy attire, his paan chewing, his confidence in his own opinions. A trip to the tannery to show how leather is made does not go well. She makes a more favourable impression. Haresh likes that Lata is intelligent without being arrogant. Despite finding the thought of marrying him ridiculous, Lata does like him and finds all thoughts of Kabir vanish when she is with him.

‘Well, Lata?’

‘Well, Ma?’ Lata smiled. Now that it was a reality rather than an anticipation, the question was not so formidable.

‘Don’t you think he’s suitable?’ Mrs Rup Mehra’s voice made it clear that any rejection of Haresh would hurt her to the quick.

‘Ma, I’ve only met him for twenty-four hours!’

‘Twenty-six.’

[…] ‘Let me put it like this. He’s not rejected. He says he wants to write to me. Let’s see what he has to say for himself.’

‘You are a very fussy and ungrateful girl,’ said her mother. ‘You are always thinking of the wrong people.’

Though the search for a suitable boy for Lata, whose main choices are between three very different men, would appear to be the main story of this epic novel, it shares its space with several other plots which make the model a far broader portrait of India at this point in time.

The Kapoors are close to the Khan family. Mahesh Kapoor is long friends with the Nawab Sahib of Baitar, a Muslim aristocrat. Their sons Imtiaz Khan, Firoz Khan and Maan Kapoor are also friends. Mahesh’s role as Minister of Revenue, however, has led him to produce a legislative bill aimed at land redistribution – a major obstacle to progress in newly-independent India and one that goes against the material interests of his good friend.

The Nawab is realistic about his future. He knows and accepts he will likely lose his land and mansions but does not blame his friend, the government, the socialists or anyone else. Instead, he blames his own aristocratic class who squandered their power, surrendered their administrations to the British and were incompetent with their money. But as things progress, his friendship will inevitably be strained.

For the Nawab Sahib Partition had been a multiple tragedy: many of those he knew, both Muslim and Hindu, had been killed or injured or scarred by the terror of those days; he had lost two parts of his country; his family had been broken up by migration; Baitar House had come under attack through manipulations of the evacuee property laws; most of the great estate surrounding Baitar Fort was soon to be wrested from him under zamindari laws that would have been impossible to pass in a united India; the language of his ancestors and favourite poets was under siege; and he really was conscious that even his patriotism was no longer readily accepted by many of his acquaintances. He thanked God that he still had friends like Mahesh Kapoor who understood him; and he thanked God that his sons had friends like Mahesh Kapoor’s son. But he felt beleaguered and beset by what was happening around him;

Mahesh Kapoor is also close to the Home Minister, LN Agarwal, if only through the friendship of their daughters. But Agarwal is facing considerable political heat for deaths in religious riots and the confrontation between a local mosque and Hindu temple.

A portent of future India in Brahmpur (a fictional city) is the construction of a new Hindu temple. The local story is that the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb demolished an ancient Hindu temple here and built a mosque on the site. The temple’s Shiva Linga was smuggled out and has been kept hidden for centuries. Now, the Raja of Mahr is resurrecting the new temple next to the mosque. In response, the Imam of the mosque begins giving incendiary sermons attacking the construction of the temple and the removal of Muslims from the local police force.

Pran’s younger brother, Maan, lacks ambition and work ethic. He starts his days with an intoxicating bhang concoction, he goes out looking for fun with his friends. When Saeeda Bai Firozabadi, a celebrated singer, performs at Prem Nivas, Maan is captivated. Though older and a Muslim, Saeeda Bai is a skilled courtesan, able to entrance men with her music, singing and poetry. Days later, Maan still cannot stop thinking about her. His friends are shocked to see him so affected over a woman when normally women throw themselves at Maan who is also engaged though only tentatively.

Maan goes back and forth on whether he should try and visit Saeeda at her house, where she entertains clients in private. Though it takes a couple of attempts, Maan is let in and spends and invigorating evening of music and banter with her, which she cuts short, always leaving her clients wanting more, but enough for Maan to leave feeling like he is walking on air. To the horror of his family, who could tolerate the young man enjoying a few wild pursuits, Saeeda soon becomes an obsession for Maan, more powerful than any of his other intoxicants.

Maan’s normal good sense withers to his desires as he fantasises of an impossible future with Saeeda. But Saeeda knows where to draw the line with her clients, some of whom are powerful men like the Raja of Marh – the same man who is stoking religious tension with his temple build. Maan’s situation is further complicated by the fact that his best friends, Imtiaz and Firoz, are sons of the Nawab who is increasingly at odds with Maan’s father over the land redistribution issue. Imtiaz and Firoz have their own love interests, whose paths cross with Maan’s.

In an attempt to break Saeeda’s hold on Maan, his family sends him away to live in a rural village with his Urdu tutor, Abdur Rasheed. In the village, Maan is surprised to learn that Rasheed has a wife and two small children. Returning to his village brings out a lot of simmering anger in Rasheed. He is frustrated by the lack of interest in development, disgusted by the treatment of Chamars (untouchables), including the actions of his own family. Rasheed’s father, with whom he argues frequently, doesn’t tolerate his progressive ideas and accuses him of being a communist. Rasheed’s father would prefer Rasheed to live in the village and help him subvert the government’s new laws and maintain the status quo.

‘They are very happy, naturally, to keep things as they are. But I have lived in the village almost all my life, and I have seen the whole system. I know how it works. The zamindars – and my family is not so extraordinary as to be an exception to this – the zamindars do nothing but make their living from the misery of others; and they try to force their sons into the same ugly mould as themselves.’ Here Rasheed paused, and the area around the corners of his mouth tightened. ‘If their sons want to do anything else, they make life miserable for them too,’ he continued. ‘They talk a great deal about family honour, but they have no sense of honour except to gratify the promises of pleasure they have made to themselves.

He was silent for a second, as if hesitating; then went on:

[…] ‘The main fact is that the system of landlords isn’t good for the villagers, it isn’t good for the countryside as a whole, it isn’t good for the country, and until it goes…’ The last sentence remained unfinished. Rasheed was pressing his fingertips to his forehead, as if he was in pain.

When Rasheed instead takes a small step against this corruption, to benefit a member of a lower class, he plunges himself into a world of trouble.

Back in those old pre-2008 days of book chain stores, where loyal customers could vote for their favourite books, tallied for a list that would appear in every store, I was always surprised to see A Suitable Boy on those lists year after year. It is such a long book, set decades ago in a culture that must have been very alien for most readers. Yet, there it was, what is its appeal?

I could not help but feel an affinity for Jane Austen while reading A Suitable Boy. Maybe because I was coincidentally reading Mansfield Park at the same time. Do they have similarities? The search for a good match within a rigid class system, stifling social rules, the fear of scandal and change, diluted with occasional humour?

What also made me think of Austen were those characters that seem to have been deliberately imagined by the author to irritate the reader. Mrs Rupa Mehra, with her severe control over her daughters, her melodramatic emotional blackmail, her belief in tradition at all costs, was an easy source of vexation for me, though Seth also does much to soften her, humanise her, make the reader empathise with her.

‘I have plenty of troubles,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra in a decided manner. ‘You know them as well as I do. Look at Meenakshi and how she handles the child. And Varun and his studies – what will happen to him – smoking and drinking and gambling and all that? And you don’t get married – isn’t that a trouble? And Savita, expecting. And Pran with his illness. And Pran’s brother: doing all those things and people talking about it all over Brahmpur. And Meenakshi’s sister – people are talking about her also. Do you think I don’t have to listen to these things from people? Just yesterday Purobi Ray was gossiping about Kuku. So these are my troubles, and now you have upset me even more. And I am a widow with diabetes,’ she added, almost as an afterthought. ‘Isn’t that a trouble?’

Other aspects – the use of intertextual material (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in A Suitable Boy’s case), games (Bridge) with potential meaning for the story – reminded me of Austen and Mansfield Park as well. And wouldn’t you know it, A Suitable Boy does contain a reference to Mansfield Park as well!

Though the novel is set in India in the early 1950s, I felt that author Vikram Seth has made this novel more universal and less exotic. The sort of descriptive writing authors use to emphasise to the reader a sense of a different culture and time, is largely avoided by Seth. Or, alternatively, it may be possible that I have read so many novels set in the India of the past that I am becoming immune to it.

As I hope I have made clear from my excessive introduction above (it’s difficult to be briefly introduce a complex novel of 1,400+ pages!), the search for a suitable boy for Lata is just one aspect of this novel. It is even, arguable, the least interesting one. There is, of course, Maan’s journey from entitlement through love, obsession and scandal. But the political aspects of the novel probably aren’t as well-emphasised above.

This is India just a few years after Independence. Some of the older characters, who don’t feature heavily, literally bear the scars of years of struggle which often meant years in prison. Some have sacrificed more than others, some have been rewarded more than others. But material change for most citizens is slow to emerge. Partition has been deadly and it is difficult to interpret what it will mean. Some are even beginning to question what it was all for.

An old man, a teacher, sat on the chair that faced Mahesh Kapoor across the table. He was younger, but looked older than the Minister. He had been worn out by a lifetime of care. He was an old freedom fighter, who had spent many years in jail under the British, and had seen his family reduced to poverty. He had obtained a BA in 1921, and with a qualification like that in those days he might well have gone on to retire at the very highest levels of Government. But in the later Twenties he had left everything to follow Gandhiji, and this idealistic impulse had cost him dearly. When he was in jail, his wife, with no one to support her, had died of tuberculosis, and his children, reduced to eating other people’s scraps, had suffered nearly fatal starvation. With the coming of independence he had hoped that his sacrifice would result in an order of things closer to the ideals he had fought for, but he had been bitterly disappointed. He saw the corruption that had begun to eat into the rationing system and the system of government contracts with a rapacity that had surpassed anything he had known under the British. The police too had become more overt in their extortions. What was worse was that the local politicians, the members of the local Congress Committees, were often hand in glove with the corrupt petty officials.

But others have a ready answer. To them Independence means anything deemed to be foreign must be eliminated; Partition means India is now a Hindu-first country. The hesitancy of those who imagine India’s future as a modern secular democracy is what they are counting on. Examples of what you may read in Indian history books like Maria Misra’a Vishnu’s Crowded Temple – Hindu revivalism, language purification – are at work here.

Tradition, in India, is stubbornly immovable. In the novel it is apparent in the inability of India’s new democratic leaders to legislate for change, in the danger Rasheed puts himself in in his village, in the rejection of love across religious lines. In some instances, even sworn enemies will work together to resist change that would hurt them both; thwarting those seeking to benefit the majority. The land reform the Indian government is pursuing at the time the novel is set, which drives wedges between friends and brings enemies into collaboration, which proved so crucial to economic development in Japan and South Korea in the same era, never occurred in India. The novel also shows a lack of freedom for all Indian women, regardless of religion, caste or wealth. When some characters discuss a wish for female leaders, I had to wonder if Seth was having a joke with us, knowing what the characters do not, of the future in India that comes with Indira Gandhi?

Most of the novel’s characters, however, are young and many are also wealthy. Their eyes, understandably, are all on the future. Like the Baby Boomers of the West, they are undeterred by the sacrifices, if not the traditions, of previous generations, and are eager to forge ahead. The Chatterji family, in particular, with their modernism, their openness, their humour, their love of culture, were easy for me to enjoy and I wished for more of them in the novel. The same was true for Haresh. His method of defying tradition is his career. Not born into wealth, he is determined to be a self-made man, to create a future through his determined work ethic, his knowledge and skill, and his character, and he demands to be judged on those terms, not on his past, class or faith.

The connection between these social, political and cultural dilemmas of India’s post-Independence identity and Lata’s choice of husband is that, in a way, her choice is a similar dilemma – should she choose economic stability (Haresh), sophisticated internationalism (Amit) or to defy and overcome religious factionalism (Kabir)?

A TV mini-series adaptation of A Suitable Boy was released in 2020. It’s only six episodes which makes me sceptical it can really capture the complexity of the novel and my suspicion is that it focuses on the matchmaking aspects. So, I have no plans of seeing it but I’m open to being persuaded.

Regardless, this novel which took Vikram Seth eight years to complete, and won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1994, has clearly been well-read and well-loved since it was published. I have even heard of readers who have read this epic twice! Perhaps its greatest achievement is that it provides a story with a lot of hidden themes, a panorama of a vast complex country at a turbulent moment in its history yet, despite its length, it makes the reader feel they are reading nothing weightier than a story of the search for love.

5 comments

  1. I too found A Suitable boy very Austen-esque – the same gentle mockery and astute commentary. Loved the book! Have you watched the series? It’s pretty good too!

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    • Thanks for you comment. I have not watched the series yet, I thought it would focus on the love story and wouldn’t capture everything else going on. You would recommend it?

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      • I liked the series. It captured the spirit of the book. Plus, unlike the book, it’s fairly short and crisp.

        That said, the book is better.

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      • I think I’m going to end up watching the series too. Hearing from people who loved the book and also liked the series is a pretty good endorsement.

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  2. I’ve read it twice!! I read it when it came out in paperback (I’ve got it in the one big fat volume), then I took it on holiday to France and spent a delicious week reading it. I have swerved the TV series, too, it looked too shallow. I really think it’s time for me to read this again, actually.

    Liked by 1 person

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