Tuesday 29 October 2013

An Indian Adventure With A Suitable Boy

Over the last couple of years I’ve looked at the Team Reads run by Lynne over at dovegreyreader (an exceedingly good blog – if you’ve never seen it, take a look, now),  and considered joining in, but never quite plucked up the courage. Normally I like to race through a book to discover the ending, then go back for a more leisurely exploration, but I’m ‘slow reading’ Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries, and thoroughly enjoying the experience, and it’s got me in the mood for a more reflective approach to my reading, so I feel ready to tackle Lynne’s 2013-14 Big Book, which is A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth - a very big book indeed. The size is intimidating, and for ages and ages my (unread) copy has been lying under a bookcase on the landing, and the Man of the House and I both keep tripping over it and stubbing our toes, because it sticks out. So you would think it would be easy to find – but it’s not there! And it doesn’t seem to be anywhere else, which is puzzling… I cannot understand how such a large book can disappear in such a small house! 
I'm immersing myself in all things Indian
with A Suitable Boy (and the cover is brown,
not pink as it looks here).
Luckily, I found a copy in the library (but I cannot keep it for year, so I must locate mine or acquire another), and I’m aiming to Read-A-Long (or should that be Read Along?), finishing two sections every four weeks, and commenting on Lyn’s posts on the last Saturday of each month. It’s an interesting venture, because (as I’m discovering with Vere Hodgson) there’s plenty of time to look things up, and to do background reading, putting things into context with factual books, and strolling through novels which portray the same period and setting. And I love seeing other people’s views: there are common themes, which everyone seems to pick up on but, surprisingly, different readers home in on different aspects of A Suitable Boy, and I think to myself ‘oh, how did I miss that?’, and back I go to take another look, and all those fragmentary impressions somehow mesh together and enrich my reading.

The book starts with a wedding, and revolves around the search for a Suitable Boy to marry Lata, who is torn between the desire to follow her heart and be independent, and the pressure to be a conventional, dutiful daughter making an arranged marriage. The opening lines set the scene:

‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

According to DGR, it was those first eight words which sparked the novel, and that Seth recently revealed that his world of India in the 1950s grew out of that single, short sentence. And what a world it is! Here, we have India, just a few years after independence and partition, a fledgling nation struggling to find its way in the modern world. Here we have the city of Brahmpur, a fictional locations which, nevertheless, is a distillation of everything I’ve ever imagined or learned about India. And here, above all else, we have the people: the Mehras, Kapoors, various other families, and (like AA Milne’s Rabbit) all their friends and relations. Two months – and four sections – into the book, and it’s the people and their relationships which matter, but I think that is true of any novel. You can have a cracking plot, an amazing setting, and a truly wonderful writing style, but it all counts for nothing if readers don’t engage with the characters. 
My Elder Daughter brought me back this beautiful silk scarf
when she visited India earlier this year, so I'm resting the book
on it as I read. 
Anyway, back to the beginning, and the marriage between Lata’s sister Savita and Pran Kapoor, a kindly but geekish university lecturer. It was interesting to see the differences between an English wedding, where the service is so important, and this Hindu wedding, where the ceremony seems to play second fiddle to the celebrations, and while the couple are going through the required rites everyone else is singing, dancing, eating and generally enjoying themselves.

During these early chapters I was reminded of Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood film inspired by Pride and Prejudice, and I think there are similarities between Seth’s India and Austen’s England, although she wrote on a much smaller canvas. There’s the obvious comparison of a mother seeking to marry a daughter off, and the need for girls to make a ‘good’ match (but Mrs Rupa Mehra is more likable than Mrs Bennett, although she is just as obsessed about weddings, equally anxious to prevent an unfortunate liaison or ill-advised decision, and every bit as manipulative).

As in Austen’s time, it’s a very formal, very polite society, with a strict social etiquette governing many aspects of life, especially the relationship between men and women.  A nicely brought up young lady most certainly does not sneak off to meet a desirable young man behind her mother’s back (especially if she is Hindu and he is Moslem)… and secret boating trips with this same young man (at dawn!) are a complete no-no. Actually, I think I would have flipped if either of my daughters had crept out for an early morning river assignation with a lad, and in the circumstances I think Mrs Rupa Mehra’s reaction is really quite restrained! 
I'm not sure that these elephants reflect the themes of the
novel, but it's a photo taken by my Elder Daughter, and to
me it says 'India'.
I was surprised that in public women never mention their husbands by name – even that terribly distant ‘Mr Bennett’ we come across in P&P cannot be used.

Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, for instance, when referring to her husband, often referred to him as ‘Minister Sahib’. Sometimes, in Hindi, she even called him ‘Pran’s father’. To refer to him by name would have been unthinkable. Even ‘my husband’ was unacceptable to her, but ‘my this’ was all right.

Younger women chafe against restrictions, and attend university. Some, like Lata’s friend Malati, even have their hearts set on a career (she wants to be doctor) go out with boys of their own choosing. However, generally speaking women are subservient, dependent on fathers, brothers, husbands, just as they were in Jane Austen’s time: they don’t work, and are expected to keep heads covered in public. Marriage is their only option, and arranged marriage at that. It seems alien to us, but in the early 1950s English women were just as confined.

Like many others reading this for the first time, I'm fascinated by the whole race/caste issue, and the way skin colour seems to matter to these Indians - the lighter the better (you come across the same attitude among the West Indian slaves in Andrea Levy's The Long Song). And the girls jokingly refer to a good-looking young man as a Cad (after Cadbury's chocolate) - think of the outrage if white women used the same terminology! Indian men like that! Did they always have this attitude, I wonder, or is it a hangover from the days of the Raj? Perhaps there is something inherent in human nature which makes us establish hierarchies – after all, servants in big houses had their own pecking order. 
No monkey business please... Another of my Daughter's
Indian photos - was this the type of monkey that Lata fed?
These first four sections are packed with poems, literary allusions, and references to traditional Indian tales and religion. It’s a cultured, mannered society, where people value education, and those involved in the university jockey for power and position. Set against that, however, is a world of squalor and poverty. Seth’s description of a tannery in a poor area is shocking in its intensity, capturing the dirt, the stench and the sights in language that is closer to poetry than prose, which makes the scene even more brutal.

Visiting this malodorous spot is businessman Haresh, who works in the shoe trade, and whose story runs alongside that of Lata, and will prove, so we are told, to be ‘not irrelevant’ to her tale. Haresh is well educated, likes the fine things in life, and has boundless energy and enthusiasm for getting things done. He also has a social conscience and an appetite for change:
… he clicked his tongue, not so much from moral disapproval as from a feeling of disapproval that this should be the state of things. Illiteracy, poverty, indiscipline, dirt! It wasn’t as if people here didn’t have potential. If he had his way and was given funds and labour, he would have this neighbourhood on its feet in six months. Sanitation, drinking water, electricity, paving, civic sense – it was simply a question of making sensible decisions and having the requisite facilities to implement them.
Personally, I like a man of passion who cares about those less fortunate than himself, and as far as I’m concerned Haresh seems a far more ‘suitable boy’ than Kabir, Lata’s current love interest, who is big on charm and good looks but doesn’t seem to have much else to offer – although I may change my mind as I read on. I’m hoping that that there’s a clue in the ‘not irrelevant’ comment, and that Haresh and Lata will get it together, and I’m sure her mother would be pleased that outcome! Anyway, I’ll just have to wait and see what happens. 
I spotted this notebook, with it's lovely Paisley
 design on the cover, and it seemed just the thing
 to write my  thoughts on the novel.


  1. I loved this book when I read it a few months ago! I'm so glad you're enjoying it too. :)

    1. It's always good when other people enjoy the same books as you! I have been immersing myself in India, and have a list of things I want to look up, includng more about independence.