The news that Vikram Seth is writing a sequel to A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, had me reaching for another book I love: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.
What set me off was an interview Seth gave to The Hindu newspaper in India. The sequel, A Suitable Girl, will be set in the present, he said, and Lata, the heroine of A Suitable Boy, will be in her eighties. She was a young woman in A Suitable Boy, set in the early years of Indian independence, and the title referred to Haresh, the shoe company executive she married.
“She may be married to her husband Haresh, or she may be widowed,” said Seth about the sequel, which will be published in 2013, and is also about the Indian custom of arranged marriages. “A Suitable Girl is being sought for her grandson, who confides in her quite a bit.”
He added: ““It is going to be largely set in India, but could also involve other nations.”
That is why I was reminded of The Glass Palace, an epic novel starting with the British conquest of Burma and ending with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Rangoon.
The book starts with the Indian Rajkumar’s arrival in Mandalay just before the British occupation in the 19th century and goes on to describe the lives of people in Burma, India and Malaya under British rule, the momentous events of the Second World War, and their aftermath.
Rajkumar is just a boy, an orphan, when he arrives in Mandalay. We see him make a fortune as a timber merchant in Rangoon, lose everything in the Second World War, and live to a ripe old age in India.
In this panoramic novel with a diverse cast of Indians, Burmese and Chinese, three characters stand out: Rajkumar; his beloved wife, Dolly, who had been a maid to the Burmese queen; and Dolly’s friend, Uma, the Indian Collector’s wife.
History brings them together. Dolly meets Uma while living in exile with the Burmese royal family in the Indian seaside town of Ratnagiri. That is where she marries Rajkumar. He had fallen in love with her when she had been a maid in the royal “glass palace” in Mandalay — and, after making his fortune in Rangoon, he comes to Ratnagiri looking for her. Uma brings them together. He arrives as Uma’s guest.
Other events cast their shadows. We see the Burmese timber trade, the Malayan rubber industry, the fighting in the Second World War, the rise of the Burmese military junta.
We see how Raj Kumar, Dolly and Uma change over the years, how different people respond to adversity.
Nothing remains the same, reminds this family saga spanning more than a century.
Best of all is the ending, which shows life can be full of surprises. It shows an old couple discovered in bed by a child who had never known they were lovers. Indeed, there is nothing in the book remotely hinting at their intimacy until the last page.
Awoken by the child’s surprised gasp, the old man picks up his dentures from a tumbler and slips them on. But they have got entangled with the woman’s false teeth in the tumbler. She gently extricates her dentures from his.
The child can’t forget the scene even after he has grown up. He recalls how she “leant forward and fastened her mouth on her teeth”. He adds:
Their mouths clung to each other and they shut their eyes.
I had never seen a kiss before.
What follows is the sublime final paragraph of the novel where the narrator writes:
What I saw that morning… remains to this day the most tender, the most moving sight I have ever seen, and from that day when I sat down to write this book – the book my mother never wrote – I knew that it was with this that it would end.
It is a moving ending to a remarkable novel.