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Happy birthday, Vikram Seth! A Suitable Boy

Happy birthday, Vikram Seth! Born in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) on June 20, 1952, he is 64 today. A visit to the Writer’s Almanac website reminded me today is his birthday.

Wikipedia tells me his fourth novel, A Suitable Girl, is due to come out this year. He took the world by storm when he came out with his first novel, On Golden Gate, told entirely in verse, in 1986. It was stunning in its virtuosity. He was more subdued but graceful still in his third and last novel, An Equal Music, published 17 years ago, in 1999. But he is best known for A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel.  Published in 1993, it is “the longest single-volume work of fiction in English since 1747”, says the Writer’s Almanac.

Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, is regarded as the longest novel in the English language. A Suitable Boy is a marathon, too, running to nearly 1,500 pages in paperback. It’s huge and sprawling like the country it’s set in: India.

This is the book I browse when I want to go back to the India I love. A country that no longer exists. The India of the 1950s and ‘60s when the colonial legacy was stronger. The India of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi who were freedom fighters but English-educated. When asked,”What do you think of Western civilization?”, Gandhi is said to have quipped, “I think it would be a very good idea”, but he read Plato, Ruskin, Thoreau and Tolstoy.

Nehru was a Fabian socialist to start with and wrote in English. He was different from present-day popular Indian politicians like Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee who are more comfortable in their mother tongues. India is richer, stronger today, but brasher, even vulgar, compared with the India of old. The India that lingers in history and books like A Suitable Boy.

Set in newly-independent India, the “novel follows the story of four families over a period of 18 months, and centres on Mrs Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter, Lata, to a ‘suitable boy’”, as Wikipedia says. The narrative gives a vivid account of India, the politics, culture and society of the time.  The story begins with the wedding of Sabita, Mrs Rupa Mehra’s elder daughter. Here are the opening lines:

 “You too will marry a boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her youngest daughter.

Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas. The wedding guests were gathered on the lawns. “Hmm,” she said. This annoyed her mother further.

“I know what your hmms mean, young lady, and I can tell you I will not stand for hmms in this matter. I do know what is best. I am doing it all for you. Do you think it is easy for me, trying to arrange things for all four of my children without His help?” Her nose began to redden at the thought of her husband, who would, she felt certain, be partaking of their present joy from somewhere benevolently above. Mrs Rupa Mehra believed, of course, in reincarnation, but at moments of exceptional sentiment, she imagined that the late Raghubir Mehra still inhabited the form in which she had known him when he was alive: the robust, cheerful form of his early forties bfore overwork had brought about his heart attack at the height of the Second World War. Eight years ago, eight years, thought Mrs Rupa Mehra miserably.

“Now, now, Ma, you can’t cry on Sabita’s wedding day,” said Lata, putting her arm gently but not very concernedly around her mother’s shoulder.

“If He had been here, I could have worn the tissue-patola sari I wore for my own wedding,” sighed Mrs Rupa Mehra. “But it is too rich for a widow to wear.”

“Ma,” said Lata, a little exasperated at the emotional capital her mother insisted on making out of every possible circumstance. “People are looking at you. They want to congratulate, and they’ll think it very odd if they see you crying in this way.”

Several guests were indeed doing namaste to Mrs Rupa Mehra and smiling at her; the cream of Brahmpur society she was pleased to note.

The novel is Indian to the core, touching on customs and practices that are still prevalent. “Arranged” marriages are still common, where young men and women wed partners chosen by their families. A wedding can be both a religious ceremony and a social occasion. Mrs Mehra is happy her daugher’s wedding is attended by the cream of society.

A Suitable Boy is a family saga that’s also a romance and a comedy of manners. It ends happily. (Another reason I love the book.)

But while the customs and practices it describes still prevail in India today, it is set in a vanished age. Mrs Rupa Mehra, for example, sends letters by post to her friends and relatives before going on a railway journey to visit them.  Indians nowadays are as likely to fly as take the train, and hardly anyone posts letters in this age of email and SMS. There are a thousand other ways the book reminds us it’s set in the past, but the characters are so human, so endearing, you fall in love with the country that produced them – the India of old. Gone with the wind, an India no more.

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