As Vikram Seth's Magnum Opus A Suitable Boy approaches its 20th year, since first being published by Faber & Faber, the public's affection for this epical work still remains as strong as it ever did.
Finally, after many years, I sat down to read this book, for which I had read so much praise. Neither with scepticism nor anticipation did I enter into this world conceived by Seth, before even turning to the first page, I fastidiously cleansed my mind of all prior knowledge, dismissing the reviews and the twittering of book lovers the world over, becoming a figurative virgin.
Vikram Seth is quite an anomaly, particularly in this day and age, not just is he a novelist, but a poet, librettist, children's writer, memoirist and biographer. It is as if he's drifted from the pages of some 19th century novel, lost in the mists of time, and ended up here, in this age of ravenous vulgarity and mediocrity, to act as a sought of literary saviour.
A Suitable Boy is set in Post-Independence and Post-Partition India; just as the country was entering into its first decade, free from foreign rule. It had been centuries since India had actually been fully independent, not truly since the days of the Gupta Dynasty, having just immediately gained independence from Britain, prior to that there were the Mughals, the Turks, the Mongols, but now India was finally ready to progress on its own.
The book begins at a gently simmering pace, giving the reader ample time to absorb the characters in true depth, starting off with the wedding of Savita Mehra to Praan Kapoor, a university lecturer. No sooner has the wedding ended, that Mrs Rupra Mehra, the matriarch of the family, begins her search for a suitable boy for her youngest daughter Lata, who at 19 is determined not to have an arranged marriage, but to fall in love first. Lata is a girl who does not possess the preconceived prejudices of her mother, with regards to inter-religious marriage and class hierarchies; her aim is to fall in love and to experience the emotional euphoria and complexities that it brings. She has only ever read about true love in books, through the works of Jane Austin and Shakespeare et al, and also through her mother and late father's relationship.
Lata ventures into an alien territory, where all previous poetical notions fly out of the window. She develops a fondness for Kabir, a cricket and literature enthusiast, who attends college with her in Brahmpur, then the inevitable happens, what first began as an awkward affection, quickly develops into a love, so deep and so penetrating. When Lata, and eventually her meddling mother find out Kabir is a Muslim, what begins as a pleasant courtship becomes clouded by upset and emotional conflictions. The inter-marriage of Hindus and Muhammedan's and vice-versa, was, and in parts of contemporary Indian society still remains, a cause of much confliction.
Vikram Seth's writing is reminiscent of Jane Austin and in parts Dickens's, yet the overall style is entirely his own, and though the central thread of the novel is marriage, Seth also concentrates on the political and societal upheavals experienced by all Indians at that time in microscopic detail, regardless of class. No one could not possibly accuse Seth of producing a novel of perfumed frivolity, because there is so much depth and sensitivity, A Suitable Boy is not just about the pursuit of marriage and happiness, but heartache and disappointment, which is universal. Throughout its sprawling 1474 pages, there was no emotion left unexplored, no character left misunderstood and with not even a hint of saccharine. No other novelist could possibly give so much scope to such a complex world.
Reading this at 23, my empathy and attachment magnetically drew towards the younger characters Lata, Kabir, Varun, Maan and so on. It was for Kabir in particularly that I felt an immense affection for, a true brotherly love developed as this character, so in love, so intelligent and so sweet unfolded as I read each page. I felt his deep-rooted love for Lata burning in his soul, like a raging forest fire, growing and becoming ever more intense. There was such beauty in his use of poetic lines, lifted from the pages of Keats and Byron. Here was a lyrical and sensitive individual, who through societal and personal circumstances was forced to experience a heart ache, never felt before.
The novel matures with each chapter, the quest for love continues, and the many characters have to face their own demons and desires head on. A Suitable Boy is a novel which will stay with me for a long time; holding a special place in my heart, I will continue to remember these characters for many years to come.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2009)
Follow Ben Mirza on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LesMirza