Well! I’m pleased to announce that I too have escalated the Everest… Er, I mean I finally read Vikram Seth’s 1472 page novel “A suitable boy”, and that it has been a fascinating experience: thanks M. Seth! Such a length is said to be unparalleled in English literature, and indeed the length in itself is amazing. Fancy actually writing that incredibly long story, and controlling it from beginning to end. It took him seven years to complete, he said (and three to recover). Some people actually complained it strained their wrists, LOL. But there you are, if you are a lover of classic writing (some have said Austenian), if you love reading beautifully well developed prose, you’re the one for A suitable boy.
Now if you haven’t read the book and you are planning on reading it, come back when you’re through, because what I want to discuss needs looking at the plot and the narrative choices which Vikram Seth has made (so unavoidable spoilers!). But before I do that, I’ll quote what Steven Wu has written about the style, and which I find myself unable to express better:
A suitable boy is a superbly well-written book. Although I thought at first that Seth's tone was far too flippant, [our one disagreement here, I found no flippancy at all] I soon came to appreciate the simple, unpresuming, but eminently readable style that Seth adopts from the first page to the last. It's really remarkable that in over 1,300 pages of densely spaced text, Seth at no point wrote a single sentence that I found awkward, melodramatic, or out of place. Nor does Seth sacrifice content to maintain such a high quality of writing--the book includes everything from straight-up action to long brooding descriptions, from fast-paced dialogue to moody soliloquies, from lovely portrayals of India and its landmarks to involving emotional moments.
Do you know (I am now assuming my readers have now read the book. And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? What are you doing here? Aren’t you a lover of literature?) that some readers actually thought the novel was too long??? Yes, look at this:
“And it's so long. I love long books as I read fast - I generally finish a book in a few days or less, so having a substantial tome to work through is pleasant. But seriously, A suitable boy is just a beast, I have been slogging through for about 6 months now with no sign of the end.” I'm about halfway through at the moment, and am undecided whether to carry on. Who here has read it? Is it worth continuing? Does it progress beyond endlessly recounting of the minutia of the lives of its characters?” (link)
(Because on the contrary some people have “read the book for the fourth time early this year”!!!!!!!!!!!!! - Interestingly, I’m busy doing the same thing as this remarkable person: he’s also involved proving wrong another bored reader of the book! – the one with the weak wrists!)
SO: here’s the answer to the question “is the book too long for its own good?”
ANSWER: NO. The book is just amazingly readable, so it’s not too long, it’s too short, one is hankering for a sequel (1)! (This is exactly what Mystic wanderer says:
“However, patience is richly rewarded as the people and locales grow on you and upon completion, there is a longing to surmise what could possibly happen next. In other words, a wish (no, I’m not kidding) for it to be even longer.”
(OK the truth is that it is a little long. If the novel was a straightforward escapist succession of social and romantic events, yes, it would rather be filled with unnecessary material.)
But let me explain: the long bits were delicious moments of patient rapture as one the most elegant prose unfolds, and the bonus at the end of the effort (if one doesn’t skip these long passages) is that you discover they were in fact fascinating! For instance at one stage we follow Haresh the shoe-maker and the detailed procedure necessary to make a certain type of shoe: certain people might not like reading about that, but I think that this is what literature is all about: the reinvention of reality. A suitable boy is long because the reality which Vikram Seth is awake to is so full! (one might say: and India is after a [sub]continent) The book opens your eyes to the miracle of reality, which is in fact a creation. Reality is a creation, and the writer of such novels (Balzac, Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy) sees that SO MUCH is happening before his very eyes. There is an incessant creation going on every second, and they have seen it. Others haven’t, they are blind to this continued creation happening before them. How, why, I don’t know, but these writers have the gift of open eyes, and they make us see it, hurray!
I think that this comes from the fact the Vikram Seth is a poet. People just don’t know what a poet is nowadays. Or let us say that so painfully few people do! Can you imagine that I’ve read people actually criticizing him for having rhymed his table of contents (Seth is also known for his rhymed novel, The Golden Gate)! Yes, that delightful bonus, that free gift to the reader, they just thought it was to show off! When I first saw this in the book, I was stunned, I was so grateful! I showed it to the people around me, and beamed at the gratuitous bonanza of bathing in that type of crazy luxury! And then you have the sheer constant virtuosity, all that poetry, eg the witty, ludicrous Kakoli couplets that some readers find so bad – ha, they’ve never tried to write poetry! Let them have a go, let them just write “silly” couplets. It takes a good poet to forge idiotic-sounding stanzas! Well, anyway, I just want to say that I was filled with the gratifying readability of the text. And it isn’t impersonal – you feel the presence of the author, in a very satisfying way, because he’s on your side, he tells you the things he knows and which characters do not know, he’s another, slightly better informed, you!
A poet Vikram Seth really is: the more I realize it, the more it explains things. It explains why so much happens in the book that doesn’t directly make the plot move forward, because he’s so preoccupied by the recreation (poihsis) of the world, in its delicate and fragrant nostalgia-feel, as well as in its fascinating technical minuteness. The inflamed speech of an angry politician, for example, offers the poet a terrain of unparalleled exploration of the language he loves, it turns him into a director of a symphonic orchestra! He can summon all the rhetoric, all the oratorical powers that exist, all the effects he likes, and recreate the rise and fall of empires through the unique power of the Word. Compared to that intoxicating experience, that of feeding the reader’s expectation with a few tidbits of romance is poor play.
Okay, so now, the story…
But, I don’t know whether I should tell you the story. You’ll find it on Mystic wanderer’s page, for example. But in fact there isn’t ONE story in A suitable boy. I’d say there are at least four: Lata’s story, Maan’s story, Haresh’s story, and Mahesh Kapoor’s story. Naturally the four are interconnected, but they are also sufficiently independent to have an interest which is completely their own, and owes little to the other three. One might add also Dipankar’s story, and that of the Nawab sahib of Baithar. Then there are some sub-plots, of course related to each of the main strands. For example Pran’s section, revolving around Brahmpur University; the events here are connected to the Lata main strand through her sister, Savita, married to Pran (the book starts by their wedding and ends with Lata’s).
In Haresh’s story, there are many sub-stories, which we follow as he goes from job to job, revealing for us the surprising realities of shoe-making in India during the post-war period. Mahesh Kapoor’s plot revolves around politics, and thanks to that strand, we discover the life of ministers and their aides, the subtle intricacies of law-making, the strategies of elections, etc. A complete historical perspective is laid out before us, Northern India in 1952. Dipankar is our guide to the religious dimension which is explored in the book (the Kumbh Mela notably), and connected to him is the Chatterji family from Calcutta, an eccentric upper middle-class of flashy beauties and idle young males, completely opposite to Haresh’s practical and matter of fact world of entrepreneurship, for example, and of course an easy target to criticize anglo-Indianness.
Maan’s strand, together with Haresh’s, was perhaps the one I most appreciated: it tells the story of this rich politician’s son, made idle by Papa’s fortune and power, and it serves as an introduction to the world of tawaifs, those courtesan-singers we’ve already spoken about several times, as well as music and singing (ghazals), urdu poetry (Mast), urdu spelling (Saaeda Bai, his enchantress, makes him learn the language), myths and legends connected to the heroes mentioned in the songs, the rise and fall of singing masters and disciples… Maan also takes us in the country (he’s banned there by reasons too long to describe), where we get to know the village people, and this spoilt brat becomes a keen observer of the folk he thought he despised. All these passages are packed with insights on country customs and stories, crowded with unforgettable characters (amazing Moazzam, spellbinding Mr. Biscuit, for instance), and, among so many other impressions, the feel of the night breeze blowing freely as the voices and noises of the village are heard to rise and fall.
Lata’s strand is naturally presented as the core of the book, probably because of its title, but also because it connects most of the actors and events. But not all! (a few examples: Meenakshi’s infidelity, Maan’s love affair, Tapan’s schooling…) Nevertheless, she’s at the center, together with her inimitable mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra, an extraordinary character that you and I will from now on remember all our lives. That’s really one of the book’s particular strengths, the vividness of the characterization. I just have to open the book any page, and see a name, and immediately a complete picture springs up, not only a physical portrait, but a social background, a story with its various causes and consequences… So in fact the book is less striking for its story than for its gallery of characters (and of course its remarkable style): of course we follow what happens to them, but that’s because they’re so close to us.
A suitable boy does not have a reformist ambition; it is a social book, but there are no revolutionary ideas, no ideological denunciation. It has ironical and satirical aspects, but its main intention is descriptive and evocative. So the issue that we have at hand, the question which makes the book flower and bear fruit, is a psychological one, which borders on the aesthetic: why does Lata choose Haresh? We have of course the book’s own answers: Kabir is too passionate, indeed she herself is too passionate, and she decides that she doesn’t want passion: she wants the other type of love, the “calmer, less frantic love, which helps to grow where you were already growing…” (p.1420 – end of section 18.21). That’s what she explains to Malati, her confidente and fellow-student. She doesn’t want a love that will lift her off her feet and dispossess her of herself. “Haresh’s feet touch the ground; and he has dust, and sweat and a shadow. The other two ethereal are a bit too God-like and to be any good for me”, she says.
Now that’s an important question, believe it or not. Today passion, or romantic love, is almost always considered as a transforming force which contains its own justification. One rushes headlong into it, trusting it to contain its own value and meaning. One yearns for and relishes the head-over-heels feeling it brings. Its craziness is considered rational and its childishness a maturing process. Cool-headedness sounds strange when speaking about love. When you are “in” love, goes the popular notion, you cannot do wrong, because somehow love contains its own morality, it is oriented towards the good and it humanizes its beneficiaries. The common belief is that one becomes a better person when one loves or has loved. I realize that there is a distinction to be made between love and passion, and that only passion might be considered dangerous: but who can really distinguish love and passion? Isn’t true love a passion, a dispossession, a loss of the drop of water which is your identity into an ocean of bliss?
The 1400 pages of Vikram Seth’s book are telling us that this overriding experience at the core of human values, this love at all cost, this pot of gold, this life-fulfilling passion can and must be resisted. If the book has one message, that’s it. A writer of Escapist literature (and the same works for a movie director) would have enabled, through some trick or other, the reunion of Kabir and Lata, which every reader needed so much to happen. But with A suitable boy we have a different outlook on passion and love. Look at this (link):
“Upon reaching the last page, I tried carefully to analyse my own feelings, but my disappointment was inseparable from my admiration. On one hand, I detested the girl - I was seething with fury - because she had chosen a nice boy over a gorgeous boy. Why do writers do this to their characters (and to their readers, for that matter)? Why must literature echo the cold brutality of life? Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, in Pygmalion; Laurie and Jo, in Little Women; Edmund and Mercedes in The Count of Monte Cristo.
But here’s what this reader says next :
On the other hand, I admired Lata for being so well-grounded in reality. She was able to understand that her love for Khabir would not necessarily translate into a successful marriage, and she was also able to distinguish the man who could bring her happiness. In short, Lata chose to follow her head over her heart, and it was a decision that displayed maturity. Far too many novels romanticize reckless relationships without depicting the consequences (i.e. life after the happy - and, in many cases, abrupt - ending).
There, the lesson is learnt ! What is strange is that Vikram Seth himself says he is not completely ready to support Lata’s decision:
Miss Lata Mehra: Why did Lata marry Haresh and not Kabir... why why why...
Mr Vikram Seth: Now, now, you know better than to give the plot away for those who haven't read it yet. As for why, do you think I decided the matter? Lata decided for herself, and I'm not sure I approve of her decision. (Rediff On The NeT: Transcript of the Vikram Seth Chat)
Perhaps he didn’t want to elaborate, or appear, as a person, to be distinguished from the choices of himself as an author… But yes, so many Bollywood films (and other forms of art choosing to tell Love’s story) opt for the happy jump into the trap that nature has laid for us: charm and beauty, intoxication and wonder… But what about what comes after? Well, our civilization behaves as if it doesn’t really care, and it has equipped itself with the means to do just that, enable people to go from one love to another, and hope for the drug to work its magic each time. Lata’s frustrating choice flies in the face of romantic presuppositions, such as: “passion is the only thing worth living for”. And Vikram Seth achieves a far more original result with this choice than if he had somehow made the two predestined lovers help create the foundation for a better understanding of cross-cultural relationships. For his point about the choice of a reasonable love over a more dispossessing passion, but which is normally thought to be more fulfilling, goes aesthetically, psychologically, and anthropologically further. Even if this means upholding the traditional views of arranged marriages!
Because that is of course the risk he has run. Lata does what her mother, Mrs Rupa Mehra, wanted her to do, and has always thought best for her. It isn’t just a coincidence. Lata’s choice is a conscious decision that includes her mother, her family and the type of society which upholds that model. She doesn’t see herself in any future severed from her family, something the romantic orthodoxy would relish, the lovers shutting out the rest of the world, or at least finding it impossible to sacrifice their new worldview on the altar of family ties and any other interests. On the contrary, the common assumption is that traditional ties based on outdated ideas such as social and religious suitability need the groundswell renewal of experience and feelings which will bring it closer to the essence of life. And it’s up to the new generations to regenerate society in such a way. Such ideas can be read in the message of a number of Bollywood movies, which perhaps also use them to bolster their romantic choices. In short, in Desire lies Truth.
Well, Lata’s choice disproves this. Because she knows what it is to feel the burning of passion, to bask in its pleasure and its magic. She has felt the intoxication of dispossession. Lata knows how deeply this love fits who she is, what she likes, what she needs. Such a love is for her like blood in her veins. It fits her body and it fits her brain. As her friend Malati so forcefully says, Kabir and Lata are made for each other, like the two halves of the complete being they would be if she had chosen him. But she renounces him, and this really recalls the hero’s choice in Corneille’s plays. For Corneille, the hero is never more glorious than when he lifts love so high because he renounces it. But Lata (and Vikram Seth) have perhaps beaten Corneille: Lata actually chooses love, she doesn’t renounce it! She sacrifices love because it is too passionate, but embraces another more reasonable version: what a marvelous compromise to the old aesthetic dilemma! Romantic heroes in Corneille’s tragedies have to cut the strings of their heart because of their duty, and the beauty of their gesture is that they magnify tenfold the love which they renounce. Lata sacrifices Kabir and the corresponding fulfillment of her youth. But she bets on the fulfillment of her maturity, and the bonus is – who knows – that she might this way regain a love which she thought she had sacrificed. For such is love that it springs out of realities one had no idea contained it. So finally, this betting of hers (she isn’t happy with it, there is an element of uncertainty) makes her go beyond the tragedy of love seen as passion, into the reality and humanity of love understood as a gift. The love she chooses is indeed more given than received: there is more love, in a way, in her type of love.
One last word concerning what V.S. suggests as the modus operandi of Lata’s choice: she starts to give in at the moment when her sister’s baby is born. This birth acts as a confirmation of marriages or settlements which have been agreed upon by the community one belongs to. The baby is the proof that life and joy are at the heart of traditional customs which are the foundations of a given community. This comes to weigh as much, if not more, in Lata’s mind, as her love of Kabir. Then there is also Haresh’s sacrifice. The suitable boy she chooses has, like her, been forced to sacrifice a love for a girl from another religion (Simran, a sikh). This theme is shown as bringing them closer together. And then finally there’s Lata’s rejection of dispossession, which on the surface only might appear selfish and worldly. Lata doesn’t own much, but she possesses a self which is the core of her strong-willed being. She would perhaps have accepted to lose part of it if Kabir’s gate had been open for her. But it is shut, shut by the widowed mother she loves and won’t disappoint. So she now knows she will be able to keep a self she feels eminently comfortable with. She’ll be Haresh’s equal, in a rather satisfyingly feminist way, whereas as Kabir’s lover and wife she would have had to settle down for a relationship with him as a Lata she couldn’t control completely. She would have owed him a part of herself which she can now decide either to give or to keep. As it is, her choice makes a natural leader, an independent decider of her fate, and this autonomy corresponds to her personality down deep.
The movie which could be made with A suitable boy would have to be split up between several episodes, so long and dense is the story. In fact the BBC had been thinking of such a serialization, but so far it hasn’t seen the light. It wouldn’t be very difficult to pick good actors for this or that character. So let’s have a bit of fun! Could Tabu be Lata? Preity Zinta (or Vidya Balan?) and Raima Sen could be Kakoli and Meenakshi; perhaps Mann could be played by Vivek Oberoi and Kabir by Atul Kulkarni? Mahesh Kapoor could, I’m sure, be Anil Kapoor. Perhaps Haresh could be taken by Shiney Ahuja?! I think Rani Mukherji would be a good Savita, and I still need a Mrs Rupa Mehra… Let’s think… well, after all, you tell me!
(1) Perhaps you knew - but the sequel ("A suitable girl") will come, eventually! Read here!