Kannada version of this review can be found here, ಎ ಸೂಟಬಲ್ ಬಾಯ್ at www.sampada.net
When you know that you are not an avid reader and knowing it well you choose a novel as long as 1474 pages to read, you are certainly destined for damnation. At the end of two months (although damnation is supposedly eternal) of flowing through a roller-coaster of a story, if you end up wondering whether you had punished yourself for not reading something as wonderful as this novel for a long time, you probably know that the roller-coaster was worth all the trouble. This is what I felt after I completed reading Vikram Seth’s coveted novel “A Suitable Boy” (1993, Phoenix House, UK).
I purchased a paper-back edition of the book (1994, third impression) in a second hand book store on a gloomy day in November 2012 and I was curious how the novel so famous, could have handled Jawaharlal Nehru’s India (1950s), an India that many in my generation have wondered about but never really gotten to understand what it meant to be part of. There is no space for ordinary people in the history books. Historical fiction is one of the places where you can search for ordinary people and that helps you to understand history in its entirety. “A Suitable Boy” the novel helps you understand.
I didn’t know which aspects of pre/post independent India would Vikram focus on. While the novel’s sense of history and time is outstanding, for me, the thing that stands out is the spatial spread of the novel and how the characters are associated with those places. After I began reading it, the spatial contours of the novel slowly unfolded. The book is introduced on its back cover as a love story interwoven with the story of a country in transition facing its first general elections post-independence. The story develops around a relatively young widow (in her late 40s) who is in search for a bride-groom for her second daughter (introvert, romantic-realist !). While the love aspect is a common thread through out, the thread that really binds the story is the river Ganges (Ganga) and one should see Ganga as both Ganga and Yamuna. The river symbolizes the very fundamental Indian ethos of pluralism.
The novel is a story of people (civilization) who are linked to one another because of a river (the non-intruding neutral observer). There is no direct dependence of the characters on the river since most of them are urbane and from a particular class in the society. The river doesn’t figure significantly in the story although there are some moving scenes associated with it. You don’t feel the need to be reminded. You will know. The imaginary town of Brahmapur (if it were to exist it would be on the banks of Ganga somewhere between Kanpur and Patna) is the only main place that is imaginary (see image below for geography of the novel). The other prominent places in the novel viz., Calcultta (Kolkata), Cawnpore (Kanpur) and New Delhi are all on the banks of the Ganges (including its tributaries). The only difference is that the river can flow only from the mountains to the sea whereas people can move both ways. This is precisely what I meant when I spoke of a roller-coaster in the introductory paragraph. The personal stories of the characters are charming in their own right and some of you might smell some melodrama in the way they go about their business. This trait is strongly associated with Indian cinema (particularly Bollywood). I don’t think the Indian society of 1952 was as affected by cinema as some of the more recent generations were (and are), although there is some evidence in the novel to suggest that people followed cinema even then. The cinema industry has drawn its inspiration from societies like the one in “A Suitable Boy” and such societies have evolved by imbibing some of their own reflections by contemporary cinema. Perhaps, one could go as far as to say that Vikram Seth’s story-telling style could have been strongly influenced by 50 years of Bollywood before him when he wrote the novel. His handling of some of the most deeply political and sensitive matters of that time is admirable and very Indian (I can’t think of anything better). You have got to read it.
Nehru was alive and was still the prime minister of India at that time. He even appears in the novel as himself. I had used the phrase “Jawaharlal Nehru’s India” earlier to describe what I expected from the novel when I began reading it. Vikram Seth being 40 years too late to be part of Nehru’s India, takes full advantage of his understanding of India since Nehru and makes the novel relevant even today. When you finish reading the novel, while the intimate human stories touch the core of your senses, you will be left wondering whether India in 1952 was ready for Nehru’s idea of India and whether we are any better today.