A Suitable Boy is written by Vikram Seth and Published in 1993. This is one of the biggest novels published in English. There are 591552 words in more than 1400 pages divided into 19 parts. Each part focuses on a different sub plot and each is described in the content page differently – it is in the form of rhyming couplet. This novel has earnest and satirical examination of national political issues during the years leading to post-independence national elections of 1952. The Hindu-Muslim strife, caste discrimination, land reforms, the decline of feudal princes and landlords, and many such prevalent social issues are dealt in the novel. Seth has stated that a five-volume Chinese novel of the 18th century, called The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin, was the biggest inspiration for him to write this novel. A sequel to this book called A suitable Girl was published in 2017.
The novel is set in a fictional town Brahmpur and it concerns the trials and fortunes of four elite families and the novel extends for 18 months. The four families are the Kapoors, the Mehras, the Chatterjis and the Khans. The four families are connected through marriage or as friends.The story revolves around LataMehra who is a student at Brahmpur University. She is attractive and talented. She is in love with a young Muslim man Kabir but knows her mother RupaMehra will not approve of it. The girls in India had always accepted only arranged marriages. But with the emergence of new India under Jawaharlal Nehru Lata was starting to feel maybe she could choose her husband.
Lata’s sister Savita had married a professor at the university and had RupaMehra was extremely proud of this alliance and she was looking for something equally prestigious for Lata too not aware of Lata’s affair with Kabir. Kabir was extremely handsome and kind and the two made a beautiful couple. His father was an accomplished Mathematician and Kabir also had the intelligence of his father. To add to this Kabir was a star in the University’s cricket team; Kabir must have been a cynosure of all eyes. It was no wonder that Lata was in love with him. One day Rupa’s spies spot Kabir and Lata walking in the University campus and reports it to Rupa. Rupa is shocked that if the news goes around that her daughter was see around with a Muslim boy, she would not get grooms form any respectable Hindu family.
This incident changes Lata’s life. She is sent to Calcutta which is hundred miles away southeast from Brahmpur. In Calcutta Rupa arranges for her daughter to meet many boys who, she feels were suitable to their status. Then it is a parade of these boys whom Lata rejects and for various reasons. One was so stuck with British imperialism and accent. One had very small eyes and bad table manners. There was this AmitChatterji who was well-known writer and poet and gets along well with Lata. But soon it comes to light he might be a gay. Rupa wanted Lata to marry Amit because he fit the bill very well but Lata back out. Then cameHaresh who liked Lata and she too thought was agreeable but a trifle boring. He owned a shoe company.
While this is happening in the families there is a sea of change happening in India and world politics. A mosque was being built near a Hindu holy site. There are riots and the project is dropped. The movement for equal right for untouchables was getting stronger. There were protests for academic freedom. The zamindar system came to an end. Within the Kapoor family there was a problem, Mann Kapoor had fallen in love with a prostitute SaeedaBai. Amidst all these there has to be a conclusion for Lata’s story and this happens at the end of the novel. Lata decides not to marry Kabir and marries the suitable boy she is not in love with, Haresh.
The novel is set in early 1950s. This period was an eventful one. India had just got independence and there was the partition of the country. The Hindu –Muslim conflicts saw displacement sof families and mass killings for no real reasons. The hatred that was started then continues to plague both the countries even now. A Suitable Boy is praised for its panoramic view of India’s cultural norms. There is a combination of romance and satire in the novel. The novel includes themes political in personal. There is conflict in the social groups and families and this is depicted in the novel very well. The changing social norms, inter-generational connectedness and unexpected violence also are the themes of the novel. Prejudice and forgiveness is seen in abundance in the novel.
You cannot see stylistic acrobatics in A Suitable Boy yet it is not a minimalistic novel. Vikram Seth all will agree is a writer with considered and delicate judgement. The music and movement of the writing takes time to set in. It’s robust yet unassuming rational sweetness forces thereaders to see his way. Towards the end of the novel the use of adjectives is so internal in its meaning that it is a difficult to understand unless the reader has been with the Seth right from the beginning in the spirit with he has been writing. Seth’s narrative is so egoless and this allows seeing the confusion and the coherence in the right light. It is difficult to picture a European story so complex and emotional but told without any pretension. Freud is seen in most works and the absence of it is the distinguishing feature of this novel.
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is compared to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and more. But most often it is compared to George Eliot’s Middlemarch for its realistic style, social scrutiny and length. For a late 20th century tastes the novel is a little too long but it had definitely not outgrown its strong points.