Title: A Suitable Boy Author: Vikram Seth Read: Aug 2007
The fictitious city of Brahmpur in the fictitious state of Purva Pradesh, with its fair mix of Hindus and Muslims, is the reflection of a north Indian city, like Lucknow, famous for it’s Nawabi heritage. Purva in many Indian languages means North or Uttar, so Purva Pradesh is really a reference to Uttar Pradesh state in northern India. The backdrop of real events and locations in post Independence India grants credibility to the unfolding tale. Among these are communal conflicts, zamindari act, Pul Mela stampede(a reference to the great Kumbha Mela), Calcutta(the city where Seth was born) and Praha Shoe Company(Bata Shoes) run by the Czechs in Prahapore(Batanagar) near Calcutta, Nehru and elections. Poetry – from the stilted hilarious doggerels of Makhijani to the sombre verses of Amit, from deplorable Kakoli couplets to Urdu ghazals – coupled with glimpses of the absorbing qualities of Hindustani classical music reveals Seth’s versatility. City and country life are laid bare from the perspective of varied ends of the social spectrum – from the exceedingly rich (Nawab of Baitar for instance) to the abjectly poor(Kacheru’s struggle in extremely hard conditions of a Rudhia village), from the political and power hungry to the laid back and artistic. Amidst all these events and motley mix of characters, the earnest search of “A suitable boy” for Lata by her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, remains a buoy that, though often underwater, resurfaces from the beginning till the end.
In the end, Lata does make a wise choice. However, the fete meted out to Maan is cruel. Couldn’t there be an alternative way for him to turn away from Saeeda Bai? Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor, being the frail woman that she was, could have died (even without a shock), and her last request could have veered Maan away, without jeopardising his father’s political career. Of course, it would be less dramatic – the vacillations of friendship and enmity and the whole suspense of elections would probably have to be sacrificed. Mahesh Kapoor would have won hands down, a consolation, however small, on his wife’s departure. Such a turn of events wouldn’t have been deleterious. By then, the reader is already in too deep. It is to Seth’s credit that after a fumbling acquaintance, one gradually gets enmeshed in the sea of personae – the intelligent and slightly reserved Lata, the hysterical Mrs. Rupa Mehra with her “two tight slaps”, the insouciant and love-lorn Maan, anglophile snob Arun and his licentious wife Meenakshi, rigid Rasheed, forgiving Feroze, confident but boorish Haresh, youthful Kabir and his absent minded father Dr. Durrani with his protege and Kedarnath Tandon’s son Bhaskar the mathematical prodigy, level-headed Pran, ideal Savita, brooding Amit of the “Fever Bird” and cemeteries, flippant Kuku, dreamy Dipankar, shamshuing Varun…the list goes on. A consistent set of characters is equally matched by an eloquent narrative which is helped immensely by breaking up the extensive work (longest novel in English language) into short, eventful chapters – some of them merely a page or a few pages. Although this does compensate somewhat for the size, one cannot but be aware of the immense number of pages devoted to events spanning about two years (or less). 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.
© 2007 mystic-wanderer