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Sunday, June 27, 2010

My Month in India Was Not Long Enough


When I say that A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, is like a 1349-page soap opera, I mean nothing derogatory by the comparison. As high school freshmen on half-day schedules (due to what adults called “overcrowding” but what to me just seemed what high school was, since I’d never known it any other way), my best friend and I were able to keep up with most of the television soaps of our day. She followed the morning programs while I was at school, and I went home to the afternoon shows when it was her turn to be in the classroom. We updated each other by telephone every evening. You might say we were addicted.

It was fascinating, this peering into the inner recesses of people’s lives! Characters in long-running soaps (many of the shows we watched had begun on radio) grew up over the years, often had love affairs, usually married, still sometimes had affairs, frequently divorced, eventually grew old and died. Sometimes characters died young. A show usually had at least one core couple with a solid marriage, but there were complicated extended families and any number of unusual custody arrangements, along with plenty of skeletons in all the closets. Along with love and family, there were also political ambitions and business dealings and medical emergencies. In other words, there was all the stuff of real life, in a format that allowed the characters to age like real people, if at a somewhat faster rate.

More fascinating than the characters' physical aging, however, was seeing them learn about life, draw lessons from what they learned, and change accordingly, all of these changes taking place within a complex web of family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, all of whose actions kept reaching in to tangle the strands. But stand back far enough, and a tapestry would appear. Always, the shows reflected their times. Always, they captivated their audience, who saw the characters as real people and cared what happened to them. So it is with this sprawling novel by Vikram Seth.
“You too will marry a boy I choose,” said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

How much do you know of the history of India? The year is 1948, a year after independence. Ravages of the partition of Pakistan and grief over the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi are still raw wounds. But ordinary life, as it will do, goes on, despite political unrest and religious prejudice.

Mrs. Rupa Mehra, sadly a widow, loves to travel, to visit and to write letters, and with no husband to arrange a marriage for Lata, it falls on the mother to seek potential suitors from every friend and relative who can be pressed into service. The object, of course, is to find a “suitable boy,” one from a good family, educated, preferably one who speaks English as well as Hindi and who has good prospects for the future. No one expects Lata to find a husband for herself. In fact, when she begins seeing Kabir, a fellow university student from a Muslim family, the campaign to guide her into a more “suitable” romantic path is quickly stepped up. Will Lata risk outraging her family by entering into a mixed marriage, or will she allow herself to be led?
Kabir was smiling. He put his arm around her shoulder and, instead of protesting, she let it remain. It seemed to be in the right place.

The Mehra family also includes Lata’s older married brother, Arun, a socially ambitious snob, and his wife, the selfish, unfaithful Meenakshi; an older sister, Savita, and her husband, Pran; and younger brother Varun, single and apparently without direction in life. Arun believes he has made a good and happy marriage. Will he discover Meenakshi’s infidelity?

Thanks to Savita’s marriage into the Kapoor family, politics enters the picture, for Pran’s father, Mahesh Kapoor, is a member of the Congress Party and part of the government, one of those responsible for the Zamindari Abolition Act. This act would, in effect, take land from wealthy nobles and give it to those who had actually worked it for years. The Hindu-Muslim plot axis thickens when Pran’s little nephew Bhaskar, a mathematics prodigy, is introduced to Kabir’s father, a brilliant, eccentric professor of mathematics.

Mahesh Kapoor is incredulous when young Bhaskar wants to advise him on his political career. Will Mahesh Kapoor be re-elected in a new district since leaving and then rejoining the Congress Party? And if the Zamindari Act is allowed to stand, how will that affect his friendship with the Nawab Sahib, when the latter loses land that has been in the family for generations?
While the zamindars on the one hand and the framers of the act on the other, the tenantry on the one hand and the retainers of the landlords on the other, all underwent these swings of elation and depression, the judges continued to frame their judgment in secret.

Meenakshi is a member of the Chatterji family, she and her four siblings the children of Justice and Mrs. Chatterji. For the children of a judge, the young Chatterjis seem a frivolous, light-hearted bunch, given to uttering extemporaneous and utterly impertinent rhyming couplets as part of their daily conversation with one another. The most amusing sections of the novel involve the flighty Chatterjis. Will Meenakshi’s poet brother Amit succeed in winning Lata away from Kabir? Will he try? (And how much of the Calcutta-born author of this novel is to be found in the character of Amit Chatterji?)
Amit paused in his scribbling and doodling. He was attempting an inscription for Lata. Now that he had run out of inspiration he began to wonder which of his two books of poems he should send her. Or should he send her both? Perhaps the first one was not such a good idea. Besides, the second, though it too contained some love poems, had more of Calcutta in it, more of the places that reminded him of her, and might perhaps remind her of him.

The Khan family stands to lose much if the Zamindari Abolition Act holds up to constitutional challenge. Twins Imitiaz and Firoz Khan, sons of the Nawab Shahib of Baitar, are also, despite their Muslim heritage, drinking companions of young Maan Kapoor, Pran’s younger brother. Where will all this carousing lead? What dangers await the young men when they begin to visit the home of famous songstress and courtesan Saeeda Bai?

A third suitor for Lata’s hand is brought forward by an old family friend of Mrs. Rupa Mehra. Haresh Khanna is an educated, confident, hard-working, serious “self-made man.” With her mother pushing this young man so determinedly, how will Lata be able to see his merits? Will she be swayed by her brother Arun’s opinion that Haresh’s chosen field of work, the manufacture of shoes, with its “taint of leather,” is beneath her?
Haresh noticed that Lata was looking at his co-respondent shoes with what appeared almost to be distaste. But the moment he looked at her, she turned away a bit guiltily towards his small bookshelf with its maroon-bound set of Hardy novels. Haresh felt a little downcast; he had thought a great deal about what to wear.

A Suitable Boy is not told from a British imperial point of view. British influence is still strong in this period, but that rule is over. One British couple appears briefly, but the other characters are all Indians. They are Hindu and Muslim, men and women, young and old, traditional and modern, rich and poor. There are women in strict purdah and university women, men cultivating muddy fields and men in the highest levels of government. Every character, down to the youngest child, is a unique individual, however, not a mere “representative” of a group. This is India from the inside. Intimate family scenes are juxtaposed with crowds in the streets celebrating religious holidays, the holiday scenes full of color and nail-biting drama. The same is true of the political campaigning and the tension building toward the General Election of 1952, the largest popular election the world had seen to date. Conflicts abound—religious, political, familial, personal—and it is all connected.

I have focused on Lata because her mother’s search to find her a husband frames the novel from beginning to end and because there is so much in this story that doing justice to all the characters—well, from the author’s point of view it required 1,349 pages, and there isn’t a single page I would edit out. Maan, his love for Saeeda Bai, his friendship with Firoz and his Urdu lessons with Rasheed—these could be a novel all on their own, but that would mean giving up the farther-reaching connections, and there isn’t a character who doesn’t add to the story.
And Rasheed? Censorious, pitiable, worn out, torn between family shame and family pride, forced to choose between loyalty and justice, between trust and pity, what must he have gone through? Was he too not a victim of the tragedy of the countryside, of the country itself?

Does that sound as if the novel ends tragically? Never fear. There are gains as well as losses, births to counterbalance deaths.

I realize that a recommendation for a novel of this length is not going to find many takers. Anyway, I’m not selling the book. A friend loaned me the copy I read, and our local librarian said the library copy finally fell apart (publishers take note: auch a big book should really be bound in two volumes), but if ever you run across A Suitable Boy, pick it up and read a few pages. You will be hooked. And, having come to know the people in this book, you will think of India in a whole new light.

(Marigolds play a role in all the Hindu festivities. These were photographed at Northport Nursery on Mill Street.)

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