A Suitable Boy

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A Suitable Boy: A Novel
Asuitableboy.jpg
First US edition
AuthorVikram Seth
CountryIndia
LanguageEnglish
Set inGangetic Plain, 1951–52
PublisherHarperCollins (US)
Phoenix House (UK)
Little, Brown (Canada)
Publication date
May 1993
Media typePrint (hardback)
Pages1,349
ISBN0-06-017012-3
OCLC27013350
823 20
LC ClassPR9499.3.S38 S83 1993
Followed byA Suitable Girl 

A Suitable Boy is a novel by Vikram Seth, published in 1993. With 1,349 pages or 1,488 pages soft cover, and 591,552 words, the English language book is one of the longest novels published in a single volume.[1][2][3]

A Suitable Boy is set in a newly post-independence, post-partition India. The novel follows the story of four families over a period of 18 months, and centres on Mrs. Rupa Mehra's efforts to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter, Lata, to a "suitable boy". Lata is a 19-year-old university student who refuses to be influenced by her domineering mother or opinionated brother, Arun. Her story revolves around the choice she is forced to make between her suitors Kabir, Haresh, and Amit.

It begins in the fictional town of Brahmpur, located along the Ganges between Banares and Patna. Brahmpur, along with Calcutta, Delhi, Lucknow and other Indian cities, forms a colourful backdrop for the emerging stories.

Seth has stated that the biggest influence on writing A Suitable Boy was the five-volume 18th century Chinese novel The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin.[4]

The 1,349-page novel alternately offers satirical and earnest examinations of national political issues in the period leading up to the first post-Independence national election of 1952, including Hindu–Muslim strife, the status of lower caste peoples such as the jatav, land reforms and the eclipse of the feudal princes and landlords, academic affairs, abolition of the Zamindari system, family relations and a range of further issues of importance to the characters.

The novel is divided into 19 parts with, generally, each part focusing on a different subplot. Each part is described in rhyming couplet form on the contents page. A sequel, to be called A Suitable Girl, was due for publication in 2017.[5] As of 2020 the novel was still unpublished.

Plot summary[edit]

In 1951, 19-year old Lata Mehra attends the wedding of her older sister, Savita, to Pran Kapoor, a university lecturer. Lata’s mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, informs Lata that it is time she marries, a notion which Lata dismisses as she intends to concentrate on her studies in English literature. Nevertheless Mrs. Rupa Mehra begins to put out feelers for a suitable boy for Lata to her friends and family.

In the meantime Lata is approached several times by a boy her own age and after a few meetings feels she has already fallen in love with him. She learns his name is Kabir Durrani and is distressed when she realises he is Muslim as her Hindu family would never allow her to marry a Muslim man. When her early morning meetings with Kabir are discovered she tries to run away with Kabir, who refuses. Ultimately Lata agrees to go with her mother to Calcutta to live with her arrogant older brother Arun, who is already married.

...reviewers and critics alike have frequently compared it to Tolstoy's War and Peace, as well as to fictions by British novelists from more than a century ago, including George Eliot's Middlemarch, Charles Dickens' Bleak House, William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa.[6]

As Lata is leaving she is spotted by Haresh Khanna, an ambitious shoe manufacturer who is involved in business with Kedarnath Tandon, the husband of Pran’s older sister, Veena. He is intrigued by her beauty and sadness.

In Calcutta, Lata is surprised to find herself enjoying her time with her brother and sister-in-law. She meets her sister-in-law Meenakshi’s eccentric family, the Chatterjis, and bonds with her older brother, Amit, an England-educated poet who is under pressure from his family to grow up and marry. Though Amit initially only intends on being friendly to Lata as a member of his family, he begins to wonder whether she might make a suitable wife. Mrs. Rupa Mehra is horrified when she realises that Amit and Lata might be considering each other as spouses as she dislikes Meenakshi and disapproves of the Chatterjis as a result. She decides to go to Delhi to renew her efforts to find a spouse for Lata. By accident she is introduced to Haresh Khanna and decides he is suitable for Lata. Despite the fact that he is in love with another woman, who he is also unable to marry due to objections from her family, Haresh agrees to meet Lata. Lata finds the idea of marrying Haresh ridiculous but nevertheless has an agreeable time with him and gives him permission to write to her.

Returning home she hears that Kabir was involved in reuniting her sister-in-law Veena with her son after a mass stampede separated them. She nevertheless vows to forget about Kabir only to be surprised when they are both cast in the university’s production of Twelfth Night. During rehearsals Pran is hospitalised and Savita gives birth. Lata takes on a more prominent role in taking care of her sister and niece which results in her realising her mother is only trying to ensure her happiness and safety. She begins corresponding more warmly with Haresh and despite still being attracted to Kabir tells him that she is no longer interested in marrying him.

Haresh loses his managerial job at a shoe factory but inveigles his way into a lesser position as the foreman at the Praha shoe factory with promise of upward mobility. His new circumstances fail to impress Arun and Meenakshi who are also biased against him as they are aware of Amit's burgeoning attraction to Lata and want to encourage that match.

In the new year the Mehra family once again travels to Calcutta to spend time with Arun and Meenakshi and to reconnect with Haresh. At a cricket match Haresh, Kabir and Amit all meet and recognise that they are all loosely acquainted, but fail to realise that they are all, in one way or another, courting Lata. Kabir is in Calcutta trying to work up the courage to speak to Lata, however he fails to do so and Lata receives a letter from her best friend informing her that Kabir was spotted in an intimate conversation with another woman. Haresh is more persistent in his courtship of Lata, but after she off-handedly calls him mean, he takes offence and their relationship comes to a standstill.

In the new year, based on Kabir's invitation, Amit comes to speak at Lata's school. She reconnects with Kabir where she learns that the information he was courting another woman was false. However she tells him she is seriously writing to Haresh and is strongly considering marrying him. Amit also takes this opportunity to more seriously propose to Lata. Lata meets Kabir one last time where she realises that the passion she feels for him is not the basis for a good marriage. After receiving an apologetic letter from Haresh renewing his offer of marriage and a second letter from Arun, strongly encouraging her to reject Haresh, Lata decides once and for all to marry Haresh.

Concurrent to the main plot is the story of Maan Kapoor, Lata's brother-in-law Pran's brother. Maan is the feckless youngest child of respected politician Mahesh Kapoor, the state Minister of Revenue. At a Holi celebration, Maan watches the courtesan singer, Saeeda Bai, perform. He visits her house and begins to court her. They become lovers. Saeeda Bai later feels that her feelings for him are interfering with her work and reputation. She sends him away with Tasneem's Urdu teacher, Rasheed, to his remote village under the pretence of wanting Maan to learn flawless Urdu. Maan spends the time becoming acquainted with Rasheed's family who are politically influential.

When Maan returns to Brahmpur he resumes his love affair with Saeeda Bai and gains favour with his father who decides to run for office again in the seat where Rasheed's family lives. After campaigning with his father, Maan returns to Saeeda Bai's house where he sees his friend Firoz and believes from veiled comments that Saeeda Bai makes that the two have been having a love affair behind his back. In reality, Firoz had come to propose to Tasneem who Saeeda Bai revealed to be her secret daughter and Firoz's half-sister. In the ensuing confusion Maan stabs Firoz in a fit of jealousy. The ensuing scandal causes his father to lose his seat and his mother to die after a series of strokes.

However once Firoz recovers he insists that the stabbing was caused by his own clumsiness and Maan is made a free man.

The wedding between Lata and Haresh takes place with joy to all except Kabir who is invited but does not come. A few days later Lata and Haresh take a train to his home to begin their new lives together.

Characters in A Suitable Boy[edit]

Four family trees are provided in the beginning of the novel to help readers keep track of the complicated interwoven family networks. The four main families in the novel are:

Combined family tree
  • The Mehras
    • Mrs. Rupa Mehra, a mother searching for a suitable boy for her youngest daughter
    • Raghubir Mehra, her deceased husband
      • Arun, Mrs. Mehra's oldest son (married to Meenakshi Chatterji)
        • Aparna, daughter of Arun and Meenakshi
      • Varun
      • Savita (married to Pran Kapoor)
        • Uma Kapoor, daughter of Savita and Pran
      • Lata, whose arranged marriage forms the basis of the main plot
  • The Kapoors
    • Mr. Mahesh Kapoor (state Minister of Revenue) and Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor
      • Veena (married to Kedarnath Tandon)
        • Bhaskar Tandon, son of Veena and Kedarnath
      • Pran (married to Savita Mehra)
      • Maan
  • The Khans
    • The Nawab Sahib of Baitar
      • Zainab, his daughter
        • Hassan and Abbas, her sons
      • Imtiaz, a doctor
      • Firoz, a lawyer
    • Ustad Majeed Khan, a famed musician, relation to the family not specified
    • Begum Abida Khan, politician (sister-in-law of the Nawab Sahib)
  • The Chatterjis
    • Mr. Justice Chatterji and Mrs. Chatterji
      • Amit, eldest son and internationally acclaimed poet and author. A prominent love interest of Lata
      • Meenakshi (married to Arun Mehra)
      • Dipankar
      • Kakoli
      • Tapan

Some other prominent characters, not mentioned above, include:

  • Dr Durrani, mathematician at the university that Kabir and Lata attend
    • Kabir Durrani, a love interest of Lata and a central hub of one of the main themes of the novel. Kabir is a highly successful player on the university cricket team. Lata and Kabir have a brief, intense courtship, the ramifications of which echo through the rest of the novel.
    • Hashim Durrani, Kabir's brother
  • Haresh Khanna, an enterprising and determined shoe-businessman, who is also a love interest of the heroine
  • Nehru
  • Malati, best friend of Lata
  • Mrs Tandon
    • Kedarnath Tandon (married to Veena Kapoor)
  • Saeeda Bai, courtesan and musician
  • Tasneem, sister of Saeeda Bai
  • Bibbo, servant at Saeeda Bai's house
  • Rasheed, student at Brahmpur University; Tasneem's Urdu teacher
  • Ishaq, sarangi player
  • S S Sharma, Chief Minister
  • Agarwal, Home Minister
    • Priya, his daughter (married to Ram Vilas Goyal)
  • Simran, a Sikh woman and former love interest of Haresh Khanna
  • Kalpana Gaur, friend of the Mehra family
  • Billy Irani, friend of Arun Mehra, later has an affair with Meenakshi
    • Shireen, his fiancee
  • Bishwanath Bhaduri
  • Abdus Salam
  • Raja of Marh
    • Rajkumar of Marh, his son
  • Dr Bilgrami
  • Professor Mishra, an English professor
  • Dr Ila Chattopadhay, an English professor
  • Hans, an Austrian diplomat
  • The Guppi, inhabitant of Salimpur
  • Netaji, Rasheed's uncle
  • Sahgal
  • Makhijani, indulgent poet
  • Sandeep Lahiri
  • Waris, servant at the Baitar Fort and competes with Mahesh Kapoor in the General Election
  • The Munshi, in charge of the Baitar Fort
  • Jagat Ram, a shoemaker
  • Badrinath
  • Dr Kishen Chand Seth
  • Professor Nowrojee, who runs the university literary club attended by Kabir and Lata
  • Sunil Patwardhan, mathematician at Brahmpur University
  • Parvati, Mrs Rupa Mehra's stepmother

Real people and events[edit]

  • For the character of Tapan, the youngest in Chatterjee family, Seth drew on his own experiences of being bullied at The Doon School in India.[7]
  • The Praha Shoe Company of the novel is modeled on Bata Shoes.
  • Pul mela is based on Kumbh Festival, which takes place at Sangam, Allahabad.

Critical reception[edit]

On 5 November 2019 BBC News included A Suitable Boy on its list of the 100 most inspiring novels.[8] The Independent wrote that "the movement and music of the writing in A Suitable Boy take time to absorb, but its unobtrusive, powerfully rational sweetness eventually compels the reader to its way of seeing."[9]

Daniel Johnson, in The Times, wrote: "A Suitable Boy is not merely one of the longest novels in English: it may also prove to be the most fecund as well as the most prodigious work of the latter half of this century - perhaps even the book to restore the serious reading public's faith in the contemporary novel. I have little doubt that... Vikram Seth is already the best writer of his generation", while Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post compared Seth favourably to Tolstoy.[10]

Christopher Hitchens, in Vanity Fair, gave the novel a glowing review, commenting that the prose "has a deceptive lightness and transparency to it".[11]

Television[edit]

A six-part series adapted from the novel and titled A Suitable Boy, directed by Mira Nair, written by Andrew Davies and starring Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, Tanya Maniktala and Rasika Dugal is broadcast on BBC One in the United Kingdom from Sunday, 26 July 2020.[12] The production has drawn attention for the fact that it is the first time that a BBC historical drama has a cast completely featuring people of colour.[13]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Vikram Seth at contemporarywriters.com Archived October 17, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Randomhouse interview with Vikram Seth
  3. ^ Size Does Matter. The Longest Novels. AbeBooks
  4. ^ https://www.telegraphindia.com/1090710/jsp/entertainment/story_11216652.jsp
  5. ^ Armitstead, Claire (13 September 2013). "Vikram Seth finds a suitable publisher". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 December 2013.
  6. ^ Ranjan Ghosh (2006). (In)fusion Approach: Theory, Contestation, Limits: (In)fusionising a Few Indian English Novels. University Press of America. pp. 214–. ISBN 978-0-7618-3464-9.
  7. ^ Huang, Guiyou (2009). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 860. ISBN 9781567207361.
  8. ^ "100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. 2019-11-05. Retrieved 2019-11-10. The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
  9. ^ https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-reader-she-married-him-1350-pages-later-a-suitable-boy-vikram-seth-orion-20-pounds-1499005.html
  10. ^ Eugene Robinson, "A Tolstoy - On His First Try", Washington Post, 1 May 1993. Retrieved: 26-07-2020.
  11. ^ Christopher Hitchens, "A Suitable Sensation", Vanity Fair, June 1993. Retrieved: 26-07-2020.
  12. ^ "BBC - Cast announced for BBC One's A Suitable Boy, the first screen adaptation of Vikram Seth's classic novel - Media Centre". www.bbc.co.uk. 12 August 2019. Retrieved 6 October 2019.
  13. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/jul/20/a-suitable-boy-india-bbc-historical-drama-mira-nair-vikram-seth

Reviews[edit]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]