Review: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

December 2, 2013

Author: Vikram Seth
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Year: 1993
ISBN: 978014023038
Rating: ★★★½☆
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A magnanimous poetic saga of four families, A Suitable Boy is a lovable in-depth read, where the reader not only spends his minutes, hours and days with the numerous characters, but lives inside their minds too. A Suitable Boy is essentially about Lata and her mother’s quest to find a befitting boy for Lata to marry.

Though a major part of Lata’s story dangles between three suitors, the novel periodically shifts its focus to their immediate relations, namely the Kapoors, the Khans and the Chatterjis. The novel branches out into several sub-plots regarding these four families in the first quarter of the novel itself (more than 300 pages), wherein each major character is provided with a disparate personality and a suitable backdrop. Towards the immediate end of the novel, all these stories somehow reconvene to stage a fitting climax.

Set in 1951-52, the narrative travels in the scenario of a newly independent India, where the manners of the upper class people were still influenced by the British and the mainland was to taste the first shock of sectarian violence. Talking about the mannerisms, the novel seemed to be like a derivative of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, indirectly adapting the act of conversing, behaviour and proposition of love from the classic. Right from the upright and urban Meenakshi to the widowed and over-concerned Mrs. Rupa Mehra, almost every character has a British mark, whether in their poems, as in case of Amit, or in their dialect, as in case of Haresh, both being Lata’s suitors. Thus, Seth rightly projected how the upper classes of the new India used to behave, and this was in continuum till the very end.

The novel is distinguishably governed by sectarian issues, be it the palpating riots regarding a Hindu temple or interruption of Diwali celebrations due to a Moharram procession, and in this course the Khans and the Kapoors get significantly involved in them, knowingly or unknowingly. Drama happens when even Kabir, the third suitor of Lata’s, is a Muslim and this fact hampers their conversion from lovers to a couple.

Seth has injected two broad forms in the narrative – tragedy and comedy. The tragedy is that whenever he introduces a big turn of event, one that has the capability to transform the general mood, he stops short of implementing its full means, and the tragedy does not become a tragedy in the real sense despite its potential to be one. If Seth had conformed to that, the length of the novel might have dramatically reduced. Comedy is shown in bits and pieces throughout the novel where you’ll laugh aloud and at other times a smile or a smirk will grace your face. The situational comedy contributed by the Chatterji clan along with the Kakoli couplets binds the otherwise materialistic and satirical family together.

The length of the novel is debatable too. While proudly being one of the longest novels of modern literature, it’s questionable if the novel actually required such magnanimous length, or did the author write it with the intention of making it a bulky novel. Also, almost throughout the novel, Seth has kept the pace poetically slow, concentrating on cracks and crevices in the situation, but the last couple of pages have been hurriedly written. The plot takes an altogether different route while forming the climax and that hampers the narrative gravely, as the reader by that time gets used to the detailing and being intrigued by the complexity of each character written. Then the question arises that if the novel had to take a dramatic turn, what was the point of introducing tens of characters and developing their background? Those stories do entwine somehow, but not convincingly.

Overall, though your arm might get strained holding the novel (which even the author has mentioned!), the myriad of characters developed by Vikram Seth take you into their world for some days, narrating their vivid individual stories through their moments. Despite that, the book is a relatively light read and can be universally read and appreciated.

More from Vikram Seth:

Collected poems

Author on goodreads

News on the sequel A Suitable Girl

Kanishk Singh

Writer at IndiaBookStore
A bibliophile and cinephile. Deeply interested in the literature and process of writing. Penning down my first novel.

One Comment

  • Vinay Jalla June 21, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    Being an ardent fan of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language) I aspired to write a long novel too. It’s called ‘Warp and Weft’. My first draft was about 250,000 words (all written on single-sided sheets of paper). Read more here –

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