For a foreigner reading Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ – it will be a commentary on India, at least the North of India, Calcutta (now Kolkata) included. For an Indian reading the same, it is but a slice of life. The story is not infused with Indianness merely from the top and one just cannot remove it from the setting of India and place it anywhere else only by changing the names of the characters.
It emerges from the belly of the nation itself and revolves, evolves from the colourful and patchy fabric of the country such that Mann and Lata are not merely characters in a novel but people we had always known in our neighbourhood.
Curiously, the novel leaves both Bombay and Delhi out – and chooses instead to delve into the smaller cities and the villages of North India and their ‘trysts’ with democracy and freedom. The story begins – and in large part dwells in the fictionalized town of Brahmapur, modeled perhaps on our very own Allahabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It follows the story of four linked families in Brahmapur, Kolkata, and the cities Kanpur and Lucknow.
The novel is set in 1951 when India was heading towards its very first general election. The mother of pretty, petite Lata Mehra is on a quest to find a suitable boy for her daughter. She has just got her older daughter Savita married into the righteous family of Mahesh Kapoor, Revenue Minister and the drafter of the Radical Zamindari Abolition bill.
Lata knows that her gentle sister has found her match in the balanced and kind Pran Kapoor – Professor of English Literature at Brahmapur University. She muses if she could be ever so lucky as to fall in love with the man her mother choses for her.
Lata’s brother Arun – holding on to the legacy of the babus created by the British in their likeness – is married to a woman from a distinguished Brahmo family (Chatterjees) of Kolkata. In the quintessentially and delightfully ‘Bengali’ family, the mother muses over Rabrindra Sangeet and throws lavish parties, and the children noisily chatter about politics on the dinner table and mercilessly tease each other on their love affairs.
If the Mehra and the Kapoor household share the same values, the Chatterjees are too modern and quirky for the likes of Mrs Mehra.
Then there is the old Nawab Sahib of Baiter and his children, the twins Imtiaz and Feroze and Zainab – the friends of the Kapoors – upholding their izzat (respect) and tehzeeb (culture) as long as they can, with the full knowledge of the losing significance of their position in the rapidly changing times.
And there is Mann Kapoor, who, having inherited his looks, heart and friendship from his father, could not follow his principles and settle down for conventional marriage and career. He impetuously falls in love with an ageing tawaif Saeeda bai (more on her later). Then we have Lata’s suitors- self made Haresh, charming Kabir and the dreamy poet Amit Chatterjee. And finally, Rasheed (my personal favourite) and his misplaced ideals, his unspoken desires and his impossible dreams of liberating his people from the yoke of feudalism and poverty.
The time and setting of the novel itself lend a narrative to its characters – some are nostalgic, choosing to dwell on the ideals of the freedom struggle that are threatening to turn redundant; some are excited about the future that the newly independent nation would give them. There are the ones who refuse to let go of their old privileges and there are some who seek to translate the same in a different language and on a different slate. Then there are the ‘others’ for whom time simply does not matter – and India’s glorious independence does not and would not – in any means whatsoever – bring the slightest of change in their lives oppressed not by colonizers but by their own countrymen and the men in their families.
The Suitable Boy delves deeply into each of its characters’ backstory, splits into different narratives of different people, some of who may feel trivial in the main story but are so interesting that we would want to know of their fates and as much as we want to know the fate of Lata getting her suitable boy. Vikram Seth makes sure that all these big and small narratives neatly fit into the larger scheme of things in the novel, just like the crazy- colourful patterns that fit seamlessly on the quilt that our grandmothers make.
Just like the different, multifarious, ten thousands narratives of people – living together and living apart from Kashmir to Kanyakumari – fit into our idea of India.
The book does not despair on patriarchy or communal and caste tensions that are such an intrinsic part of the Indian society- and neither does it shy away from it. Rather, it gently unfolds it for the readers in all its shades and nuances.
To take the example of Saeeda Bai, while her profession required her to take the patronage and protection of men, like an expert in her trade she turns it on its head to make it look like it is their desire towards her irresistible charm and she is only obliged to meet it for their sake. What stays with us thus; apart from her enthralling renditions, is her way of navigating patriarchy and drawing her strength from the same.
What makes it even more endearing that in spite of being hardened from her life experiences and the practical considerations of her trade, love was not lost on her. She loved and yet let her head rule over her heart – a decision which strangely echoed with Lata too, in spite of the vastness of their situations and backgrounds. Maybe this is just the way women learn to negotiate and secure their positions, as they are not given the privilege of following their base impulses (like men like Mann and Rasheed are given).
Because the story takes place in the few years of partition, it hangs over the ghosts of the communal tension that threatens to resurrect at the slightest provocation. But again, what is highlighted is not the horrors of the riots and the collective trauma of partition violence; but friendships that have thickened in spite of the changing political culture, and love that blossomed irrespective of the differences of caste and creed. Mahesh Kapoor’s friendship with the Nawab of Baitar, passed down to their sons, is a testimony to the fact that religion is just a way of life and an act of faith and not a marker of your entire identity. Similarly, Lata and Kabir’ are drawn towards each other with the full knowledge of the impossibility of their union.
Communal violence erupts from time to time and festivals are still celebrated on the streets after a few days. Caste-based discrimination and hierarchy continue in free India and yet there is hope in the form of people like Haresh Mehra who invites Jagat Ram, his employee and a man belonging to the so-called lower caste for his wedding and Rasheed Khan who gives his tenant his rightful share of land.
Fathers love their daughters even as they would not bestow them the same freedom and rights as their sons – and mothers want grandsons even when they equally love their granddaughters. Students protest, and the youth rebel. The elders clamp down – or at least attempt to.
There are rights and wrongs but nobody is good or bad.
The India in ‘A Suitable Boy’ is thus as fascinating and dazzling as the postcard of Incredible India and as ugly and brutal as its depiction in Avengers or Slumdog Millionaire. And it is also the grey area in between that we as Indians experience, tolerate and learn to love.
Parallel to Lata Mehra and her suitors is Mann Kapoor – desperately, insanely in love with Saeeda bai. Or was it desire? If it is desire, is it less pure or less strong than what his brother Pran feels for his wife Savita? Where would one place the yearnings Lata feels towards Kabir or her affection for Amit and Haresh (her other two suitors)? What name would one give to the relationship between Firoz and Mann, who are as thick as brothers bonded by blood and yet a simmering sexual tension lies between them?
How can one place love in the categories of light or intense, pure or depraved? Vikram Seth knows we cannot.
He presents its characters – and their feelings just as they are – legitimized or forbidden, selfish or selfless, justified or irrational. And with that Vikram Seth also displays – as the review of ‘A Suitable Boy’ in the Observer makes a note – ‘his instinctive knowledge about the human heart with all the varieties of kindness and cruelty’.
While the web series on Netflix remains inadequate to include the multitude of characters and their plotlines, the actors give a face to the characters, and in some cases, more expressions than the book. I wonder if it could be made if we did not have Tabu to essay the character of Saeeda Bai. Rasika Duggal as Savita and Sahana Goswami as Meenaxi also bring more strength to their characters (than in the book) by their sheer acting. Tanya Maniktala as Lata and Ishaan Khattar as Maan lend so much freshness and innocence to their roles!
I did miss seeing Imitiaz’s siblings, Feroz and Saeeda, little Bhaskar’s parents Veena and Kedarnath, Amit’s two brothers – all amazing characters who could not make it in the 6 episode series and yet, Mira Nair does not do a very bad job altogether. If anything, she revives the book, published way back in 1993, for a lot of people like me. It took me a month to read this book of 1500 long pages, and it was well worth the time!