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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Suitable Boy (1993) by Vikram Seth

Book Review
A Suitable Boy (1993)
by Vikram Seth

  The first fact any potential reader needs to know about A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's post-Indian independence epic, is its length: 1349 pages in hardback, 1500 pages in the paperback(!) reprint(!) edition that I read after literally years of procrastination.    The first comparison any reader or writer about the book is likely to make is to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which is slightly shorter than A Suitable Boy (1225 page) and was also originally published in serial format as supposed to A Suitable Boy which was both written and published as an extraordinarily long one volume novel.

 A Suitable Boy tells the stories of several interlinked families who inhabit a fictional north Indian state with a strong hindu tradition and a substantial, even after post partition, muslim population.  The horrors of partition haunt the events of A Suitable Boy, but they take place off stage- in the past of this particular book, which, for all its ridiculous page length occurs more or less in chronological sequence over the course of a year plus. 

  The length in this case, is the number of narratives that Seth weaves together, and the extraordinary depth of analyses he brings to topics as varied as the post-Independence national political scene, the politics of the literature department of a major Anglo-Indian University, the decisions of the newly independent Indian Supreme Court, issues in the Indian shoe manufacturing industry, and of course, the master narrative, revolving around the determination of a mother to get her willful college-educated daughter married to "A Suitable Boy" which in her case means a Hindu of equal caste, not too rich but not poor.

  To say that the "central plot" of A Suitable Boy is the marriage plot involving Lata Mehra and her three suitors is like saying that War and Peace is about some battles in the Napoleonic wars.   Lata and her marriage woes disappear for hundreds of pages towards the middle and end of A Suitable Boy, which is more centrally concerned with the "sub" plot involving Minister Kapoor, his conflicts with the Congress part of which he is a charter member and the adventures of his purposeless son, Maan, who is NOT a suitor for Lata, but who becomes a central focus of A Suitable Boy for the last 500 pages.

 Seth's almost jaw dropping erudition in the context of a work of historical fiction about a confusing place like post-independence India is obviously a major attraction of A Suitable Boy.   An American reader as unfamiliar with the actual events of 1950's India outside of works of literature is limited in the ability to fact check anything Seth says, but you could also argue that any inaccuracy is part of a complex artistic vision.  Really, it is a world in itself but it feels so real that I found myself double checking that the places involved were, in fact, fictional.

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