Great Indian Novels #1: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

Vikram Seth’s magnum opus occupies a particularly lofty pedestal in the annals of fiction. Weighing in at some 1300 pages and over half a million words it is one of the longest novels ever published in the English language. The story is set, largely, in Calcutta, in 1951, a period where India was finding its feet following the cataclysmic upheaval of Independence. Partition was only a few years in the past, Gandhi’s assassination had left its mark. There was political turmoil as the new republic tried to work out what sort of democracy it was going to be. Nehru was the man at the helm and his ideals veered towards the left, particularly in his plans to dismantle the old feudal system and remove power from the ruling classes. 

These are the larger themes that serve as a canvas for Seth’s wonderful tale of four intertwined families. First and foremost among these are the Mehras, led by Mrs Rupa Mehra, widow and mother to two daughters, one of whom, Lata, is the girl for whom the ‘suitable boy’ is being sought. As the story unfolds we encounter three potential husbands for Lata, of varying degrees of suitability (in Mrs Mehra’s eyes). The enormous cast that flit around this quest include the Kapoors, the Khans, and the Chatterjis. Mahesh Kapoor is the state minister for Revenue, the Nawab Sahib of Baitur (the head of the Khan family), is a member of the landholding class set to lose out under Nehru’s reforms. Their political encounters provide Seth with grist for his mill as he seeks to detail India’s social turmoil.  

The storytelling is captivating, though some will argue that you need a masochistic love of prose to appreciate the manner in which it is laid out. It is not a tale that moves swiftly, and to some the novel may be dry, ponderous, self-important and overwritten. For me this misses the point of a book like this. This was never intended to be a pacey thriller. This is a genuine literary endeavour. Seth takes his time, lingering over characters, scenes and settings. It is this very sense of exactitude that sets the book apart. No other novel that I have read takes such delight in simply using language as an end in itself; Seth has a wonderfully fluid grasp of prose and takes joy in displaying his wit, embellishing the novel with couplets and impish rhymes, passages of dazzling description and charming dialogue.  

I first read this novel in my twenties, and then reread it last year. I can honestly say that that twenty-year hiatus – and the life experience that it contained – allowed me to discover a greater admiration for the author who had laboured for so long over what, in essence, is an extended family saga.

And it was truly a labour. A Guardian review of the novel describes the painstaking process by which Seth crafted his masterwork, spending six years closeted in a room in India while his family tiptoed around him. The article cites a contemporary of Seth’s, William Bissell: “He couldn’t think about anything else, he couldn’t do anything else. Food, sleep, nothing else mattered. We went to stay with the family in Simla, where his mother was a judge, and he was closeted all day in his room. He would only emerge in the evening in his dressing gown clutching a batch of new pages.”

The above-mentioned Guardian article also states that Seth spent a year researching the 1950s, burying himself in “piles of old newspapers, records of legislative debates, gazetteers and memoirs” and “spent weeks in a village in rural Uttar Pradesh and with leather workers in Agra”. 

This obsessive quest for detail is visible on every page. It is one of the things I most enjoyed about the book; Seth so vividly evokes the era that to say one is transported to this time and place seems an understatement. This is the sort of book that once you immerse yourself in hours fly by before you look up again. And yes, it is very, very long. The book’s editor recalls the difficulty of getting other authors to read and offer blurbs. It is said that the author Norman Lewis replied with: ‘It’s longer than the Bible, I’ll try to read it before I die.'”

I would strongly suggest that this is one of those books that genuine lovers of literary fiction must read before they die. You won’t regret it.

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in the same period in India, the 1950s. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

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