A Suitable Boy

Everyone has some bad reading habits. Skim reading. Missing out descriptive passages. Even – eek – going straight to the end of the book for a sneaky peek at what happens. My mother’s is continually stopping to look back and work out who characters are (if they aren’t mentioned for a chapter, she’s forgotten them.) Mine should have been quashed during an English degree which emphasised above all else that the only thing you read a book for is its thematic and stylistic content, and any political agendas that may have sneaked in without the author being remotely aware of them (if an author placed anything intentionally, it was void – any mention of it was dirty autobiographical lit crit, the scum of the literary earth.) But it couldn’t fight a lifetime of reading a novel primarily for the good old plot – the roll, twist and turn of the story, the what happens next…

But what three years of degree couldn’t do has had its biggest shaking at the hands of the almightly 1479 pages of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. You simply can’t read a novel that long to discover what happens at the end of it. The end is so far off, you feel like you’ll be reading this for the rest of your life. You are forced to read for the knowledge of the character and the painting of the situation alone, whether you like it or not.

The inevitable question with a work that more closely resembles a concrete breezeblock than a paperback is: couldn’t he shorten it? Well, if you’re talking purely in terms of plot, then yes, he could have. The book roams everywhere, and many of its forays are strictly unnecessary to the progression of the core characters. Little areas are opened up, characters introduced – and left. If there were a character list, it would be pages long (there isn’t – my Mother wouldn’t stand a chance.) However, you’re not talking purely in terms of plot, because A Suitable Boy is about so much more than the central plotline of the family finding a suitable husband for the youngest daughter Lata. This is but one plot in a novel which really aims to show a whole country at a moment in time. And if you’re doing that about India in 1951, there’s going to be a lot to say. Seth leaves pretty much no area of life in regional capital city unturned. We see: snobbishness by the English-aping upper middle class, a major election and all of the canvassing and administration associated with it, passing major legislation, party politics, working in all levels of industry from the tanning pits to the chairman’s office, religious rioting, religious festivals and personal religious devotion, university academia with all its am dram productions and departmental jostling, indian classical music, gardening, courtesans and prostitutes, medical weaknesses, surgery, birth, death, local village life, muslim and hindu relations, landlord abuse of peasants, attempted murder, the issue of working mothers, affairs, first love, the process of arranged marriage, and finally, marriage. I could add much more.

And it’s this richness and complete picture that make it such a satsifying, full experience. You really feel like you know what this foreign, historical society was like to live in, and not just in a sitting room. You feel you understand all of the numerous settings you encounter – university, law court, hospital – that you know exactly what you’ll see. You could walk in, see the characters walking past – it’s made vivid and real for you to take part in.

But there’s no concealing the length. I took this book on my honeymoon, feeling that at last I’d have time to read it (how galling that it wasn’t available on kindle when I’d got one with this book explicitly in mind). But having got to page 700, with a good 800 left, I had a break of 2 months. I had to – it was just too long, and my old love of plot was itching for a good old beginning-middle-end. It was a good move and I don’t think Seth would mind – he opens the book with a charming little poem thanking key figures and acknowledging the Everest you’re facing:

To these I owe a debt past telling;
My several muses, harsh and kind;
My folks, who stood my sulks and yelling,
And (in the long run) did not mind;
Dead legislators, whose orations
I’ve filched to mix my own potations;
Indeed, all those whose brains I’ve pressed,
Unmerciful, because obsessed;
My own dumb soul, which on a pittance
Survived to weave this fictive spell;
And, gentle reader, you as well,
The fountainhead of all remittance.
Buy me before good sense insists
You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.

The quotation on the cover of my edition reads “Make time for this book. It will keep you company for the rest of your life” – and it’s no overclaim. If you have a spare six months, read it.


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