What to say about this book? How to bring some order to the chaotic jumble of my reactions? One thing I’m not going to try is the use of any Kakoli couplets, I just don’t have the gift. Nor will I critique the book, because that would require the ridiculous pretence that I am qualified to do so. Instead, I’m going to compare it to other creative works, to show how its differences help define it.
The first and most obvious thing to say about A Suitable Boy is that it’s big, ridiculously big. It’s the biggest work of fiction I’ve ever read, three hundred pages longer than The Lord of the Rings and one hundred and fifty pages longer than Buss’s translation of the unabridged The Count of Monte Cristo. Its sheer size was part of the reason I decided to include it as part of my fiftyfifty.me challenge. I’d tried twice before to read it and got distracted by other demands on my time, so this time I decided an element of compulsion was needed. I also wanted to read it as an antidote to the attention-deficit nature of today’s world, in which it’s possible to flit from Facebook Walls to Twitter timelines to Tumblr feeds and web news sites, reading a lot, but never for long. Seth’s massive novel was the exact antithesis of that sort of reading, which made it hard work, like trying to run a marathon after years of 60-metre sprints. I’ve seldom been happier to be so worn out.
The stupendous size of the book brings me to the first of those differences mentioned above. In length, the book that comes closest in my library is The Count of Monte Cristo but the two books are very different in style. Dumas’ work was initially a serial, and it shows. I remember reading it and thinking “this is a 1300-page pageturner”, a thriller I couldn’t put down, until my eyelids mutinied. Chapters like “The Fifth of September” are riveting, exciting and tense, and demand that the reader just keep reading. The Lord of the Rings is a more straightforward linear narrative, a simple tale at its heart, which might be why I lingered longest in the linguistic appendices each of the score or so times I read it.
Seth’s masterpiece is very different. I kept thinking of a huge jigsaw puzzle, in which every piece is carefully brought out of the box, languorously examined in minute detail and put aside, waiting to be put into place with all the rest in a frenzied storm of activity at the very end. With a jigsaw of a myriad pieces, the process of looking at each tiny piece can be frustrating, making one think, “where can this possibly go?” So I found it with A Suitable Boy at times. Some of the pieces that were lingered over seemed so small, so inconsequential, so oddly-shaped, that I wondered why they were there. Just as with an oversized jigsaw, though, the sense of wonder and satisfaction that came when all the pieces were brought together was profound and exhilarating. I was left awestruck at how Seth fitted everything into place in a comparative whirlwind of a climax. The last twenty percent of the book rewarded my patience but was such a contrast in pace to the languid eighty percent that preceded it that at times I felt overwhelmed and a little frustrated. Frustrated because twenty percent of a book this size is a normal sized book on its own, and as much I wanted to devour it in one sitting, I couldn’t. In size, A Suitable Boy stands out qualitatively, not just quantitatively. It is a very different sort of big.
One of the main reasons the book is so big is that Seth describes everything in astonishing detail. It’s this that I loved most about the book, more even than the story. My desire to visit the land of my fathers started to grow at right about the same time that it began to become clear that the subcontinent will be reunified before I ever go there.That’s why I fell in love with this book. Evocative is a tired word, one that deserves sympathy for the horrendous overuse it suffers, but it fits here. Seth brings the India he writes about to life, so vividly and in such detailed depth that it seems to require no imagination at all on the part of the reader. Once in the book, you are there. So much so that the one time when Seth included himself, by starting a sentence with the words, “We Hindus”, it was a bit jarring. This remarkable animation of a world brought to mind another difference. A difference between this book and a trilogy of films.
A Suitable Boy is not a travelogue, nor an orientalist fantasy of India – the only mention of peacocks I recall was a discussion of how good they taste. Seth does not hide anything or minimise anything negative about the India of his book. Cruelty, injustice, misogyny, avarice, lust, misogyny, stupidity, corruption and misogyny are all detailed as carefully as are fragrances, colours, and landscapes. His unflinching examination of what is ugly about India reminded me of Deepa Mehta’s films, and also highlighted a difference
Mehta’s films, two of which I like, are angry. Very angry, and bitter. Reading Seth, I finally get why she is often vilified in India. I still think that vilification is undeserved, but I understand it now. Her films exude bitterness, Seth’s book is matter of fact. He doesn’t excuse or minimise the evils, he just presents them as the way things are in the world he’s describing. Given the enormity of some of them, that calm attempt at objectivity is itself remarkable.
His matter of fact attention to detail is also evident in his characters. Many are totally unlikeable, but all are totally believable. Arun and his wife are loathsome, but they are very real. Mrs Mehra herself I could not like. I found her passive-aggressive selfishness thoroughly aggravating, and to the end her stubbornly narrow selfcentredness with its attendant hypocrisy remained deeply unlikeable for me. Nevertheless, the reasons why she was like that were very clearly laid out, and so her character had depth and consistency. I didn’t like her, but I understood her, and I knew she was a real person. To paint people that well takes time and space, and Seth uses both well, making sure that everyone was a real person, and eliciting authentic reactions.
I did the book an injustice by reading it as quickly as I did. I was always conscious of wanting to finish it, to catch up on the many other things I needed to do, and should have been doing. Occasionally, that generated an irrational annoyed resentment against the book itself, as if it were at fault for being so big. Now that I’ve read it though, I really look forward to visiting again, and next time, I’ll take my time, smelling the flowers, and taking in the sights and sounds. Now that I know “how it ends”, I am eager to enjoy the journey again, for its own sake, without care for the destination. I urge anyone and everyone to do the same.