A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy  Vikram Seth   fiftyfiftyme category: Other

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.

At times there were flashes of the sort of self-satisfied cleverness he imbues the Chatterjis with, and as with their witticisms, his made me smile even when I was a little miffed at the smugness. I laughed at the final couplet of the introduction “Buy me before good sense insists/You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists”  and again when, near the end of one of the longest novels ever written,  Amit Chatterji launches a diatribe against long novels in what is clearly Seth inviting his readers to laugh at him and themselves. The fact that what was said perfectly described the effect that reading A Suitable Boy had on me  made the self-referential humour easier to take. That sort of cleverness can be forgiven when it really is that clever.

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. 

18 Replies to “A Suitable Boy”

  1. What a lovely write-up with some clever insights into one of my favourite books. I love how you share your very personal reactions to things. Look forward to following your fiftyfifty.me journey 🙂

  2. Thank you so much! When I re-read my post, it seems like a real "I" full, but I must schreib etwas and so I do as I'm told and write what I know. 🙂

  3. You've actually made me want to go back and read it all over again, Stuart – I read (and enjoyed) A Suitable Boy when it was released, but have forgotten it, except in a very rudimentary, superficial sort of way. I've thought off and on that I should read it again, but the sheer size is so daunting…

  4. Some things are so overwhelmingly engaging for me I just never get around to talking about how amazing I found them and I love that you took the time to give A Suitable Boy the love it deserves – a wonderfully weaved reflection of your experience of having read it.

    LotR, The Count of Monte Cristo and A Suitable Boy are three of the lengthiest tomes I own (yes I got the edition where the trilogy was all in one book) and it was interesting reading how they compared for you. "The Fifth of September" will always remain I think one of the most gripping chapters I've ever read in my life!

    I really liked your analogy of the jigsaw puzzle, the satisfaction of finding even the most seemingly insignificant mention actually tie into the wider narrative in A Suitable Boy was immensely satisfying as a reader. I can't remember many details some years on, but I do remember feeling like so when reading.

    1. lolwhut?

      "the satisfaction of finding even the most seemingly insignificant mention actually tie into the wider narrative in A Suitable Boy was immensely satisfying"

      I just realised what I said. Fail. I blame this one on the overindulgence of napping.

    2. By the by, I was later so delighted to discover how so many of the characters we grew to enjoy in the book were people from the writer's life, even if they were "composites". Yes, yes unsurprising, given how real they felt even in the book, yet it's something else being able to actually see the links of who is who because the writer is relatively open about it.

      Also about the cleverness – that table of contents could have come off as gimmicky but instead you can tell Vikram Seth is a poet at heart just from that. I really need to find some of his published poetry now that I think about it.

    3. I didn't find the table of contents gimmicky – they were couplets, but not Kakoli couplets. They did help give away the big "reveal" central to the tragedy – I know who was who and the secret would come out as soon as they were introduced, and one of the couplets confirmed it. As for more of his poetry, why not read the novel he wrote in verse? Just don't think you'll sucker me into reading that one too before you see the poet and the prostitute.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, memsaab! I too am waiting for the sequel – one of the reasons I was so determined to read A Suitable Boy in 2012 because the infallible and omniscient Wikipedia says that A Suitable Girl is supposed to be out in 2013. I'd also like to see a movie of this one, so that my mind's eye image of Naseeruddin Shah as the Nawab Sahib can be brought to life. 🙂

  6. Hello Stuart,
    I was quite pleased to read your comments about Seth's A suitable boy, a book which is also close to my heart, and wondered why you wouldn't critique it as you say, because in fact you do it, and well (even if shortly, given the size of the novel)!
    Perhaps you'll be interested to read what I'd thought about the book, while it's still fresh on your mind, but contrary to you for example I liked Mrs Mehra very much, I think she's almost the hero of the book, because it is finally her influence which makes Lata choose her "suitable boy"!
    cheers, yves

    1. Thanks for that, Yves. When I said I wouldn't critique the book, I meant in the sense of assessing the quality of its writing, something I am patently unfit to do. I'm also aware that my reaction to Mrs Mehra, unquestionably a central character, was somewhat idiosyncratic. 🙂

  7. I totally hear you w.r.t. the distractions while reading – I try and not read on the iPad because then I can easily drift over to FB/Twitter – and that's the end of my reading. I liked A Suitable Boy very much and "The Count of Monte Cristo" is one of my favorites! ASB was quite the tome though – you couldn't just pick it up and go (like you can with paperbacks), you had to think about it, steady yourself and then it heave it up! Seth describes his characters believably – they seem like people I know or could know, although have to say I found his descriptions of the politics of that time tiresome.

  8. Thanks, Amodini! You're absolutely right about the self-discipline needed for a book this size, I think tghat's why I went back to shorter books afterwards in my fiftyfiftyme challenge. I do look forward to returning to ASB though, when I have a lot of free time.

  9. Sigh… It's been years since my last re-read and I don't know if I have a copy currently… But if not I will also repurchase. Somehow I grieve a little that I can never read it again for the first time, such was the joy of that first reading. Hot summer, cool bath, tears streaming, trying not to dunk the edges of the pages into the water. Wrist strained indeed, but heart Happy and head filled with so many words and thoughts and pictures. Gabrielle.

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