Saturday, March 3, 2012

Book Review: A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. I am in total love with this book. My eyes always brighten up at the very mention of it. And no, I haven’t been paid by the author or the publishers of the book to say this. A Suitable Boy, with a whopping 1350 pages, is undoubtedly one of the longest books in the English language. And to know that I have read it twice, gives one a pretty clear picture of its inescapable pull.

A Suitable Boy may as well be considered a landmark in the 20th century Indian writing. It is not a mere novel; it is an epic in its own right.
Set in India post independence, it chronicles the lives of some 40 odd people belonging to four different yet related families, across the length and breadth of the country, in a mother’s search for a suitable boy for her daughter. Of course the daughter Lata has her own dreams and ambitions that her mother couldn’t agree less with. Together, the mother and daughter travel from city to city in a kind of unique countrywide pilgrimage, pursuing a common goal – the elusive “suitable boy” – in their own different ways. The pages encompass a journey through the narrow by lanes of the fictitious town of Brahmpur, the footwear industries of Kanpur and Calcutta, the lazy streets of Lucknow, and the parlors of the harlots of Tarbuz ka Bazaar. During the course of this journey, Lata meets three suitable boys, each perfect in his own right. Who she picks is the climax, though not at all the main focus of the book, like one would naturally expect.

This novel is a comedy, satire, love story and drama all rolled into one. The real beauty of the book lies not as much in the variety of aspects of Indian life in the post-independence times it covers, but more in the vividness and poignant detail with which Seth describes them. The ease with which he writes about such different genres as Indian politics, urban and rural social customs, crowd psychology, law, medicine, cuisine, cricket and even the technicalities of shoe manufacture and trade – it becomes increasingly hard to believe that he is a full-time writer and not a traveler.

The intricacy and consistency with which Seth etches his characters go a long way in endearing them to the reader. The people in the book are real, though people of our times might not be able to identify completely with them. The book gives an insight into the situation of the Indian society in that era – the superstitions and the various religious rites, the social hobnobbing of the who’s who of metropolitan cities like Calcutta, rural issues, the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh divide, and the political ongoings at a time as critical and sensitive as that post independence. But the best part of the book is that no matter how many serious issues and scandalous events it might shed light upon, they are perfectly interwoven with the story and the characters, letting the reader live them, see them through the witness’ own eyes.

Vikram Seth is a terrific writer, indeed one of the best of his generation. His charm lies not just in the vast research he puts into his writing, but more in the sheer imagination and vision that flows into every word he writes.

It must be clear by now how much I adore this book. But I am under obligation to chronicle the book’s drawbacks too. Well, for one, the length of the book is indeed way beyond the capacity of an average reader. Perhaps that is why the book hasn’t enjoyed mass readership among today’s young readers as yet. The size of the book as well as its slightly slow pace might repel some readers, who look for easy, fast paced reads. Yet, for the true lovers of literature, this book is a must-read and as far as I think, a must-possess too. For, once you start flipping through the pages, it is hard to remain unaffected by the absolute charm of it.

P.S. You can download the ebook (pdf) here.
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