Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Suitable Boy - by Vikram Seth

It's been two months since my last entry here - during which time I've been hauling around all 1476 pages of this novel until, sadly, the final monkey made its appearance, and there were no more pages left to turn.

But that seems only fair, since the author spent ten years writing the thing (or so it says on the Wikipedia entry which apparently this insatiable chatterbox wrote himself)

Why didn 't he just keep on writing more chapters? I mean -- I really didn't care which suitable boy Lata would eventually marry -- I just wanted him to keep spinning off more characters, taking me into more corners of the Indian world.

Perhaps he had just exhausted his areas of familiarity -- the legal, educational, and business worlds of his khatri caste parents. He valiantly and persistently tried to extend his story into the Muslim world -- but you can feel both the effort and the distance. (and all of those Muslim characters ended up badly - losing either their lives, loves, or friendships in 1951-1952, the year the story takes place, from one Hindu Holi festival to another, and, coincidentally, the year the author himself was conceived and born)

No wait -- there were two Muslim success stories-- among very minor characters -- the fellow who ruthlessly got himself elected to Congress - and the sarangi player who turned out to be a great singer -- but -- stop -- I can't tell you any more -- because suspense can be very important in a 1500 page story.

So if any of you have not yet read the book, you should stop right here. Seth put a lot of effort into tickling and teasing anxiety over eventual outcomes, and I don't want to spoil that pleasure for anyone.


But if you have already read the book....

One thing that especially strikes me is the sweet, playful, oh-so modern, liberal, educated, and elite Calcutta Brahmo flavor of it all -- exemplified by the Chatterbox -- I mean -- Chatterji family in the story -- which seems to include portraits of the author's siblings, including himself.

Which probably also accounts for something so very English about the storytelling -- the need for central characters who feel good, sincere, innocent, and wholesome. (something that would be quite foreign to the Chinese fiction that I've been reading for the past five years)

And maybe also accounts for the emphasis on history (a notion that didn't enter the Gangetic plain until the Moslems wanted to record their victories over the infidel)

"A Suitable Boy" is more like "A suitable History" -- of post-partition India, with emphasis on its major themes of inter-communal relations, the end of the Zamindari system, the decline of the Congress Party after it had defeated its colonial adversary, and the first, awkward steps of the world's largest and youngest democracy. (compare this to what was happening in China in 1951)

Coming from an enlightened Hindu perspective, the most repulsive character is a Hindu extremist, the wealthy, violent, stupid, amoral (but kind of funny) Raja of Marh. The most important relationships in this story are the friendships and romances between Hindu and Moslem -- but to give Seth credit -- he even-handedly gives a tight slap to the rural Muslim spiritual and political leadership which cannot see any difference between God's plan and their personal self interest at the expense of lowest economic castes.

I get the feeling that Seth is quite serious about the history he presents.

But there's also a love quadrangle -- just like the Judgement of Paris , so it's fun to ponder what each suitor had to offer.

One offered sexual obsession (Kabir, the Muslim student), the second offered sensitivity and verbal sophistication (Amit, the renowned Poet), and the third offered steadfast devotion and financial security (Haresh, the shoe manufacturing executive)

What's a girl (Lata) to do?

Significantly -- other than agonizing over this choice, practically nothing more about her is shown to us. It's as if choice of mate is the most important one she will make in her life. (BTW - despite her repeated protests, I knew all along it had to be -- and should have been -- Haresh -- unless some additional candidate were to appear at the end.

Because above everything -- unlike the author of "Leaving India" , this girl just wants to be a good Khatri woman, taking the clan from one generation to the next.

That trans-generational commitment (in America we call it "family values") is the profound content of this story that's so light-hearted and/or superficial about political and spiritual issues.
And that's why dull, boring, but dedicated Mrs. Mehra gets more face time than anyone else, and the novel is named after her quest.

And also why the center of all catastrophe in this narrative is the elegantly appointed boudoir of a high-class whore. Playpen of the loathsome Raja of Marh, it's also, like the House of the Rising Sun, "been the ruin of many a young man" -- including the Nawab, his son, and that most noble, likable, and wayward of youths, Maan (is he "everymaan"?) who eventually loses his status as a "suitable boy"

Perhaps this is another English/Judeo-Christian feature of this narrative: "Hear O Israel -- follow not the Whore of Babylon"

Though, significantly, unlike Biblical whores, Saeeda Bai is an excellent musician - like the very best of the Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai - and maybe even more so -- because Hindustani music is a very serious art form, both for the author, his story, and the educated classes of India. (and it's Saeeda's sarangi player who goes on to possibly become the greatest voice of his time)

But mostly, this is a light-hearted, superficial narrative -- serving well as a colorful guide to north Indian customs, manners, clothing etc.

I especially enjoyed the description of festivals (how I wish we Americans had something like Holi) - and meandering narrative style that seemed to pick minor characters, like the Urdu tutor, out at random and then surprisingly make them major figures.