I don’t even know where to begin gushing about this one, so panoramic is its scope and so delightful its literary charms. Vikram Seth’s 800,000 word magnum opus is lengthier than War and Peace and more compulsively readable than a well-paced soap opera. It is an event in one’s life. I call it a soap opera, because fundamentally, the plot is a family drama, revolving around the wooers of its principal character, Lata Mehra.
Set in the early 1950s and written with a forceful simplicity akin to R K Narayan, it covers 18 months in the entwined lives of four families – the Mehras, Kapoors, Chatterjis, and Khans – and through these characters proffers an intricate peek into a most fascinating (and neglected) period in Indian history. It is an uncertain era when India is transitioning from feudalism to democracy. The First Great General Elections are to be held in 1952 and the central legislative event is the abolition of the oppressive zamindari system, and with it, an entire way of life: courtesans, Hindustani classical musicians and purana khidmatgars. Caste is beginning to make itself felt in electoral calculations, and Nehru remains a force to be reckoned with. On this level, A Suitable Boy is painstakingly researched historical fiction. Seth writes with a level of detail that is unreal. As one reviewer notes, “he writes with the omniscience and authority of a large, orderly committee of experts on Indian politics, law, medicine, crowd psychology, urban and rural social customs, dress, cuisine, horticulture, funerary rites, cricket and even the technicalities of shoe manufacture.”
A Suitable Boy is undoubtedly one of the biggest achievements of world literature and will remain one of my all-time favourites. I feel lucky to have read it at this point in time since I can’t wait for its sequel coming out next year, the appropriately titled A Suitable Girl.