Quietly they moved down the calm and sacred river • A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present
Indian English writing
1950s R K Narayan’s texts help introduce Indian English writing to a global readership.
1981 Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children marks a new stage in Indian English writing.
1997 Arundhati Roy wins the Booker Prize with The God of Small Things, which challenges the caste system.
2000 Amitav Ghosh looks at migration and colonial control in The Glass Palace, a historical novel set in Burma, Bengal, India, and Malaya.
2006 In The Inheritance of Loss, Indian English author Kiran Desai explores the impact of colonialism.
Over the last few decades Indian English writing has carved a niche as a recognizable literary genre that has gained increasing international attention. In the 1950s and ’60s some Indian writers — notably R K Narayan, one of the first Indian English novelists to be recognized outside India — made a deliberate choice to write about the Indian experience in English rather than in one of the numerous Indian languages or dialects. Most of these earlier Indian English novelists were writing from within India, portraying everyday experiences. Since the 1980s, however, a new generation of Indian English novelists has emerged, most of whom have chosen to focus on the themes of postcolonial India, including the impact of imperialism, religious tensions, and the caste system.
Salman Rushdie was one of the first of the so-called Indian diasporic novelists — Indian writers living outside India. His Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, with its blend of Hindu myth, Bombay cinema, magic realism, and hybrid use of English peppered with Indian terms, is the starting point of what has been described as a renaissance in Indian English literature, mainly produced by diasporic authors. Several writers followed Rushdie, including Vikram Seth, whose novel A Suitable Boy was published in 1993.
Epic in scale, A Suitable Boy is one of the longest novels in the English language. Set in the early 1950s — soon after India’s independence and partition in 1947 — the novel follows the fortunes of four families over a period of 18 months. Three of the families, the Mehras, Chatterjis, and Kapoors — all of whom are middle-class, educated Hindus — are related to one another by marriage. The fourth family, the aristocratic, Muslim Khans, are friends of the Kapoors.
The novel opens in the fictional town of Brahmpur, on the river Ganges between Banares (also known as Varanasi) and Patna, although events also take place in Calcutta, Delhi, and Kanpur. These places are described with immense richness, and often with wit. Seth re-creates, in magnificent, almost photographic, detail the India of the early 1950s, bringing to vivid life the river Ganges, the crowded, bustling streets and markets, the country’s extremes of wealth and poverty, and its wonderfully varied landscapes. Central to the text is the determination of Mrs Rupa Mehra to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter Lata, a 19-year-old university student, to a “suitable boy”.
Towns along the river Ganges pulsate with life and colour, providing a vibrant backdrop to the interweaving stories and multiple realities of the India evoked by Seth’s narrative.
"’You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter."
A Suitable Boy
The personal and political
The novel begins with a wedding: that of Lata’s elder sister Savita to Pran Kapoor, a young university professor from a prominent family. Although he suffers from asthma, he qualifies as a “suitable boy”. Lata, an independent-minded young woman whose thoughts and actions in many ways mirror the changes occurring in India at the time, has mixed feelings about the marriage of her beloved sister, questioning how a woman can marry a man she does not know.
As the novel progresses, Lata herself falls in love with three young men: Kabir, a Muslim student; Amit, an internationally celebrated poet; and Haresh, a determined businessman in the shoe trade. It is not until the last moment that the reader learns which of the three Lata chooses; significantly, it is a decision that she makes for herself, taking account of her mother’s wishes, social realities, and her own feelings about love and passion.
And yet A Suitable Boy is much more than just a romantic plot, incorporating numerous subplots, both personal and political, and a large and finely drawn cast of characters. These range from the widowed Mrs Rupa Mehra, with her tireless meddling in the lives of her four children, to the young Muslim idealist Rasheed; from the strong-minded Malati, Lata’s best friend, to the young mathematical genius Bhaskar; and from the politician Mahesh Kapoor to the musician Ishaq. Real historical figures, such as India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, are also added to the literary mix.
A Suitable Boy provides a detailed account of the social and political events taking place in post-partition India during the formative years of the Nehru period (1947—64). Woven into the text are key issues such as the value of work, the process of change, the injustice of poverty, and the direction being taken by India. It describes the run-up to the post-independence election of 1952, in which the Kapoor family is closely involved. Religious intolerance, in particular Hindu—Muslim tensions, is revealed in the reactions to Lata’s love for Kabir and to Pran’s younger brother Maan’s relationship with a Muslim singer-courtesan, Saeeda Bai; and, more violently, in a near-riot between Hindus and Muslims over plans to erect a Hindu temple near a mosque. The author also depicts the iniquities of the caste system, poverty, and the status of lower-caste Indians, such as the jatav, who scrape their living in the evil-smelling tanneries. Certain parts of the plot revolve around land reforms and the abolition of the zamindari system, which aimed to remove property from large aristocratic landholders. The novel explores the roles of women in 1950s India, too, comparing Lata’s dependence on her family with the independence of her friend Malati and the Muslim custom of purdah, in which women are segregated and wear form-covering clothes such as the burqa.
Lata has a tough choice to make: should she choose the Muslim student, the internationally acclaimed poet, or the businessman as her partner? Her plight echoes that of post-partition India: should it opt to overcome religious factionalism, to strive for a sophisticated internationalism, or to settle for economic stability?
Unlike Rushdie’s magical India, Seth’s novel focuses on the matters of real life: work, love, family, the intricacies of lawmaking, political intrigue, the academic world, and religious tensions. These are presented in beautifully written and lyrical prose that is compelling, eminently readable, and often amusing. It presents the English language as it is spoken by the people of India — embellished with scatterings of Hindu and Muslim terms, many of which do not translate into English. The Indian English novelist Anita Desai has observed that it was only after Rushdie “that Indian writers finally felt capable of using the spoken language, spoken English, the way it’s spoken on Indian streets by ordinary people”, something that Seth also captures perfectly.
Marriage lies at the heart of A Suitable Boy and is used to explore key issues — from religion, class, gender, and politics to national and personal identity.
Language of imperialists?
Vikram Seth is a skilled and renowned poet as well as a novelist, so it is perhaps unsurprising that his text includes superbly poetic passages. Many of these draw the reader into the world of Urdu poetry, Indian music and singing (ghazals), and myths and legends as sung and played by Saaeda Bai and her musicians. Equally haunting are descriptions of a tiger hunt, the stinking pools of the tanning works, the Indian countryside, and the Kumbh Mela festival. The novel also includes the flippant couplets nonchalantly tossed out by the Chatterjis; and a contents page that comprises 19 rhyming couplets, one for each part of the book.
It took Seth more than eight years to write his monumental novel; it was a huge success and was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He has been compared to Jane Austen — but although A Suitable Boy, like Austen’s novels, deals with family events and is realistic and perceptive, it is unmistakably an Indian novel, written in English, and a landmark of the genre.
There have been fierce debates concerning the validity of Indian English literature, and in particular a questioning of why leading Indian novelists, most of whom live outside India, should even be writing in English. In Rushdie’s words, “the ironic proposition that India’s best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear”. Nevertheless, the popularity of the Indian English genre continued to grow into the 21st century, with writers such as Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, and Kiran Desai making significant contributions, either setting their novels in India or focusing on the experience of rootlessness and alienation in the diaspora.
"They agreed with each other violently and disagreed with each other pleasurably."
A Suitable Boy
The son of a businessman and a judge, Vikram Seth was born in 1952 in Calcutta, India. After leaving the Doon School, he completed his schooling in Tonbridge, England, and went on to Oxford University, where he graduated in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He received a master’s degree in economics from Stanford University, USA, and later spent some time in China, where he studied classical Chinese poetry. He now lives in England but keeps close contact with India.
Seth’s written works include poetry, a children’s book, and three novels. In 2009 he announced that he was working on a sequel to A Suitable Boy, entitled A Suitable Girl. Initially due to finish the novel in 2013, he commented on BBC’s radio programme Desert Island Discs in 2012 that the pace of work was slow: “The sound of deadlines pushing past is one of the sounds that authors are most familiar with.”
Other key works
1986 The Golden Gate
1999 An Equal Music
2005 Two Lives (biography)
See also: Midnight’s Children • Interpreter of Maladies