A Suitable Boy

20 November 2013
Written by Diana Kenny
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Having recently travelled to India, Diana Kenny this month reviews the grand tale of an Indian mother's quest to find a ‘suitable husband' for her daughter


A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

In preparation for my trip to India I decided to read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, a book I had heard covered just about every facet of Indian life.

Upon researching the book I discovered that 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of A Suitable Boy and that Vikram Seth has been paid a handsome advance to write a sequel, A Suitable Girl, due to be published this year but has not yet eventuated.

A Suitable Boy is loosely based on his Seth's own family. His parents married in 1951 and his father, like the intended suitor in the novel, has a shoe company. The book provides an insight into the grand kaleidoscope of the life of four middle-class families in 1951 India. Over the course of a year it follows their interests, passions and struggles as they come to terms with life in post-colonial India.

The subject matter is simple enough; Mrs Rupa Mehra is on a quest to find a husband for her youngest daughter, Lata. Lata, in turn has a couple of ideas of her own, but goes along with her mother’s schemes.  

The four families involved are the Kapoors, Hindi-speaking elite with a strong interest in politics; the Mehras, anglicised middle class with a belief in English social systems; the Chatterjis, through whom Seth introduces us to Indian music forms and poetry; and the Khans, Muslims facing the destruction of their culture and language. Their lives are intertwined by marriage and friendship and are described in great detail. Portraits are compiled of village life, city life, political life, business life, religious life and traditional life as opposed to life in modern-day India.

The great issues of post-British India are discussed - land reform where all feudal land-holdings were dissolved, the 1952 general elections, Muslim-Hindu relationships, the Gandhi constitutional provision outlawing untouchability and the place of women in a modern society at a time when purdah was still practised.

All of this could sound very boring but Seth has a gentle style that engages involves the reader in every situation. With the grand scope of the novel. he has been compared to Jane Austen and Antony Trollop. Like Austen’s work it is a study of manners, an affectionate look at India at a time of crux.

The book ends with most readers being puzzled by Lata’s decision. Ironically, while I was in India, two of our guides, one a young man, Prevan, and the other a middle-aged woman, Poonam, had both entrusted their marriages to family.  Poonam has had a happy marriage for over 20 years despite initially refusing her future husband because he was too skinny! And Prevan was to be married in a few months' time.  We were also invited into a family home where a cooking demonstration took place.  The young host and hostess had an arranged marriage and despite having met only twice in the six months before their wedding, they were a picture of happiness. Our group of women were concerned that our hostess was cooking on gas in a beautiful sari that kept slipping from her head but the husband commented to us that it was part of her charm!


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