Pratyasha Ghosh reviews a Classic set in the 1950s
A Suitable Boy, a 1993 classic in Indian literature by Vikram Seth, is ahead of its time even two and a half decades later. Mira Nair’s film based on the novel, set in the 1950s just after the country’s independence, recently saw a huge public discourse on morality.
Seth cleverly weaves an intricate tale of class, social definitions of morals and the vivacious youth that have potential to love without fear, speak their minds with conviction and break down due to the fragility of the social system that hits them with the shards of its shattered self. All this he does, mind you, under the garb of finding a suitable boy for Lata, a 20 something university student in the fictional town of Brahmpur. Considering how child marriage is still commonplace in India, I would consider this pretty progressive in 1950. It cannot be denied, though, that Lata did belong to a certain class that valued education even if it meant merely cherishing the academic medals long after a person’s death (Lata’s mother was very sentimental about her husband’s medals that her daughter-in-law, Meenakshi tried best to refashion into Jewelry).
The rather longish novel has multiple narratives running simultaneously. There is the Mehra family that represent the Indian professional middle class or what colonial lingo termed as the ‘white collared’ class. The widowed Rupa Mehra is obsessed with finding grooms and brides for her four children. Her eldest, Arun, had clearly been a disappointment when he married the high society literature loving Meenakshi Chatterji although she absolutely adored her granddaughter Aparna.
Savita, her eldest daughter though had done exactly what her mother had wished. She married Pran Kapoor, the eldest son of Mahesh Kapoor, a veteran politician, and professor of literature at the Brahmpur University where Lata, her younger sister studied. Mahesh Kapoor himself was a well-meaning politician who was pushing for land reforms in the prevalent zamindari system. Needless to say, this did not bode well for his colleagues, many of whom had vested interest in the old system.
Maan, his youngest, did not make things easier as he preferred the company of alcohol and courtesans. His illicit affair with the famed Saeeda Bai leads him to attack his very best friend, and go to jail for attempt to murder. The grief of her son in jail, possibly awaiting a death sentence, killed his mother. The episode changes Maan forever, who had begun showing signs of inheriting his father’s sensitivity early on when Saeeda Bai sends his off to the village of her younger sister Tasneem’s (later revealed to be her daughter) Urdu teacher who seemed to be growing more fond of the latter than necessary. The Kapoors had a sister, Veena, who had been married to a landed business class family in Pakistan but the partition uprooted them. Kedarnath Tandon now ran a rundown shoe shop in Brahmpur.
Varun is third in line who lives with his brother in Calcutta as he prepares for the Indian Civil Services examinations (which he later clears) and has a special interest in Hindustani classical music.
Mrs. Mehra’s fourth and youngest, Lata, is as tenacious as she is wary of new men but still manages to fall in love with a Kabir Durrani, which, given the tumultuous tensions between Hindus and Muslims at the time, was a far-fetched dream at best. Kabir was what fairy tales were made of but Lata soon realised life wasn’t one. It was about practical decisions and a sustainable future. Who was it to be then? Amit Chatterji, the famed young poet of Calcutta and her sister-in-law, Meenakshi’s brother? Or Haresh Khanna, the docile but self-righteous shoemaker who perhaps shared a similar passion for Lata as he did for his shoes? It was perhaps Haresh’s sensitivity, emotional stability (except for a one off incident which he apologized for profusely later) and dependability that made up Lata’s mind towards him.
Through a blend of the personal and the political, Seth proves that apolitical is a myth. Our lives are defined by politics and designed by the repercussions of our choices that are seldom divested of the former. Be it Mahesh Kapoor’s political death because his son chose to love a tawaif (courtesan), or Lata’s broken heart because she choose to love a Muslim man, which, it’s safe to say, is in all probability going to get legal sanctity today. One particularly vivid display of colonial hangover was Arun Mehra’s great pride at having a junior post in an English firm. His disdain thus for Haresh, a prospective suitable boy and at a senior position in a Czech company only seems natural. Even Amit Chatterji, the seemingly aloof poet that women swooned over, reveled in the privilege that his family accorded him and had a sense of entitlement towards everything, including breathing humans such as Lata. Veena and Kedarnath Tandon’s financial abyss was a direct result of the communal fallout of the partition. Their son, a brilliant ten-year-old bore the brunt of it, his otherwise decorated childhood snatched away from him by the birth of two new countries.
Apart from this, the book has great lessons in how women find ways of exercising their agency in a world that will offer them none. Even Lata’s mother, who seemed like a conformist, had her way with each of her children, when even in the 21st century middle class Indians struggle with their bigde hue bacche. If you are an Indian parent and are reading this, perhaps you just aren’t being manipulative enough. The flamboyant Meenakshi, Mrs. Mehra’s daughter-in-law and Arun’s (Lata’s brother) wife has an incorrigible lust for parties, gold and everything shiny and is one of the more sensible characters in the book. She gets what she wants and is unapologetic about it. How many Indian women can say this even today? This brings me back to my previous point. The book is ahead of its times. Nothing has changed, not in the two-and-a-half decades since it was written or the 1950s that it is set in.