First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
Vikram Seth’s novel is, t its core, a love story: the tale of Lata’s – and her mother’s – attempts to find this suitable boy, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. Set in post-Independence India and involving the lives of four large families and those who orbit them, it is also a vast, panoramic exploration of a whole continent at a crucial hour as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great General Election and the chance to map its own destiny.
In the tradition of George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy, Vikram Seth has written a novel that is a complete picture of human life. Massive, generous, sad, comic and uniquely accessible, it is a story that will absorb anyone who wonders about the world and the intricacy of human relationships.
It’s the weekend again! That’s another work week in the books. Time to ditch those work clothes and don more comfortable clothes. Looking outside, it looks like it is going to be a cold and damp weekend here in the Philippines. I hope that you are keeping warm wherever you are in the world. As it is also the end of the week, I hope you were able to finish everything you started this week, whether it be a project, a book, or anything under the sun. I hope you ended the week on a high note. If it went the other way around, I hope that you will utilize the weekend to rest, relax, and recover your self-esteem. With the year drawing to a close, I hope that your prayers have been answered and all that you’ve worked hard for during the year got repaid. My wish for this Christmas is that everyone will stay healthy, in body, mind, and spirit, despite the challenges surrounding us.
To cap the week, I am posting a new First Impression Friday update, a weekly tradition that has greatly helped me in appreciating my current reads. It has also allowed me to slow down and digest what I am reading. The past three weeks, without design, somehow evolved into a mini-African literature reading journey. This journey included the works of two Nobel Laureates in Literature, Abdulrazak Gurnah (2001) and Naguib Mahfouz (1988), and a book recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory. But I have since flown away from Africa and landed in India. My current read is Vikram Seth’s gargantuan epic A Suitable Boy.
It was while browsing through must-read lists that I first encountered Seth and his novel, A Suitable Boy. I didn’t have an iota about what the book was about – but I can infer from the title – but I didn’t hesitate in adding the book to my perpetually growing reading list. Besides, the book was listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Moreover, the inner reading adventurer in me cannot resist it. In early 2018, I was finally able to acquire a copy of the book but the first thing that caught my attention was its thickness. It was hefty! While I am no stranger to long reads, I was nevertheless daunted considering that Seth is a writer whose prose I have no previous experience with. I guess this was unconsciously the reason why the book was pushed to the back of my reading list. At the same time, the time of reckoning was fast approaching; I cannot leave the book to just keep on gathering dust on my bookshelf.
It was for this reason that I added the book to two of my reading challenges: my 2022 Top 22 Reading List and 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. It is actually the last book in both challenges that I am yet to read. With this, I am hitting three birds with one stone, basically; I am also targeting 20 books in the aforementioned 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list but this one is going to be a failure. On top of this, A Suitable Boy is my 100th read this year! This is the first time that I am breaching the three-digit mark; my previous best was 93 books last 2020. It is also my first 1,000+ page book since Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’ Parallel Stories which I read in late 2020. Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, which I read earlier this year, nearly ran to a thousand pages.
So back to the story. A Suitable Boy commenced in 1951 and is mainly set in the fictional city of Brahmpur on the Ganges River. The heart of the story, or so it seems, is 19-year-old Lata Mehra who we first meet while she was attending the (arranged) marriage of her older sister, Savita to Pran Kapoor. Their mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, was the one who masterminded the pairing; arranged marriages were ubiquitous back then and, to some levels, still persist today. The family patriarch, Raghubir Mehra, has long since passed away, leaving the burden of arranging their daughter’s marriages on the shoulders of Mrs. Rupa Mehra. As Lata is already a young adult, her marriage is looming, a fact that was underlined by her mother during Savita’s wedding. It can then be safe to conclude that the book’s title is derived from the search for a suitable boy for Lata. To be honest, my initial idea of the story was a young boy who was working hard to earn his family’s approval or something.
The first young man that caught Lata’s attention was Kabir Durrani, one of her classmates. However, their romance was cut short because of one thing: he is a Muslim. Lata’s family is Hindu. Lata’s mother was obviously against the pairing, notwithstanding the fact that Kabir’s father was a prominent university professor. This also exposed one of the many threads the novel has explored: the gap between members of the two major religions. It would also figure prominently as the novel, in its meanderings, pivoted toward subjects that are fundamental in contemporary Indian history, such as politics and cultural and religious divides. Actually, when I learned it was set during the infancy of the Indian Republic, I already expected this exploration of politics. It didn’t take long for these subjects to float to the surface.
The novel also introduced a vast and eclectic cast of characters, something that I guess was coming considering the novel’s heft. Among the cast of characters that populated the novel was a nawab (a Muslim nobleman or person of high status), a Home Minister, a Minister of Revenue, several lawyers, and even politicians. The backbone of the story, however, is the four main families who found common connections as the story moved forward. The first one, of course, was the Mehras. The second one, married into the Mehras, was the Kapoors. We also meet the family of the Nawab Sahib of Baitar and his family. The last is the Chatterji family who also got connected with the Mehras through marriage. The oldest daughter of the Chatterjis, Meenakshi, was married to Arun, the oldest child of the Mehra household.
So yes, there is quite a lot to unpack and to expect from this book. The search for a suitable boy may seem like the innocent subject that the book explored but it was a vessel utilized to explore meaningful and seminal subjects. While the search for a suitable partner for Lata was what kicked the story into motion – and I am looking forward to how it develops – what I am keen for in the story are the cultural touchstones and the historical context that the novel is brimming with. I have quite a long way to go before I complete the novel but I am fired up. How about you fellow reader? What book or books are you taking with you for the weekend? I hope you get to enjoy them.
The theme of the novel is identified in the very first sentence : “You too will marry a boy I choose”… That is pretty much the crux of the story. Of course along the way Seth explores many aspects of newly independent India. As you have pointed out, politics (the Partition of British India) and religious communalism are major themes. But he also explores Indian classical music and even Shakespeare performances.
I hope you enjoy it. There’s also a TV adaptation currently available on Netflix.
I am currently reading “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell, which is about Lucrezia de Medici.
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Thank you! Now that you mentioned it, I did remember the first line of A Suitable Boy immediately grabbing my attention. The book has many elements which made me appreciate it.
By the way, what do you think of The Marriage Portrait? I am still a little apprehensive about reading the book although I did like Hamnet.
Oh, the Medicis. Intriguing.
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My review of “The Marriage Portrait” is here: https://kabiraltaf.wordpress.com/2022/12/12/review-the-marriage-portrait-by-maggie-ofarrell/
There is a TV adaptation of “A Suitable Boy” on Netflix (in English). I’d be curious to hear what you think 🙂