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. Woah. We’re already halfway through December. We are just a couple of days away from welcoming and greeting a new year. I hope that 2023 will be a year of blessings, healing, and great health. Speaking of blessings, I hope that the rest of 2022 will be brimming with blessings. I hope that everyone’s prayers will be or have been answered. I hope that everything you have worked hard for during the past year gets repaid. More importantly, I hope that you are all doing well, in your body, mind, and spirit. As it is also the end of the week, I hope you were able to finish everything you started this week. 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.
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 second half of November and the first week of December, 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 hurtled back to Asia. With my current read, Vikram Seth’s gargantuan epic A Suitable Boy, I am back in the Indian subcontinent, with its rich history, diverse people, and colorful culture.
This is the second week running that I am featuring the book. As I have mentioned, the book is quite hefty; at almost 1,400 pages, it is about to make it to my Top Five longest reads of all time. This is also the first time that I am reading a thousand pager since I read Hungarian writer Péter Nádas’ Parallel Stories back in 2020. However, unlike Parallel Stories, I find A Suitable Boy more accessible. As I mentioned in last week’s First Impression Friday update, it was through must-read lists that I first encountered Seth and his novel, A Suitable Boy. Four years since I acquired the book and nearly a decade since my first encounter with the book, I am finally on the cusp of completing one of the pillars of contemporary Indian literature.
“You too will marry a boy I will choose.” Thus commenced The last book in both my 2022 Top 22 Reading List and 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. Without a doubt, the book’s opening line was one of the most memorable and iconic opening lines in recent memory. It immediately grabbed my attention when I opened the book but I guess I forgot about it as I find myself deeper into the story; thanks to a fellow reader and blogger for reminding me of this. Anyway, this line was uttered by Mrs. Rupa Mehra to her youngest daughter, Lata, during the wedding of Lata’s older sister, Savita. Please note that the book was set in the mid-20th century when arranged marriages remain prevalent. The story is also mainly set in the fictional city of Brahmpur on the Ganges River although other Indian cities, such as Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), Delhi, and Lucknow also formed an idyllic backdrop for the story.
With its attention-piquing opening line, I immediately formed my first idea of the book and the story although it was a stark dichotomy to what I had in mind when I first encountered the book. At the heart of the story is the aforementioned Lata who was 19 years old when we first meet her. She was attending university and had three older siblings. Arun was the firstborn, followed by Savita, and then Varun. Looming above them was their mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra who had to look after her children as a single parent following the premature demise of her husband, Raghubir Mehra. As Lata was already a young adult, conversation about her marriage started to take precedence over her life. It can then be safe to conclude that the book’s title was derived from Mrs. Mehra’s search for a suitable boy for Lata.
Like the typical Asian mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra can be quite the character. She tried to take command of her children’s life, even trying to influence some of their choices. She was quite the gossip and she was also very set in her ways. For instance, when she learned that Kabir Durrani, the first young man that caught Lata’s attention, was Muslim, Mrs. Mehra was quick to reject it. She was intent on creating a distance between her and Kabir notwithstanding the fact that Kabir’s father was a prominent university professor. However, the story was not limited to the Mehras. As the story moved forward, three other families were introduced, each one connected to the Mehras in one way or another, mainly through marriage between the families. One of these families was the Kapoors. The patriarch, Mahesh, was the state Minister of Revenue while his son, Pran, was married to Savita. The Khans, headed by the Nawab Sahib of Baitar, was an equally prominent family. They were also known for their landholdings in the countryside. The last family was the Chatterjis. Their oldest daughter, Meenakshi, was married to Arun.
Seth also introduced an eclectic cast of characters who orbit these four families and they come from different backgrounds. Some were prominent politicians, some were students, and some were typical individuals. It was also through this diverse set of characters that Seth captured the tumultuous early years of the Indian republic; the story commenced in 1951, just a couple of years after India wrested control of its destiny from its British colonizers. The tension between Indian Muslims and the Hindus was running at a fever pitch. The wounds left by the partition were still fresh. Different forms of discrimination were prevalent in the story. I guess I was not surprised by the novel’s political overtones. I was already expecting it when I learned that it was set during the infancy of the Indian republic.
As the story toggles between Mrs. Mehra’s search for the titular suitable boy for her daughter and the escalating political tensions, one can easily get lost in the intricacies of the story. However, I didn’t feel that way at all. Seth’s writing was flowing diaphanously. I didn’t even notice the passage of time as I am reading the book. I had the same experience with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Based on the physical alone, both books can be daunting but they are easier reads than I expected. I have still a little under 300 pages to go before I complete the book. I am looking forward to how the story will unravel, on both the personal and the political fronts. I am hoping to complete the book over the weekend. How about you fellow reader? What book or books are you taking with you for the weekend? I hope you get to enjoy them.
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