raven: image of India on a globe (politics - india)
[personal profile] raven
I am sleeping very badly and suffering unexpectedly from jet-lag. I hate my brain. Hence my sleeping until three today, and doing nothing of any productivity. Graargh.

But, actually, I want to talk about something else. A while ago, [livejournal.com profile] yiskah recommended A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's 1400-page novel about post-independence India, and reminded me I'd always meant to read it, and never got around to it. (Well, I got it out of the library once. 1400 pages, a one-week loan. You understand.) Then Shim found it in Oxfam for a couple of pounds (in terms of sheer verbiage, the best-value book purchase he's ever made) and I had a couple of translatlantic flights this week. The time had come.

I just finished it. I am a teeny bit disappointed with it for a stupid reason I am going to put under a cut. I think she picks the wrong man! Of the three potentially suitable suitors, I think she should have picked Amit, the poet. He was much more romantic. I'll shut up now about that and try and say something more profound.

That aside, I am incredibly impressed with the novel, its depth, and scope, and a little drawn out of my skin by it - which is understandable, I've been reading it for a week, occasionally for several hours at a time - but it's also because it creates an entire world and then pulls you into it so, so well. The writing style is so deceptively simple, sometimes even archaic - when was the last time you read a contemporary novel with an omniscient third-person narrator? - that you don't realise you care for the characters until you've been doing so fervently for 700 pages. It's wonderfully done.

The book jacket says that the novel is: "at its core, a love story; the tale of Lata's - and her mother's attempts to find a suitable boy, through love or exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world's population faces its first general election and the chance to map its own destiny."

That sounds pompous. But oh, it's right, too - it really is that. It really is an attempt to show us that world, that post-1947 world where everything was new and just the same, how India started out, by means of showing us some Indians - of different families, castes, and religions, all tied together by Mrs. Rupa Mehra's quest to find a suitable boy for her daughter - and how they come to be what they are.

And I know us brown people are always making such a fuss about people who aren't us writing about us, but here, right here, is the reason why: Seth writes about Indians with a mixture of knowing acerbity and warm, warm affection, because he is those people. His characters are sweet, funny, unspeakably corrupt, occasionally horrible, warm and loving, hideous, and they are Indian. In 1400 pages there are about sixty named characters, and they all know each other and they are connected and interconnected and everyone knows everyone else's business except when to do so would make life more efficient, and that rings marvellously true to me. They're wonderful characters. Lata, who is the closest of any of them to being a main protagonist, is marvellous: she's a university student, intelligent - more so than her mother - and trying very hard to navigate a world in which everyone suddenly wants to get her married. Her mother's endless emotional manipulation is just right. So is her brother Arun, a wonderfully done brown-sahib of just the most irritating type. And the languages they speak - the casual mix of Hindi, Urdu and English, the religious and post-colonial battles that are fought on linguistic territory, I just wanted to climb into the book and roll around in the rightness of it. (When the outraged citizenry start protesting their Home Minister, Lakshmi Agarwal, and chant: saanp ki zafar, insaan ki khaal / yeh hai L. N. Agarwal!, I kind of had to clutch at my heart and gasp.)

And then there are surprises. The couple who have an arranged marriage in the very first pages, Savita and Pran, are supposed to be orthodox and boring - and turn out to have a wonderful love story of their own. Another family, the Chatterjis of Calcutta, have a brilliantly sparkling habit of talking in rhyming couplets. Their eldest member, Amit, is a published poet, and Seth takes great pleasure in writing poetry to put in his mouth. The Congress politicians fight it out in the background and foreground, and their stories ought to be boring, too, but aren't. Surprisingly, the wife of the Revenue Minister, Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, and her garden, are the epicentre around which the political stories revolve, and it's a strange narrative choice that works beautifully. There are subplots within subplots, there is intelligent treatment of such varied things as mental illness, shoemaking, tree surgery and sectarian conflict.

Sectarian conflict - yes. The thing that I find most amazing, about many things that I do find amazing about this book, is that the Hindu and Muslim battles are fought in the background of one particular love story between Maan, the Hindu son of the Revenue Minister, and Firoz, the Muslim son of the local Nawab. Their relationship is, well, interestingly handled - I want to say ambiguously, but for all that we never see them sleep together, or even kiss, it's not ambigous, and the part of me that just thirsts for literary queer Indians of any kind wishes there were more about this aspect in the novel. But at the same time, it doesn't flinch from depicting that they love each other dearly, and that it drives them to do extraordinary - and extraordinarily awful - things. Given what they then begin to symbolise to their respective religious communities, I think I have to acknowledge that it is satisfying, thematically. I just wish there were more.

And the thing I got out of it all - other than all these scattershot ramblings - is, well, a sense of self and history. The India in my head is a curious place. Having never lived there as an adult, I have a strange mixture of my childhood memories, my adult observations, my own hang-ups about it all and the post-independence India of my parents, that they told me about when I was small, that they still look for vainly when they go back. I have heard so much about this time: Nehru's India, the one my parents were born into, a mixed-economy world dominated by government bureaucracy and people's first stumblings towards becoming themselves. It's in the details: the Chatterji family, in the novel, discuss how they changed their name to the anglicised Chatterji from the original Chattopadhyay. In the same way, my surname is not the same as my grandfather's. A character reads for his IAS exams - my grandfather did the same. In 1951, the year the novel is set, my grandfather was working for the IAS in the department of natural resources. (And, as he often told people in the decades to follow, as part of his job, he worked on the first computer in India.) Another character has been sent to boarding school in Shimla, a fate my parents assure me would have been mine, too, had things been slightly different. Even the fictional setting, a university town called Bramhpur, bears a distinct similarity to Roorki, the university town near Delhi where my father grew up. It's rather wonderful to have this whole, solid book full of people and places and things, that I can read, reach out and touch.

Seth claims to be writing a sequel, called A Suitable Girl (what else?) to be published in 2013 and set at the time of writing. I really, really hope this does get written. I want to see what he does with India, now. Come to think of it, I rather want to see what we do with it.

on 2010-06-16 06:14 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] slasheuse.livejournal.com
This was really interesting - it's one of many books I've always been meaning to read...!

Question, though - you say you've never lived in India as an adult. This is going to be one of those STUPENDOUSLY embarrassing 'something I should have known for years' moments, probably but - how long were you there for as a child? I don't know why - maybe you mentioned primary school or something - but I thought you'd been born up North, over here.

on 2010-06-16 07:35 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
I was born here, yes, and went to school here. When I was five, though, we lived in Delhi for six months, and the following few summers for a couple of months each. After that it was only a few weeks at a time and not months. I just missed the relevant bits of school!

lol all about me

on 2010-06-16 06:14 pm (UTC)
ext_20950: CJ Cregg - Learning is delightful and delicious, as by the way am I (learning is delightful and delicious)
Posted by [identity profile] jacinthsong.livejournal.com
<3 petal! I am not really reading this post cos you've reminded me I need to read the book - can I borrow your copy or shall I beg my mum's off her this weekend?

Also while I am talking about books sorry to lower the tone, but I rememeber someone on your DS9 post recommended The Lives of Dax - do you want to borrow my copy next time I see you? I did not love it but it was quite good; I'm having a book clearout at the moment, which is why I ask, if you'd like to borrow it I'll keep it aside for you.

Re: lol all about me

on 2010-06-18 05:27 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Borrow mine, do! It'll give me some bookshelf space for a while. :)

I would appreciate The Lives of Dax - I once stack-requested it because I needed something in it for a fic, but I'd like to actually read it! No worries if you have already cleared it out, though.

Re: lol all about me

on 2010-06-18 07:05 pm (UTC)
ext_20950: (Default)
Posted by [identity profile] jacinthsong.livejournal.com
Stack requesting Star Trek books! ilu. It is still in my room in London, I did not manage to have a clearout in the end because my mother's car inconsiderately broke down. Suspect I will end up calling on the services of men with ven when I have to move now...

on 2010-06-16 06:19 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] lazyclaire.livejournal.com
Wow, you really made me want to read this!

I'm especially interested by the mix of languages (I don't know anything about Urdu or Hindi but I think there would be be footnotes?). I might make time for it once I finish the Earthsea quartet - although 1400 pages?? It would probably take me a whole month! If I end up landing the job I applied for today that requires a 3-hour long daily commute, it'll be that sorted out.

on 2010-06-18 05:28 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
They're translated in the text, sometimes, and where they're not, it's not vital to the plot. And to be honest he's such a good writer, you get the sense of what's being said regardless. I do recommend it! You'll get into it fast and then make the time for it. :)

on 2010-06-16 06:24 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] wren-chan.livejournal.com
....I have got to read this book.

I just pray my library has it.

on 2010-06-18 05:28 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
I hope so too! It's great, you'll love it.

on 2010-06-18 05:47 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] wren-chan.livejournal.com
I've had to put a hold on it, but at least I got HP and the Philosopher's Stone in Japanese, which makes good reading practice.

on 2010-06-16 06:52 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] soupytwist.livejournal.com
I too have always been put off by its sheer doorstopper size, but wow, this makes me want to read it.

on 2010-06-16 06:54 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] soupytwist.livejournal.com
Also, hey: queer Indians! Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart has a queer Indian as one of the two main characters. I don't know how well it would stand up in immediate comparison with Seth, because it sounds like A Suitable Boy really is something, but I very much enjoyed it and it does some interesting stuff.

on 2010-06-18 05:29 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Hey, thanks! I will note that down as something I should read.

(You'll love ASB, I am almost certain of it - from your booklog posts it sounds like we have very similar taste in novels!)

on 2010-06-16 06:56 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] marymac.livejournal.com
You've reminded me that I need to read this again. I suspect it will be many times better ten years on, and it was pretty amazing when I was 17.

(By the by, the Snow Patrol show is up on iPlayer, or at least bits of it are.)

on 2010-06-18 05:29 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
In another ten years, maybe we'll have the sequel. I live in hope. :)

thank you! I shall make time for it. OMG SO JEALOUS STILL.

on 2010-06-18 05:35 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] marymac.livejournal.com
If it ever turns up (and I am still in Belfast), I fully intend to grab our Indian Lit lecturer for coffee and get over-excited at him about it. And then get thrown out of the common room for being Giant Nerds.

Disclaimer: slightly drunk.

on 2010-06-16 07:11 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
I am totally in love with you for having read this and posted about it. I just...wish I could say something profound about it, but fundamentally I am still kind of flailing pointlessly.

Oh! But Firoz and Maan! Oh. *weeps gently*

Re: Disclaimer: slightly drunk.

on 2010-06-18 05:30 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Thank you, thank you for prompting me to read it! It's so amazing, I totally understand why you thought everyone should read it.

on 2010-06-16 08:10 pm (UTC)
ext_1611: Isis statue (books)
Posted by [identity profile] isiscolo.livejournal.com
I read this a long time ago and I agree with your quibble. But I think Seth likes to veer off from the obvious and clear endings just to mess with our brains. He did this in his amazing novel-in-verse Golden Gate (it's a novel about Californians, written in Pushkin-style sonnets! ♥) which I loved except for the stupid ending.

I think I need to reread ASB, though. It's been a long time.

on 2010-06-18 05:32 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
I shall have to check out his other work, I never even thought to. But I'll keep your warning in mind. :)

on 2010-06-16 08:12 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] flashofalchemy.livejournal.com
Oooh, definitely adding this to my ever-growing summer to-read list!

on 2010-06-18 05:33 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Do, do! It's fabulous.

on 2010-06-16 08:36 pm (UTC)
ext_37604: (Default)
Posted by [identity profile] glitzfrau.livejournal.com
You are the ONLY other person I know who was sad Lata didn't marry Amit too! Hooray for the poetic romancing! And thank you for the other, more personal, more grounded observations too ;-)

on 2010-06-16 09:05 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, hurrah. There is a bit quite late on in the book, when Amit and Dipankar successfully plot to get their baby brother out of the boarding school where he's being bullied, and I really thought, aha, here is the author showing us Amit's practical side, he is Marriageable Material after all. I persist in being disappointed.

(And, you're welcome!)

on 2010-06-16 08:42 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] biascut.livejournal.com
I read it when I was 19 and my half-Indian/half-white boyfriend bought it for me, and when I started university there was an Indian woman in my class who was madly in love with Vikram Seth and used to write poems to him, and we bonded over it madly. We also couldn't understand why she hadn't married Amit, but I think the main reason is that Amit is about as close as the novel gets to an authorial insert, and Seth isn't arrogant enough to make him the "winner"! Plus he is a bit hopeless, and I think Lata would get very frustrated with trying to make him do something with his life. And imagine being Meenakshi's sister-in-law twice!

I just love the seamless way he moves between languages, not even between Hindi, Urdu and English (though I love the stuff about Maan not being able to write to Saeeda Bai, which was a revelation to me - imagine not being able to write to your compatriots because you write in different scripts!), but legal and parliamentary and music and academic and the world of the dalits and the country and the city and the religious fundamentalists and the festivals - it's just so amazing. I am still jealous of anyone who hasn't read it yet and gets to read it for the first time.

Also I am ashamed to say that I didn't notice the Maan and Firoz relationship when I first read it - I think I noticed some time in my mid-twenties!

on 2010-06-16 08:58 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
Amit is about as close as the novel gets to an authorial insert

Yes, this! And also, I think Lata is fairly insightful about the potential difficulties of marrying someone like Amit - fundamentally I think Amit wants/needs a helpmeet, and Lata deserves more than that.

on 2010-06-16 09:24 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
Oh, and there's also the fact that at no point does Amit seem to have any strong feelings for Lata whatsoever - in fact he doesn't even seem to consider her until Kakoli and Meenakshi suggest it.

on 2010-06-16 09:33 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Mmm, but, I don't think that is a huge issue in context - there's just not the emphasis on grand passions, you know? He's fond of her and they have things to talk about, and we've already seen that Savita and Pran's marriage is a happy and solid one with much less of an initial basis.

on 2010-06-17 06:50 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
True - and I vaguely remember reading a review of ASB that said it could have been titled "A Treatise Against Passion", given the emphasis on relationships like Pran and Savita's, or the Kapoors, as opposed to Maan and Saeeda Bai or indeed Arun and Meenakshi. I suppose I am just unconvinced that Amit has any particularly strong feelings for anything outside his work, and that doesn't always make for an easy marriage.

That said, I totally would have married Amit!

on 2010-06-18 05:32 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
*smiles* Me tooooo.

The funny thing about that reading is, well, it seems the novel then tacitly endorses the relationship between Firoz and Maan! Especially on Firoz's side, it's deep and loving without necessarily being passionate.

Disclaimer: slightly drunk again.

on 2010-06-18 08:16 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
Yes yes yes, that's exactly what I thought about it! And afterwards I read some reviews online that were like, "but why does Maan get an unhappy ending?" and I was like, what? Because the whole reconciliation with Firoz, when Maan goes to see him and Firoz shows him his scar, and then when Firoz testifies and then right at the end with the two of them laughing together at Lata and Haresh's wedding...that's a happy ending in my book.

on 2010-06-16 09:12 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, I'd like to think you don't need an Indian connection to read it and get a lot out of it. I mean, I found it quite refreshing after the general whiteness of most literary fiction in English, but I'd hate to think that Indianness = niche.

You raise a good point about Amit! Of course, the authorial self-insertion would have made that a little awful. But I still don't think Haresh was the right choice, somehow. (But I think this is my hypercritical Indian mother gene manifesting a couple of decades early.)

imagine not being able to write to your compatriots because you write in different scripts!)

Believe me, I don't have to imagine it. What he does with language is really, really impressive, I think, and he does it very subtly.

Edited because I forgot to say MAAN AND FIROZ. They are so wonderful. And you are so right that reading this for the first time is such a treat. I shall follow [livejournal.com profile] ysiskah's example and start flinging it at people.
Edited on 2010-06-16 09:35 pm (UTC)

on 2010-06-16 09:41 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] biascut.livejournal.com
Oh, I didn't mean it in an Indian niche way - sorry if if came across that way. Just that was the context I first read it in, so even though I've read it half a dozen times since then it always reminds me of those two and summer/autumn of 1998.

Oh, also! When I first read it, I totally assumed that Maan was going to be the Suitable Boy - right age, right family, right caste. I wasn't sure whether it was because of the engagement to the girl in Banaras or because everyone was aware that Mann had Unsuitable Liaisons and a Dissolute Lifestyle, even if he was perfectly acceptable as a friend of the family.

on 2010-06-16 09:46 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, I see! I'm sorry for reading you wrongly. I thought that about Maan, too! Pran's younger brother, Savita's younger sister, in that situation I know how the cogs in my aunts' brains would be spinning...

on 2010-06-17 06:59 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
I also thought that about Maan, for about the first third of the book (I was recently rereading the Holi scene, where Lata watches Maan - who is high on bhang - licentiously rub coloured water over Savita's breasts, and she is obviously both shocked and excited by it). But then it became clear that HE HAS EYES ONLY FOR FIROZ. I was reading online that Seth had been asked at some sort of Q&A event about the precise nature of Maan and Firoz's relationship, and he said that while their relationship is not purely platonic, that's not the basis of their relationship. But I think Seth is wrong. (Well, kind of.)

on 2010-06-17 04:26 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] sriti.livejournal.com
I started reading this book when I was about 15 years old, and never finished it. I have to read it now! Also, Hindi, Urdu, English...no Bangla? I'm disappointed, there should've been atleast one couplet in Bangla by the Chatterjis.

Also, I agree with you that the people who are us are the best at writing about us...the others just portray us as exotic goddesses living in Eden! (Ofcourse, when I say "us", I mean the whole Indian subcontinent, since I'm from Bangladesh and not India.)

on 2010-06-18 05:33 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, no, my mistake, there is Bangla, lots of it. The Chatterjis sort of embody that literary tradition. :)

on 2010-06-17 08:31 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] sir-rosealot.livejournal.com
Hmm, maybe I will try it again! I started reading it about 10 years ago, but it was so long and I was so lazy...

on 2010-06-18 05:34 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
I think it's very possible to be too young for it, mmm. I do recommend it unreservedly.

on 2010-06-17 03:01 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] littlered2.livejournal.com
That sounds really appealing - I think I'll have to add it to my ever-growing pile of Books To Read.

on 2010-06-18 05:34 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
It's fabulous, yes! *nodnod*

on 2012-10-08 10:13 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] littlered2.livejournal.com
Ha, and now I have done so. Two-and-a-bit years later. Whoops. But it was worth it, because I completely adored it (although am with you on being disappointed that Lata married Haresh).

A Suitable Boy

on 2010-06-22 12:30 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] kate2kat.livejournal.com
Hi! you don't know me, but I just have to say I recently reread ASB, and then more recently Seth's biography of his uncle and aunt, Two Lives, and it was very clear that Amit is decidedly him (Haresh seemed based on his father). Two Lives is marvellous, as is everything he's written - The Golden Gate particularly so - and all are totally different from the others.

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