A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy tells the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love, ambition, humor, sadness, prejudice, reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette, and the most appalling violence.
Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata’s—and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s—attempts to find a suitable boy for Lata, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. Set in the early 1950s in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, this compelling story takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves.
About the Author
Hometown:Delhi, India; and Salisbury, England
Date of Birth:June 20, 1952
Place of Birth:Calcutta, West Bengal, India
Education:B.A., Oxford University, 1975; M.A., Stanford University, MA 1978; Nanjing University Diploma, 1982
Read an Excerpt
'You too will marry a boy I choose,' said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.
Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas. The wedding-guests were gathered on the lawn. 'Hmm,' she said. This annoyed her mother further.
'I know what your hmms mean, young lady, and I can tell you I will not stand for hmms in this matter. I do know what is best. I am doing it all for you. Do you think it is easy for me, trying to arrange things for all four of my children without His help?' Her nose began to redden at the thought of her husband, who would, she felt certain, be partaking of their present joy from somewhere benevolently above. Mrs Rupa Mehra believed, of course, in reincarnation, but at moments of exceptional sentiment, she imagined that the late Raghubir Mehra still inhabited the form in which she had known him when he was alive: the robust, cheerful form of his early forties before overwork had brought about his heart attack at the height of the Second World War. Eight years ago, eight years, thought Mrs Rupa Mehra miserably.
'Now, now, Ma, you can't cry on Savita's wedding day,' said Lata, putting her arm gently but not very concernedly around her mother's shoulder.
'If He had been here, I could have worn the tissue-patola sari I wore for my own wedding,' sighed Mrs Rupa Mehra. 'But it is too rich for a widow to wear.
' 'Ma!' said Lata, a little exasperated at the emotional capital her mother insisted on making out of every possible circumstance. 'People are looking at you. They want to congratulate you, and they'll think it very odd if they see you cryingin this way.'
Several guests were indeed doing namasté to Mrs Rupa Mehra and smiling at her; the cream of Brahmpur society, she was pleased to note.
'Let them see me!' said Mrs Rupa Mehra defiantly, dabbing at her eyes hastily with a handkerchief perfumed with 4711 eau-de-Cologne. 'They will only think it is because of my happiness at Savita's wedding. Everything I do is for you, and no one appreciates me. I have chosen such a good boy for Savita, and all everyone does is complain.'
Lata reflected that of the four brothers and sisters, the only one who hadn't complained of the match had been the sweet-tempered, fair-complexioned, beautiful Savita herself.
'He is a little thin, Ma,' said Lata a bit thoughtlessly. This was putting it mildly. Pran Kapoor, soon to be her brother-in-law, was lank, dark, gangly, and asthmatic.
'Thin? What is thin? Everyone is trying to become thin these days. Even I have had to fast the whole day and it is not good for my diabetes. And if Savita is not complaining, everyone should be happy with him. Arun and Varun are always complaining: why didn't they choose a boy for their sister then? Pran is a good, decent, cultured khatri boy.'
There was no denying that Pran, at thirty, was a good boy, a decent boy, and belonged to the right caste. And, indeed, Lata did like Pran. Oddly enough, she knew him better than her sister did--or, at least, had seen him for longer than her sister had. Lata was studying English at Brahmpur University, and Pran Kapoor was a popular lecturer there. Lata had attended his class on the Elizabethans, while Savita, the bride, had met him for only an hour, and that too in her mother's company.
'And Savita will fatten him up,' added Mrs Rupa Mehra. 'Why are you trying to annoy me when I am so happy? And Pran and Savita will be happy, you will see. They will be happy,' she continued emphatically. 'Thank you, thank you,' she now beamed at those who were coming up to greet her. 'It is so wonderful--the boy of my dreams, and such a good family. The Minister Sahib has been very kind to us. And Savita is so happy. Please eat something, please eat: they have made such delicious gulabjamuns, but owing to my diabetes I cannot eat them even after the ceremonies. I am not even allowed gajak, which is so difficult to resist in winter. But please eat, please eat. I must go in to check what is happening: the time that the pandits have given is coming up, and there is no sign of either bride or groom!' She looked at Lata, frowning. Her younger daughter was going to prove more difficult than her elder, she decided.
'Don't forget what I told you,' she said in an admonitory voice.
'Hmm,' said Lata. 'Ma, your handkerchief's sticking out of your blouse.'
'Oh!' said Mrs Rupa Mehra, worriedly tucking it in. 'And tell Arun to please take his duties seriously. He is just standing there in a corner talking to that Meenakshi and his silly friend from Calcutta. He should see that everyone is drinking and eating properly and having a gala time.'
'That Meenakshi' was Arun's glamorous wife and her own disrespectful daughter-in-law. In four years of marriage Meenakshi's only worthwhile act, in Mrs Rupa Mehra's eyes, had been to give birth to her beloved granddaughter, Aparna, who even now had found her way to her grandmother's brown silk sari and was tugging it for attention. Mrs Rupa Mehra was delighted. She gave her a kiss and told her:
'Aparna, you must stay with your Mummy or with Lata Bua, otherwise you will get lost. And then where would we be?'
'Can't I come with you?' asked Aparna, who, at three, naturally had views and preferences of her own.
'Sweetheart, I wish you could,' said Mrs Rupa Mehra, 'but I have to make sure that your Savita Bua is ready to be married. She is so late already.'
Reading Group Guide
In mid-century India, Mrs. Rupa Mehra is on a quest. Her youngest daughter Lata remains unmarried, and the widowed Mrs. Mehra has decided to rectify the condition by enlisting friends and relatives to help her find Lata "A Suitable Boy."
Families form the backbone of the novel, as the story revolves around four deeply intertwined clans, three Hindu and one Muslim. The Kapoors represent the Hindi-speaking elite, gaining ascendancy through politics, while the middle-class, Anglicized Mehras firmly believe in the superiority of convent schools, English literature and proper manners. The Chatterjis, eccentric and rather scandalous members of the Bengali intelligentsia, indulge in rhyming couplets and coddle a manic dog named Cuddles, as the Muslim, landowning Khans face legislation that threatens to dissolve their culture and Urdu language along with all feudal land-holdings.
Through these people, Vikram Seth vividly recreates life in post-colonial India, a subcontinent trying to find its bearings, and to reconcile differing religions and languages in one national identity, as it stands on the brink of its first general election. A Suitable Boy is both social satire and social history, a novel whose scope ranges from the politics of a great man to the maneuvering of a mother, from an epic account of a nation at infancy to the torment of a young girl in love.
Questions for Discussion
1. Consider Maan Kapoor's love for Saeeda Bai, and that of Lata Mehra's for Kabir Durrani. Why are these relationships highly unsuitable? In what ways do Lata's three suitors, Kabir, Amit and Haresh, represent three vastly different aspects of love, and equally different options for her future? Did Lata have a choice when she accepted Haresh Khanna, a man "as solid as a pair of Goodyear Welted shoes"? How does the novel navigate the conflict between culturally conservative 50s India and the young people trying to break free of the existing system without dishonoring their parents?
2. What criteria does Rupa Mehra use to assess potential prospects for Lata? How does each of the seven candidates compiled by Kalpana Gaur fare? Were you surprised by her prejudices? How do Lata and her mother eventually come to agree upon the same candidate?
3. The stampede at Pul Mela leaves Dipankar Chatterji's search for, "great concepts and great gods" severely shaken. "Baba, how do you explain all this?" he asks a guru, who mildly replies, "I think there was a flaw in the administrative arrangements." Do you think the guru speaks for the author at that moment? How is religion portrayed in A Suitable Boy?
4. Two political-historical events figure prominently in A Suitable Boy: the Zamindari Abolition Act, whereby all feudal land-holdings were dissolved, and the general elections held in 1952, the largest democratic election ever held in the world at the time. How do these two events symbolize the transformation of India into a modern nation?
5. Consider the central dialectic of the novel: the tension between established social order and the centrifugal forces that threaten to fragment that order. What disruptive forces did the old social structure of Rajas and Zamindars face? From landowners faking records to electioneering misdeeds, what other forces attempt to fragment the new social order? Is there an overriding philosophy in the novel that makes constant turmoil bearable? Does traditional, neglected old Mrs. Kapoor's faith, which does not undermine other creeds, provide a template for harmony?
6. Maan Kapoor thinks that for his own sake, Rasheed must "see the world with all its evil in a more tolerant light. It was not true that one could change everything through effort and vehemence and will. The stars maintained their courses despite his madness, and the village world moved on as before, swerving only very slightly to avoid him." How does this theme, of cosmic indifference to the desires of man, echo throughout the novel? In what manner does Rasheed exemplify of the futility of assuming otherwise?
7. Although Gandhi passed a constitutional provision abolishing untouchability, the results were more symbolic than practical. However, the untouchable shoemaker, Jagat Ram believes "that the victory for its formulation lay less with Mahatma Gandhi, who rarely concerned himself with such legalisms, than with quite another - and equally courageous - man." Who does Jagat Ram believe in? How does this character break taboos by refusing to be cowed by social proprieties, and simply following his innate decency? Why is this method for social change more effective than Rasheed's?
8. How would you describe the friendship between Maan Kapoor and Firoz Khan? Are there signs that they may be more than friends? Do they represent hope for amicable relations between differing religions? How does Maan's evolution from callow youth to a thoughtful, repentant adult embody the notion that salvation lies in the private world of marriage and family?
9. Could the Raja of Marh's attempt to raise the Shiva-linga be viewed as a metaphor? In a chapter that includes a tragic misunderstanding between Lata and Kabir, the self-serving machinations of Professor Mishra, Waris Khan's slanderous election posters, and Mahesh Kapoor's crushing defeat, what is the significance of the last sentence - "the Shiva-linga rested on the bed of the Ganga once more, the turbid waters passing over it, its bloodstains slowly washed away?"
10. How does the author's use of a third-person, fully-omniscient narrator successfully convey an intricately variegated, yet determinedly un-exotic, Indian reality? Consider the author's wry, affectionate, self-deprecating poetic word of thanks to the reader. Is it possible to extrapolate the author's point of view from the style and tone of these lines of verse?