Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

From the favourer: "My criteria for favourite book is that I weep when I've finished because I feel like I've lost a friend. This is a rare event. 'A Suitable Boy' has lived with me every day since reading it."

I've been reading this 1474 page book since a week before Luka was born - so basically, my whole life.

It's been propped up against the couch for hands-free reading-while-feeding, back in the days where he took more than 5 minutes to feed. It's been carried about in the pram basket so that when Luka went to sleep I could stop, have a coffee and a bit of a read. It's been lugged in my handbag to read on the train on my first night out sans baby (though I had to take everything else out of my handbag to fit it in). It's been removed from being propped up against the couch because at 4 months Luka found the cover fascinating and was much more interested in touching the book than having a feed. And it's been discovered by a now-mobile 9 month old, and gently but effectively chewed.

And now I've finished reading it, I'm at a bit of a loss. What do I do now?

Oh yes: blog. Right.

I have an (apparently) shocking tendency to have a shifty at the last page of a book before I start reading. Before you strangle me with my own impatient stockings, I've found that the last page of a book doesn't usual spoil much. Killers or secret lovers aren't revealed on final pages. But I now have a solid defence for my back page habit. When I checked out the last page of my second-hand copy of A Suitable Boy, I discovered it looked like this:

The ARGH is mine. If I had discovered this only after 9 months of reading, it would have cast a somewhat pissed-off pall over my reading experience. Whether anything important happened or not, when a book is this long you really want to be able to read the last paragraph. So I got another copy out of the library, photocopied the missing bits, and glued them in:

While my patchwork makes reading the final pages a bit like Tetris meets Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, at least the words are there now.

When I first picked up A Suitable Boy, I just knew the blurb was going to describe it as "sweeping" (it does). This generally means "long". But although it's long, I'm not sure that "sweeping" really applies - this book doesn't sweep; it luxuriates, explores, satirises, exasperates, bores, amuses and moves. It doesn't sweep, it envelops. You don't really read A Suitable Boy, you kind of live with it.

Set in 1950s India, A Suitable Boy follows the interactions of four families, at the heart of which is Mrs Rupa Mehra's search for a suitable boy to marry her daughter Lata. But that is hardly the only subject of this 591,552-word beast. It navigates post-independence political changes, land reforms, spiritual conversions, riots and disasters, shoe-making, university machinations, rhyming couplets, and births/deaths/marriages, all as they relate to the four families. It's not a book you can keep in your head all at once, it's more like a long-running tv series. There's a cast of thousands for one thing - one reviewer described it as Middlemarch multiplied by Bleak House - and if it was any shorter you'd be really confused. As it is, the length of it means you end up working out who everyone is, and remembering, well, most of them.

Also like a long-running tv series, for parts of it I was really involved: laughing, crying, horrified and intrigued, and for parts of it I was tuned out - I found the extended courtroom scenes incredibly tedious and took to skipping them (very naughty, but I'd just had a baby so cut me some slack).

I've come out the other end of this book - bedraggled and a bit dazed - as part of the families. I'm in on all the family jokes (Kakoli-couplets, what it means for a car to be 'Kuku-ed', Mrs Mehra's diabetes diet that alters conveniently according to the quality of the food), and I have my 'favourite family' (the hilarious Chatterjis: "an intelligent family where everyone thought of everyone else as an idiot").

I found Seth's playful sense of humour completely appealing, and kept folding down page corners to remind me to quote them here. Unfortunately, there were so many that my book looks like a bit of a concertina at the bottom.

Some are just asides:
"The conversation ranged from politics…to English literature (where, with a few misquotations, Haresh asserted that Shakespeare had been written by Shakespeare)..."

Some play on expectations:
'The rickshaw-wallah said: 'It was a nice town – before the cinema-hall was built. Now what with the dancing girls and singing girls on the screen and all that loving and wiggling and so on' – he swerved to avoid a pot-hole in the road – 'it’s become an even nicer town.'"

And some are just funny exchanges between people who know each other very, very well:
"'You seem very well,' said Savita.
'Except I’m not,' said Maan. 'I fall upon the knives of life, I bleed.'
'Thorns,' said Pran with a grimace.
… 'Anyway, I’m going to send her a note today. I’m going to threaten to end it all.'
'End what all?' said Pran, not very alarmed. 'Your life?'
'Yes, probably,' said Maan in a doubtful voice. 'Do you think that’ll win her back?'
'Well, do you plan to back up your threat with some action? To fall upon the knives of life or shoot yourself with the guns of life?'"

Seth loves wordplay, snippets of which litter the pages. One character suspects he is a "mere meddler among Mehras", another, "being a bit of a layabout, he lay about a bit."

There are digs at writerly types: "He's just a writer, he knows nothing at all about literature." Amit the poet seems based on Seth himself, and expresses his difficulty with writing (one I'm familiar with): "I often like my work when I'm done - it's just the doing that is so tedious."

And Mrs Mehra provides constant and indignant comic relief. At one point Lata tries to reassure her of the innocuousness of a prospective night out:

"'Nothing to worry about. There’s just a large crowd and a band and dancing.'
'Abandoned dancing!' Mrs Rupa Mehra could hardly believe her ears."

These sorts of exchanges are just so much fun. But the other side of being so involved with these families is that you get attached to them. You become part of the chain of family that Seth evokes so simply with an image of relatives leading each other, hand in hand, through a crowd of people: "She, her son, his sister, her husband, and his mother – a chain of love, and consequently, of fear". When there are riots, disasters and injuries, you worry about the characters (and worry about what might get up to when you're not reading).

In the hazycrazy of a new baby, I've found it a relief that there was always more of this book to get through - as I neared the end a few days ago I started to get panicky. It was like the last season of Buffy all over again. There's not going to be any more!

But apparently there is going to be more - a sequel is in the works, due out in 2013. Having had a baby boy along with A Suitable Boy, I really should have another child - a girl - to coincide with A Suitable Girl.

How very suitable.


Colleen said...

SPOILER ALERT! Just thought I should do that ...in case you end up with complaints about the comment I'm about to make...Wow, you made it! And Luka, good choice of book to chew. I used to read my copy in the bath and by the end of it the cover had fallen off. One of my lasting visual memories of this story is of co-respondent shoes. No, no Lata don't end up with a man who wears CO-RESPONDENT shoes!

David said...

I thumbed through my copy when I first received it- and happened upon a line which I fear may have revealed the suitor himself. I dropped it and walked away desperately trying to forget the name! Now I've returned to it, unread, having seen a Tweet about the sequel (which you must, oh, absolutely, compliment with a daughter!) I intend to couple with copious amounts of Twinings Chai tea - the scent of India, apparently. I almost want to list this as my favourite book ever, despite having read just one line...

It's that, or Atlas Shrugged (audiobook or paperback?!) for the next 12 months.

Anna said...

Colleen - I don't even know what Co-Respondent shoes are, yet I am filled with distaste for them.

David - Oh no! But you never know, you might have seen the wrong suitor's name? You'd better lay in some laddus to go with your tea, all the talk of Indian sweets throughout the book nearly killed me.