Wednesday, January 19, 2011
A Suitable Boy is one of the most influential books I've ever read.
When you see A Suitable Boy outside, you are going to be scared, trust me. Its about 1500 pages, a thumping huge book that is hard to even carry - and which you will hesitate to even look at. But as the author himself warns in an introduction to this book - buy this book before you think and come to the conclusion that this book will "sprain your wrists and strain your purse." And you better do that, because this book is worth each and every rupee, all the weight lifting that you will have to do, and all the sleepless hours you are going to spend on it, because A Suitable Boy is one of the best books I have ever read (and ever hope to). In A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth spins a delightful tale of family, love, and life - but more than that, he manages to map developing India and all the various things - good and bad - that make us who we really are.
The story is set in 1950s in India, and maps the struggle of one mother to find 'a suitable boy' for her daughter among a variety of interlinked families - and is, in fact, a story of these families and all the struggles that go on around them. But in the end, there is so much in this book that even me, living in 2010 in India, could identify with - and so much that everyone, no matter where they live and when, will find in common with it, mostly because of the author's superb skill in fleshing out the characters that we've all seen. I mean who hasn't seen a hypochondriac, meddling, perfectionist mother like Mrs. Rupa Mehra? Who hasn't seen a boy like Maan - a little good for nothing, living on his father's money, and yet good at heart? And who hasn't seen a person like Lata, the main character of this story - sweet, and intelligent and maybe not ready to marry just yet? If I had to name one thing that lifts this story beyond 1500 pages of boredom and makes it as lively and as beautiful as it is - well - it has to be the characters. They're beautifully etched, the kind of characters we've all seen somewhere or the other in our lives, and who fill us with joy. I've actually laughed out loud and cried while reading this book - a feat not easily achieved by any book.
The setting is wonderfully done - in an imaginary state of Bharampur in India, where the political struggles, the disasters, the religious turmoil is all original - and yet so easy to identify with. The story, as one reviewer describes it, is 'a pilgrimage into India', and I agree totally. This is a story that takes you into the heart of India, into the pulsating core of what makes it what it is, and everyone will find something in this book to satisfy them and touch them - either the politics, the family struggles, or the state of the peasants, the state of the evicted landlords, the religious struggles, or just the discovery of self that forms the basis of this book.
Incidentally, this is the kind of book where you will soon fall in love with most of the leading characters - a lot of whom are on opposing sides, and is the kind of book where some will lose and some will win - and where you will be tantalized by the beautiful poetry that is in the index that tells you about the chapter (the last chapter, for example, has "One person, five, and thirty thousand choose - some win, some draw, and as must be, some lose" - and by about half way through I not only knew what this meant but I was rationing the book so I didn't reach this chapter too fast). The ending might indeed not be to your satisfaction (it certainly wasn't to mine - I wont give you any spoilers but I don't particularly like Lata's choice), but I swear the journey is worth it. So don't be intimidated by the size of the book - even spraining your wrist and straining your purse will be totally worth it.
Final thoughts: There are just two words really - read it. Now. Beautifully etched characters, excellent writing, wonderful portrayal of India - a book to warm your heart and change your life.
Other thoughts: I have many, many more reviews planned - expect a review of Jane Austen's Emma sometime next week, and keep giving me recommendations of good books to read.