Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: Impressions

An Equal Music. A Suitable Boy. Both books by Vikram Seth. Both took my breath away. An Equal Music did so for its sheer brilliance, A Suitable Boy for its bulk and boredom. What happened Mr Seth?
It was nothing short of laborious to drag myself through its 1300 plus odd pages to get to a climax that wasn’t worth it. So, in the course of the next few paragraphs, if I happen to use the adjective boring more than once, uh, please bear with me.
The populace of the novel are nice enough to be gotten used to and even missed after you’ve finished reading the novel, but I’m sure I’ll not remember a single name off the pages, given its yawn potential. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll remember them precisely because they were oh-so-boring. For a good few months, the novel served as a sleeping pill (or pillow should I say, considering the thickness of that book).
Although Seth has neatly weaved in a huge variety of landscapes and caricatures (very few, if any, characters were for real) into this epic and even captured the colourful images of the great Indian arranged marriage, I consistently felt that it was being marketed for Western readers.
Seth’s research is commendable and he pulls in many a minute behavioural nuances of different people from different regions, but he fails to establish a heart connect
Perhaps I could not identify with the cultural aspects of Northern India, but even when Seth deals with the Chatterjis from Kolkata, it does very little for me by way of recognition. Their eccentricities are laughable, even lovable, but not memorable. Amit, Dipankar, Tapan, Meenakshi, Kakoli -- nobody strikes a chord.
Even the Mehra family is a forgettable lot. Most disappointingly so Lata, the protagonist. She is so painfully ordinary that at the end of the book, one cannot but feel that their time has been wasted in trying to look for a prospect for Lata along with the Mehras . Her siblings Savita, Varun and Arun come in and out of the wings throughout the novel as does her best friend Malati. Malati, in my opinion, has more body than all the Mehras put together. But I’m probably partial because she’s something of a firebrand, a trait I identify with. Mrs Rupa Mehra, the Mehra matriarch, is the most annoying character I’ve ever come across in my real and literary experiences. Share she might her first name with my mother, but I had not an iota of identification with that odious woman.
Another character that might just stay with me for a while is Maan Kapoor of the Kapoor clan. This no-good, maverick son of the revenue minister goes through the novel flitting in and out of a whorehouse, his friends’ house (Firoz and Imtiyaz, sons of the Nawab of Baitar), and his father’s house deferring endlessly his Benaras visit, his supposed fiancée and some godforsaken cloth business. His siblings Pran and Veena are as uninteresting as anyone else. But for Pran, I positively feel contemptuous for his weaknesses .
I did learn a few things from the book though. About the city called Brahmpur in the state for Purva Pradesh -- both of which I’d never heard of before. This was probably the first reason for my disconnect. The place in which the novel is set is as unreal to me as, say, Malgudi. There were more lessons shoved down my throat -- life in a village, rural and urban politics, minority issues, the trappings of a local government, the strife of prices and zamindars post independence, so on and so forth. Each more unpalatable than the other.
Not even the suitors were made to look yummy.
Kabir Durrani -- Muslim, unfocussed, and seemingly loves cricket more than he loves the lady.
Amit Chatterji -- Bengali, poet, and uh...a romantic intellectual !?
Haresh Khanna -- Cobbler (a shoe professional, really), chews paan and writes the most silly sounding letters ever.
Seth must really believe that letters are a window to ones soul, or something like that, for he bombards his readers with letters from one character to another at every given opportunity. So much so that the phrase ‘a man of letters’ has taken an entirely new (and deprecatory) meaning in my head.
The book is over. Thank God. I shall never read it again and advice others to not waste their time.
Need I really say that reams and reams of words do not make for a good novel?
Stick to the crisp, dear Mr Seth. Rambling isn’t really you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a god-awful review.