Context:company on the train from the tea hills to Colombo in Sri Lanka
This is a mammoth book at 1474 pages and, although it wasn’t always easy going, it was much much more pleasurable to read than I expected it to be.
It begins with a wedding and it ends with one. From the first to the last, the story of a suitable boy for Lata is woven into a huge canvas of politics, racism, deceipt, sexuality and caste so that the novel comments not just on the suitability of marriage partners but about the suitability of humanity for the roles we inhabit.Seth challenges the suitability of the caste system in a world of democracy, meritocracy in the face of nepotism, the honest up against the conniving, the glamour and facade of the rich against the backdrop of their hypocrisy and deceipt. It’s a fantastic novel as long as you can catch this thread of suitability.
And he’s also created some really memorable and three dimensional characters. Maan, Mrs Rupa Mehra, Saeeda Bhai – all of these and more have you at once on their side and at once appalled. The novel is definitely an adequate space for them to move in and, I guess, in any narrower a book, they wouldn’t develop so well.
I revelled also in the details of places I’d been to in Calcutta and the descriptions of village life in the northern Gangetic plain in the heat of the pre-monsoon season are so evocative that Seth must have lived through them as I did one memorable year. Highly recommended if you have the least interest in India and its culture.
It’s an interesting book to read on the heels of A Fine Balance. I have to say I enjoyed that more although it would be more for the moving stories within Balance which tugged at my sympathies. None of the characters in Suitable Boy did that. I was simply watching them perform. But A Fine Balance had me right there with them in their hope and pain. Great pair to read on Indian trains where, from my experience, the thicker the book, the better!
Just one final thing: I loved the table of contents which describes each chapter cryptically in a rhyming couplet. Wonderful.
‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.
He moved towards it, but the others, seeing it roll along, began running towards it too; and before she could see what had become of it, the train had steamed out of the station.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb