This gigantic book opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra and Pran Kapoor, uniting their families (and a whole lot of related families) for the rest of the book, though they have barely seen one another before. Part of the book revolves around Lata Mehra’s search for a suitable boy (hence the title), which her mother mainly controls, although Lata appears to be innately drawn towards the unsuitable boys. Another character, Maan, begins the novel as quite a superficial young man, not really interested in his business or his father’s role in government, mostly drawn to women, but he grows to become surprisingly lovable. And there are political forces at work throughout India, which is very newly independent and partitioned from Pakistan; struggles between Hindus and Muslims, between governmental parties, between the city and the countryside. Not only is the book immense, but so are the themes it covers.
This book probably took me the longest of any book I’m going to read this year, but I did it on purpose. It’s almost 1500 pages long (so it might be the actual longest book as well) and I attempted to spread it out over two weeks, although once I got towards the end I just read on to see what happened. I really, really enjoyed it. It’s properly satisfying and immersive as just such a chunkster should be. I did have my favorite parts, mostly to do with Lata and Maan (which is totally why they’re in my summary) and I also really liked the relationship between Pran and Savita, which goes from them barely knowing one another to a very sweet love. The book takes place over about a year’s time in India in the 50’s, so a ton of political action is happening. India is trying to define itself without the British, without part of its territory, and the process is messy.
I will admit that I found most of the political sections boring. I wasn’t really interested in the bills they were passing or all the arguments that went on. I felt like I could get what was happening from the parts that took place in the countryside, which I enjoyed more anyway, and which certainly had more of a human touch to them as we could see what various laws and decisions were taking effect. The actual politics don’t take up much of the book, but I definitely began skimming those parts toward the end to get back to the characters I cared about. I also was occasionally confused by how the characters classified themselves. I didn’t know the difference between people from various regions or castes and there was no way I could tell a Muslim from a Hindu by their names. I knew there was a caste system, but I guess I didn’t realize that it still existed so much fifty years ago, and I wonder how prevalent it is now. I was also really surprised at how much the color of skin was an issue. I was startled each time Mrs Rupa Mehra worried she was going to have a black grandchild and sought out a fair-skinned husband for Lata as a result.
It was wonderful to live in this book for a little while, and I already find that I miss many of the characters and I want to know what happened next. I was somewhat dissatisfied with one aspect of the ending, but that’s not enough to make me dislike the rest of the book. I’m very glad I read it and it had me thinking about India’s independence, a topic I was never really all that interested in before, maybe just because I never had reason to be. But at its core, this is still a novel about people and that’s why I really loved it. The characters are fully fleshed out and experience the full gamut of emotions; almost everything you could imagine happens in this book. I felt like I could have easily lived among them and become friends with them in real life, and Vikram Seth let me for the space of these pages. I’m very glad I have An Equal Music in my TBR piles at home, and I can imagine myself picking it up very soon.
A Suitable Boy is a huge, fantastic read with, to me, both a foreign and a very familiar focus. It was well worth the time I spent reading it and it’s a great start to my ongoing attempt to read outside of my comfort zone.