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Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy”


A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth’s tome about life and love in post-war India, is memorable for two reasons: one because it is a storytelling masterpiece that shines a light on Indian society and politics, and two because it will probably take you a year to read it. Seth provides the reader with a note of caution about the latter at the start, warning “Buy me before good sense insists, You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists”.

Still, the 1474 pages were braved and life is certainly richer for it. The depth of the narrative, the detail of the characters so intimately portrayed, and the backdrop of a newly independent India weave together beautifully, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into the world of Seth’s creation.

One of the most memorable aspects of this novel is the portrayal of India in all its colour and vibrancy. Busy city streets bustle with “barbers plying their trade out-of-doors, fortune tellers, flimsy tea-stalls, vegetable-stands, monkey-trainers, ear-cleaners, pickpockets, stray cattle…”, and the magnificent gardens of the elite, with their creamy and fragrant gardenias, heavy-scented roses and blossoming trees, contrast beautifully with such excited scenes. Characters feast on delightful-sounding “samosas, kachuris, laddus, gulabjamuns, barfis and gajak and icecream”, and the women wear silk saris and jewellery that glimmer and glint in the glow of hundreds of coloured fairy lights.

Outside of frenetic city life the countryside is also brought to life: “The rickshaw jolted and swerved along the pitted road… It was evening, and everywhere birds were chattering in the trees. The neem trees rustled in the warm evening breeze. Underneath a small stand of straight broad-leafed teak trees a donkey… was hobbling painfully forward. On every culvert sat a crowd of children, who shouted at the rickshaw as it went along. There was very little traffic other than the many bullock-carts making their way village-wards from the harvest or a few boys driving cattle…”

Of course the world that Seth describes has passed, and the India of the future is likely to be a very different place indeed. What will always remain, like the memory of this great book, is the richness and vitality of an enigmatic country that, once visited, will never be forgotten. The novel is set largely in northern India.

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