Tag Archives: India

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata – and her mother’s – attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.

The search for ‘A Suitable Boy’ for Lata to marry is the over-arching theme which runs through this novel, yet the book is really so much more than that. Set in an India learning to stand alone after independence this novel is a true saga, bringing together diverse characters from all levels of society whose lives and interactions leave us with a surprising depth of understanding of the historical and political situation at that time. To give insights into the religious conflicts Mr Seth also introduces the reader to two families – one Muslim and one Hindu – who have been friends for many years. Their friendship continues despite the religious rioting and death which accompanied Partition and it is, in fact, an affair of the heart which threatens to shatter the relationship. We are also introduced to a range of characters from different levels of society – politicians, businessmen, landowners, poor workmen, and the untouchables. Anyone who has ever lived in India will recognise the truth of these characterisations and realise that in many ways the years since Partition have been slow to bring change to this ancient structure of Indian society.

In his novel Mr Seth has created a world of closely connected people with believable characters, and many readers will recognise aspects of themselves in the well scripted dialogue and familial descriptions. From the over-anxious mother to the over-bearing politician, the bullying brother to the pushy friend, the man obsessed by love to the woman who prefers her independence, it is easy to become attached to many of these characters as they go about their everyday lives. Alongside this A Suitable Boy weaves a rich tapestry of the complexities of Indian society – the religious festivals which underpin all aspects of life, the family structures, the duties of sons and daughters to their parents, the complex and sometimes corrupt political system, arranged marriages, caste, education – the list is endless and endlessly fascinating.

At it’s heart this is a novel about relationships and the conflicts that arise when we place personal freedom and self-fulfilment against our duty and responsibilities to others. The characters created by Mr Seth are multi-faceted and none of them are completely good or completely bad; they are real people and as such the author does not offer any easy answers to the conflicts which they face, just as there are no easy answers in real life. What comes across clearly is that the decisions which we make, whether at a personal or political level, have consequences for ourselves and others, and sometimes the only thing we can do is to choose the path of least harm as we make our way through life.

As well as the clever characterisation and plotting in A Suitable Boy Mr Seth also uses his considerable skill with words to paint a picture of life in India – the heat and dust, flora and fauna, fashion and food, all are cleverly integrated into the novel in such a way that anyone who knows India will easily recognise the land and its people, and those who are new to that country will come away from the book with clear mental images of what makes India such a fascinating place.

Although I have enjoyed reading it I would give two caveats to my recommendation of A Suitable Boy. Firstly, it is a wonderfully complex novel full of rich and nuanced language, but it is a saga in the true sense of the word (the edition which I read is 1,350 pages long). If you like a story which can be read in a day or two then this book is not for you. Secondly, there are passages of prose telling something of the history of the times immediately after Independence, and also a number of political speeches which do tend to slow the pace at times; it is, however, possible to skim over some of these without any loss to the story. There is also a fair amount of Indian vocabulary for the reader to contend with and a wordlist at the end of the book would probably be useful. Having said that, if you enjoy well written books which cover all aspects of life from birth to death, love, friendship, jealousy, loss, grief etc., and are willing to put in the time, then you will enjoy reading A Suitable Boy.

Please note that there are no spoilers here; if you want to know if Lata and her mother found A Suitable Boy you will have to read the book!

A Suitable Boy can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Vikram Seth here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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Recommended Read – ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

a-fine-balance-by-rohinton-mistry‘A Fine Balance’ tells the story of the lives of four individuals who are brought together by circumstances. While we learn a lot about their background the main focus of the novel is the political and social situation in India in the 1970’s. Through their relationships with each other and interactions with other people Rohinton Mistry paints a compelling picture of poverty and prejudice in India. The levels of corruption and injustice portrayed in the novel give a sense of the hopelessness of life for many, yet the fact that the poorest characters can find a joy in their lives which evades those of a higher social standing is humbling.

This is a novel which tells the truth of the brutality if a government which could force sterilization on people in an effort to control the population; and the brutality of people who , by a  simple accident of birth, found themselves in a position of power. The title ‘A Fine Balance’ is well chosen as Mr Mistry balances this darkness with a  lightness and humour from both the characters and  their situations. As one who has lived in India for the last few years I found many of the descriptions incredible accurate – from the chaos of the courthouse and other official institutions to the busy streets, chaotic trains and remote village life.

Sadly, my experience tells me that although the caste system is now illegal in India it is still all pervading, and it would not be difficult to imagine aspects of this story happening today. Yet alongside this the humour, love and hope which Mr Mistry describes are still there and the road to change, which often seems too long and slow, is still progressing.

The only aspect of this novel which I found difficult was the number of coincidences which occurred, bringing minor characters into the story at frequent intervals which are unlikely to happen in life. Having said that, I recognise that these characters and their meetings are an essential part of the story which Mr Mistry is telling, so if you can set aside the coincidences and accept the truths that the characters bring to the story it will not spoil your enjoyment.

‘A Fine Balance’ is a well written novel with deeply nuanced characters, all the more real to me as I see in them much that reminds me of the Indians I know and love. It is well structured, invoking a sense of place so that we can almost feel the heat, smell the streets, taste the food, bathe in the dust or rain. This is a novel which shows the real India, where life can be hard for all but the most wealthy; it is therefore interesting that the character who has the easiest life, the best situation, finds it the most difficult to cope. As for the reader, I think we can all learn from the attitude of the main characters, and Indians in general – life is not easy, we all face difficulties challenges and heartaches; what defines us though is how we face what life throws at us, and move on.

‘A Fine Balance’ is up there as one of my favourite novels about India, alongside ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. Anyone who wants to try to understand the complexities, mysteries and universal truths of India presented by an author with an exceptional command of language should read this novel.

Highly recommended.

A Fine Balance is available on Amazon

More of my Recommended Reads can be found here

A family Christmas

I loved my life in India, but Christmas was very different to what I had experienced before.

First of all, the weather. Hot weather is lovely, but as someone who grew up in England I did miss the cold at Christmas, the frost and (if lucky) snow.

Secondly, I was working. Don’t get me wrong, I loved preparing Christmas celebrations for our guests and friends at Lakeside, but it didn’t always give me enough time to socailse.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I missed my family.

Now that we have moved back to England, this Christmas is going to be special. I am looking forward to spending special time with my parents and my children. And especially my grandson, as this will be the first Christmas we have spent with him.

I am looking forward to fun and laughter, giving and receiving gifts, carol services and contemplation.

I would also like to wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas, and hope that 2016 will bring you all that you wish for.