A Suitable Boy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Set in Brahmpur, an imaginary Northern Indian city on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, the novel provides a kaleidoscopic picture of Indian life five years after the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. The matriarch of the Mehra family sets the plot into motion during the wedding of her elder daughter, which opens the narrative, when she sets out to find “a suitable boy” for her younger daughter. Once the search gets started, the story expands to reveal the triumphs and trials experienced by members of the three other families connected or related to the Mehras. At the same time the larger world intervenes and a richly textured picture of life on the subcontinent emerges.

Whether politics, religion, industry, university life, medicine, or law is the subject, each aspect is motivated by a character who is first and foremost a member of a family. The novel stresses loyalty to the extended family and considers this involvement as protection against a harsh world. The thirty or so family members along with an array of supporting characters emerge as memorable individuals. While Seth reveals their comic and absurd sides, he always treats them humanely.

In spite of its length and abundant detail, the novel is tightly structured. Most of all, it celebrates life, and suggests that ultimately all people share the same concerns as they experience life and death and birth, and draw strength from family and love. A SUITABLE BOY offers a cross-cultural reading adventure where the reader will discover a familiar depiction of human nature that just happens to unfold in an unfamiliar setting.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXI, June, 1993, p.134.

Commonweal. CXX, May 21, 1993, p.25.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLVI, May 13, 1993, p.50.

London Review of Books. XV, April 22, 1993, p.9.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 23, 1993, p.4.

The New Republic. CCVIII, June 14, 1993, p.41.

New Statesman and Society. VI, March 19, 1993, p.40.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, May 27, 1993, p.22.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, May 9, 1993, p.3.

Newsweek. CXXI, May 24, 1993, p.62.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, May 10, 1993, p.46.

A Suitable Boy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, some stalwart nationalists predicted that the imperial language would vanish from the subcontinent. At that time only a handful of novels in English by Indians had appeared, so those who foresaw the demise of this foreign language assumed that such a hybrid form would fade as well. Yet they have been proved wrong time and again. Since 1947 several Indian writers of English- language fiction have gained international stature. More-over, the astounding reception throughout the English-speaking world of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy should help to set aside any doubts concerning the effectiveness and staying quality of English as a literary medium for Indian writers.

Not only is A Suitable Boy a novel written in a Western language about an Eastern culture, but it is also a massive book-l,349 pages-more reminiscent of nineteenth century British fiction than faithful to the fashionable dictates of postmodernism. Relating a straightforward, fairly ordinary story of four families and their acquaintances, it offers no flights of fancy, no experimentation with language, no questioning of the narrator’s role, or any of the other staples that characterize much contemporary international fiction. One of the characters in A Suitable Boy, who is writing a long novel, compares his book’s structure to a banyan tree: “It sprouts, and grows, and spreads, and drops down branches that become trunks or intertwine with other branches.” That analogy applies to Seth’s novel as well.

The fictional tree’s main trunk is the family, and its intertwining branches consist of outside matters that affect the family in one way or another, matters such as politics and corruption, business and industry, the law, religion, enmity between Hindu and Muslim, and university life. The narrative centers on the Mehra family, headed by the widowed Mrs. Rupa Mehra, who sets the plot into motion once she has successfully married her elder daughter to “a suitable boy” and launches a search for another such husband for her younger daughter, Lata. The first marriage connects the Mehras to the Kapoors and indirectly links them to friends of the Kapoors, the Khans. Mrs. Mehra’s son Arun has married into the Chatterji family, thus forming another alliance. To appreciate this novel it is necessary to understand the paramount place in India of the extended family, including distant relatives and in-laws. In the course of events that cover little more than a year, the four families share birth and death, scandal, minor disagreements, disappointments and accomplishments, trials and triumphs.

If a theme does emerge from A Suitable Boy, it suggests that the family must remain strong and united in order to withstand the outside forces that affect Indian life. At this point in Indian history the ancient land had existed for only a few years as a modern nation. In 1947, parts of it were carved away to form the Muslim nation of Pakistan, while India was designated as the Hindu homeland. Shifting millions of people from one place to another during the Partition riots not only fired renewed enmity between the religious groups but also left many Muslims adrift in India, where their families had lived for hundreds of years but where they were often no longer welcome. This young nation, for two centuries fragmented and ruled by the British, faced endless problems; its newly elected Indian rulers tended to turn government into chaos when they set aside the noble ideals of the freedom movement in favor of personal ambition. As a result, little had been done to correct poverty and injustice, conditions aggravated by the religious caste system within Hinduism as well as by the conflict between the Hindu and Islamic communities. Such was the historical and social backdrop in 1952-1953 against which the narrative unfolds. While Delhi and Calcutta figure at some points, most of the story takes place in the imaginary city of Brahmpur, a state capital in the central part of Northern India on the banks of the sacred Ganges River.

First, these larger events are framed by a major occurrence in an Indian family, a wedding. Then they are intersected, reduced, and made human through the record of day-to-day family life. A Suitable Boy opens with a traditional Hindu wedding in a garden and closes with another such ceremony in a different garden. The wedding and the garden stand as important symbols; the marriage ceremony assures family continuity, and the garden provides a protective barrier-like that of the family-against the turbulence of the world beyond its walls. This circular structure also stresses another aspect of Hindu thought: that events repeat themselves over and over until perfection is reached. As the novel closes, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, who has successfully guided two daughters into arranged marriages, starts plotting ways to find a suitable girl for her younger son. A year later yet another wedding may be celebrated.

A Suitable Boy might be considered limited in its depiction of Indian life because it focuses mainly on sophisticated, well-educated, English-speaking, middle- and upper-class Indians, who appear to have little concern for the poverty and suffering all around them. The novel could also be faulted for dwelling too extensively on the minor tribulations of these families and ignoring the greater problems faced by millions without the means that the Mehras, Kapoors,...

(The entire section is 2243 words.)

A Suitable Boy Bibliography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXI, June, 1993, p.134.

Commonweal. CXX, May 21, 1993, p.25.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLVI, May 13, 1993, p.50.

London Review of Books. XV, April 22, 1993, p.9.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 23, 1993, p.4.

The New Republic. CCVIII, June 14, 1993, p.41.

New Statesman and Society. VI, March 19, 1993, p.40.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, May 27, 1993, p.22.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, May 9, 1993, p.3.

Newsweek. CXXI, May 24, 1993, p.62.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, May 10, 1993, p.46.