Revisiting "A Suitable Boy" in 2020 (1/2)

I'm excited about Mira Nair's six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which will be premiering on BBC One and Netflix India on July 26th. (No word yet on when and how we'll be able to see it in the U.S.) As most people reading this probably know, I have a special interest in this project since I published a book-length study of Mira Nair's films. This is Nair's first feature film since Queen of Katwe (2016), and her first film set in South Asia since The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). Nair has a special eye and a gift for telling stories about India, and it's been too long since she's made a film there. Seth's novel, I think, seems like a great fit for picking up where Monsoon Wedding left off...


I actually re-read Seth's book in its entirety earlier this summer, partly out of anticipation for the coming adaptation (I should also say that I'm also thinking of writing an article or a book chapter on the novel...). As I did so, I felt a newfound appreciation for the book that I didn't have the first time approached it. In the 1990s, as a young reader, I was interested in the shiny and topical style of writers like Rushdie. I wanted 'quick hits' -- ideas that can be encapsulated nicely in a seminar paper or conference talk. Later, as a young teacher, I tended to look for short books that work well with undergraduates; hence, I put A Suitable Boy away on a high shelf and left it alone. Today, I'm drawn much more to good storytelling and research, and Seth's novel has both.

For those who don't have the many, many hours required to read the whole thing, one possible angle you could try is the Dramatized Audiobook version, which condenses the story and uses a pretty well-known ensemble voice cast. It does downplay the politics and plays up the "Anglophile" parts of the plot a bit, but it's a high quality dramatization and quite entertaining. I listened to it a couple of years, and it whetted my appetite to get back to the text itself.

Nair's television adaptation has a trailer that you can see here:

Thoughts about the trailer? To my eye, the trailer emphasizes two of the romantic plots (Lata-Kabir and Maan-Saaeda Bai), while deemphasizing some of the less glamorous characters and side-plots (Kabir Durrani is clearly there -- but where's Haresh Khanna?).

That said, I have heard (directly from the director!) that the adaptation is going to attend to the social and political upheaval described at length in the novel -- the tensions between urban and rural Indias, the caste politics, and communalism. I'm pleased about that; the novel is much more than a period piece and romantic drama. (If you look carefully at the trailer, you'll see some hints of the politics...)

In a series of three blog posts (one per week), I'll revisit this fine novel, and introduce it (without spoilers!) for people who've never read it.

Why You Should Read It, If You Can

When it was first published in 1993, A Suitable Boy was widely described as the Indian version of a big Victorian masterpiece -- reviewers compared it to Vanity Fair (which kind of fits) and Middlemarch (not so much). And it is in fact quite long; at 600,000 words, if one reads for an hour or two a day it can take several weeks to read in its entirety. But Seth’s novel is an exceptionally smart and well-written narrative, and it is a joy to immerse oneself in the stories focused mainly around a pair of families in India just after Independence.

At the book’s center is a young woman, Lata, whose situation is alluded to in the novel’s title: her family wants to find her a “suitable boy” to marry. She has her own ideas, of course. While the novel’s romance plot is highly entertaining and rich, alongside it A Suitable Boy covers many other important topics, including the emergence of a new national political system in India in the 1950s, the hustle and bustle of new business culture (with a special focus on the emerging domestic shoe industry), relationships between Hindus and Muslims, caste, Indian higher education, and much more. Seth’s book, then, has two beating hearts: it is propelled by its involving and intelligent romance plots (especially the plots involving Lata Mehra and Maan Kapoor), but it is grounded by the deep research and thought reflected in its engagement with its historical plots. A Suitable Boy is by no means the only ‘big book’ that aims to tell the story of modern Indian life. But it might be one of a relative few that still holds up as relevant and compelling nearly thirty years after it was first published.

In a Little More Detail...

A Suitable Boy is set just after the moment of independence, in the early 1950s, and it aims to tell a version of the national story at that moment of emergence. What did it feel like to be there at the moment when the new country was beginning to come into its own, as both citizens and political figures actually involved with many of the momentous changes underway? As with many novels written belatedly, it can look back at that earlier moment with an awareness of changes to come. Thus it is appropriate that Seth’s novel is particularly interested in the communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims and the emergence of caste-oriented politics.

Admittedly, the cultural position of the main protagonists in the story tends towards the elite. And the regional representation is culturally fairly limited to upper-caste Hindus from the Hindi-speaking heartland of the country -- we mainly see the fictional provincial city of ‘Brahmpur’ (which resembles Lucknow to some extent) and Calcutta. Still, many of the dynamics described here would have been translatable to other regions. Especially important in the novel -- and clearly a national issue -- is the extended conversation about the essentially feudal Zamindari system and its legal abolition in 1951.
Despite its elite and Anglophone orientation, A Suitable Boy is deeply interested in questions the social function of British and Vernacular Indian literature as a proxy for broader questions about power and the path towards decolonization. The specific contrast I'm interested in is the relationship between a vernacular literary tradition (represented in the novel primarily through Urdu poetry and the mehfil culture) and English literature (represented largely through the English Canon).

English literature is prevalent throughout, though it is most centrally addressed through the figure of Shakespeare and the extended intertextual engagement with Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night. In terms of the main character development, this “English” plot in A Suitable Boy is represented through Lata and Kabir, as well as through Pran Kapoor, a lecturer at Brahmpur University. In parallel, the novel explores the world of courtly Urdu poetry, which enters the novel through Saeeda Bai, a courtesan and renowned vocalist, as well as Maan Kapoor.

Next week: I'll dive more deeply into the appropriation of Twelfth Night in the plot of Seth's A Suitable Boy.