Friday, October 8, 2010

Hiking The Himalayas With A Suitable Boy


I've been away for awhile, immersed in the vivid details of India. The Indian Himalayan mountain ranges are the loftiest in the world and though I've never witnessed them in person, I feel like I have an idea of what it might be like to scale them.  At 1474 pages, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, is one of the longest novels of the last century and the longest one -volume offering in the English language. It tops War and Peace and Ulysses in length and in the intimidating heft of the tome, which is saying a lot.  A Suitable Boy  is exhaustive in its scope of 50s era Indian life, examining everything from politics and castes, to religion and food.  I feel like I've spent weeks in India, observing ceremonies, talking with families and learning it's complex history and I'm both enlightened and tired from the experience.

Set in the early 1950s, shortly after the Partition of India and Pakistan and during the first elections after independence, the novel offers insight into the current challenges of the region as well as a well-developed perspective of arranged marriages and extended families.  A Suitable Boy chronicles the intertwined lives of four families as well as the search headed by Rupa Mehra to find a suitable husband for her 19-year-old daughter, Lata. Although it has been called a soap opera and the title implies a romantic tale, it is neither. Seth is neither sentimental or melodramatic with his characters and I appreciate that.  Of course, I identified with independent-minded, soft-spoken Lata, a college student who longs for the totally unsuitable Kabir, a handsome and poetic suitor who is Muslim and therefore not a good match for her Hindu background.  There's also Amit, a glamorous Brahmin who is a celebrated, if whimsical, poet who's also not from the right caste. Instead, her mother chooses Haresh, a socially awkward, gauche shoe-maker who wears flashy shoes 20-years out of style and speaks English with a comical accent. But Haresh is kind and thoughtful and most importantly, the right caste. It's easy to get upset by the rigidly narrow caste system and the unfairness of it all. Lata rebels and fights for her right to choose whom she will marry.  However, by the end of the book, I grasped a deeper understanding of how and why the system was adopted and why Rupa refuses to ignore it.

I also gained an in-depth look at Indian classical music, the courtesan lifestyle, land reform and the struggle for Muslim women's rights. Seth didn't use many literary flourishes, the writing is direct and at times pedantic.  But he makes up for it with rich detail: the characters love to sip nimbu paani (a drink of fresh lime juice and soda) eat musammis (a sweet orange) plucked from trees and douse themselves in candy-colored dye for the joyful celebration of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.  The only real problem I had with A Suitable Boy is that although Seth provides family trees for the four families, there is no glossary for the hundreds of Indian terms he scatters throughout the book.  I not only had to scale the Himalayas during this literary journey but I had to do it with a local phrasebook in my hand.  All in all, it's well worth the trip.


14 comments:

Catherine said...

enjoy your trip - is this a new area of the world for you to travel to? - I haven´t been to India since 1984 and I still haven´t got round to reading this novel yet which I know a lot of people love - thanks for the reminders!!

Fly Girl said...

Catherine, I really did enjoy the trip, it's not a new area for me but it was only a literary journey!

Kalyber said...

You lead such an interesting life.

Fly Girl said...

Katie, why thank you! I'm sure Evan is taking you on adventures as well.

eden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
eden said...

What an interesting book to read! While you immersed yourself with this book I also enjoy watching the 19th Commonwealth Games 2010 which is held in India. It started last week and will end on the 14th. I enjoyed it because they only not feature the updates of the various games but also some interesting places and foods.

Have a wonderful week.

Fly Girl said...

Eden, Oh, the riches of India! I'm glad you're enjoying the games.

A Cuban In London said...

I've heard so much about this book and I really thank you for your review. It was very balanced. Another novel that will definitely the queue, and possibly jump it. :-)

Greetings from London.

Fly Girl said...

Cubano, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. It wasn't a breezy read but it really left an impression.

Michelle Amiee said...

I will definitely check this book out.. I have a newfound obsession with Bollywood, which led me to research the histories of India and Pakistan.. both fascinatingly intoxicating societies..

Fly Girl said...

Michelle, I love Bollywood too. This book will definitely give you insight into the culture.

Wendy said...

I have a long flight coming up and this has been on my reading list for a while. Thanks for the review. If you are interested in a really insightful book on contemporary indian culture I highly recommend Maximum City. To make a long story short it's a fascinating non fiction book on Bombay-how it got the way it is and the people who inhabit it. The author, who was born there, moved the the states as a teenager and went back to live in the city and got very close with those who create the corruption. He depicts people from different all different walks of life from Bollywood stars to govt officials.

Fly Girl said...

Wenday, this is definitely the book for a long flight! It's a bit bulky though, it would be best to have it on a Kindle. I have heard about Maximum City, thanks for the recommendation, I will check it out.

Hidi said...

Thanks for the insight; I will be adding this book to my list. Lately, I have been really interested in the history and culture of India. :)