A Suitable Boy, India’s turbulent past and the literature that emerged from Partition

Vikram Seth's soap-like novel is now enlivening the small screen, but, explains Neelam Srivastava, it is part of a much larger legacy of post-Partition literature.

Lata in the library in A Suitable Boy
Lata in the library in A Suitable Boy. Image: BBC/Lookout Point

The BBC television adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy (1993) is such an obviously excellent idea that it’s surprising it didn’t happen earlier (apparently Seth was initially resistant). The 1500-page novel has often been likened to a soap opera, deftly carrying the reader through its multiple narrative strands featuring a vast cast of characters. Public and private narratives mingle—from one mother’s crucial choice of “a suitable boy” to marry her younger daughter, to heated political debates concerning the passage from feudalism to land reform in the wake of India’s independence from colonial rule.

When, in 1996, I was given a copy of A Suitable Boy by a family friend, I nearly didn’t read it. But then, intrigued by its immense length, I opened the book and was immediately hooked by one of the most Austen-like (and humorous) beginnings in English-language literature: “’You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.” The book changed my life. I wrote a PhD on it and then went on to an academic career, where I designed a course on contemporary Indian literature which included A Suitable Boy. Though undergraduates are supposed to have short attention spans, I was confident students would feel, as I did, that this is a novel you wish was even longer.

The novel awakened me to my Indian heritage. My father is from Gorakhpur in Northern India, a town not unlike that of Brahmpur, where the novel is set, and with a mixed Hindu-Muslim population. The Indian small town allows Seth to develop an evocative secondary world; here, families, networks and relationships intertwine in a more intimate way than in a megalopolis. The small town is also a microcosm of the rapid changes that India was undergoing in the early 1950s when the novel is set.

Seth’s book is in a group of outstanding Indian novels whose subject matter was inspired by this major event in modern history

A Suitable Boy is very much a post-Partition novel, as exemplified by what happens when Lata, the Hindu heroine, falls in love with a Muslim boy, Kabir Durrani, which provokes major conflict with her mother, the delightfully portrayed Mrs Rupa Mehra, who is appalled at the possibility of an inter-religious marriage.

Seth’s book is in a group of outstanding Indian novels whose subject matter was inspired by this major event in the modern history of the subcontinent. In 1947, India and Pakistan became two independent and separate countries. Independence meant freedom from British rule and was the culmination of decades of nationalist struggles.

But the darker side of liberation was the Partition of British India into two nations broadly divided along religious lines – India, with a Hindu-majority population (though it’s worth recalling that it was founded as a secular republic and has a sizeable Muslim minority) – and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. As a consequence of Hindus fleeing Pakistan and Muslims fleeing India, mutual genocides took place on the borders between the two nations, leading to more than a million deaths and many millions of displaced people.

'The India of A Suitable Boy is directly influenced by Partition's legacy'

Memories of Partition haunt A Suitable Boy, as when old Mrs Tandon, during Savita Mehra’s wedding, is suddenly plunged into the recollection of Partition violence due to a passing reference to Pakistan: “The pleasant chatter of the garden in Brahmpur was amplified into cries of the blood-mad mobs on the streets of Lahore, the lights into fire.” (p. 24). A religious riot between Hindus and Muslims is prefaced by the narrator’s remark that “some riots are caused, some bring themselves into being” (p. 257). Resentments left over from Partition act as a subconscious trigger for the disorder of the public streets during the Muslim festival of Moharram. Thus, though it is not explicitly about Partition, the India of A Suitable Boy is directly influenced by its legacy.

The impact of Partition on Indian literature has been profound – the memorable short stories of Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto are perhaps the most well-known by Indian readers, like 'Toba Tek Singh', which recounts how inmates of a lunatic asylum react to the madness of Partition, or the chilling 'Khol Do', about the brutalization of women during the religious conflict. English-language fiction by Indian authors, such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (1988), Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man (1989), Mukul Kesavan’s Looking Through Glass (1995), and Khushwant Singh’s classic novel Train to Pakistan (1956), all centre on the far-reaching political and psychological consequences of this event. Urvashi Butalia’s gripping oral history of Partition, The Other Side of Silence (2000), explores its legacy of sexual violence, which was used by both Hindus and Muslims as a genocidal tool.

Such accounts document the upheaval that Partition had on the subcontinent by literally ripping apart communities and undermining its social fabric, provoking a trauma that nowadays tends to be brushed under the carpet. Seth’s novel has a much lighter approach, but it portrays Partition as an event whose pernicious effects on the present need to be counteracted.

A Suitable Boy
A Suitable Boy, as depicted on the small screen. Image: BBC/Lookout Point

When A Suitable Boy was published in 1993, right-wing Hindu movements targeting Muslims were on the rise. Against this divisiveness the novel presents a resolutely secularist viewpoint, emphasising the importance of reconciling religious differences through dialogue and peaceful co-existence. The novel’s anti-sectarian perspective owes much to Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of India. Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, makes a brief appearance as a character in the novel. He promoted Hindu-Muslim harmony and the protection of religious minorities, mindful of the horrific consequences of Partition and wanting to avoid civil war in the aftermath of independence. A Suitable Boy presents a counter-narrative to the aggressively pro-Hindu politics of India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, accused of instigating genocide against Muslims in 2002.

It can be said that Nehru’s idea of India – secular, socialist, and respectful of its multicultural heritage  inspired a whole generation of Indian novelists. The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997 brings together the best of English-language writing in India since independence, and it starts off with Nehru’s famous speech pronounced on August 15, 1947, “A Tryst With Destiny” – an appropriate frame to mark the beginnings of postcolonial Indian literature in English.

A Suitable Boy, an excerpt of which appears in the Vintage anthology, combines the detail of Mughal miniature painting with the charm and wit of Jane Austen. Seth’s narrative technique has been compared to that of George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy, though Seth has indicated his inspiration came more from non-European texts such as Junichiro Tanizaki’s sprawling Japanese novel The Makioka Sisters and Bengali three-decker novels. It conveys a fine sense of lived experience through an impressively documented reconstruction of Indian society around the time of the first general elections. Seth’s novel hooks us in through its command of the realist mode, omniscient narrator, and linear chronology – a counter-epic to the meandering magical realism of Midnight’s ChildrenA Suitable Boy resurrects the nineteenth-century art of the realist novel by respecting its slow tempo, its immersive feel, and its careful building up of complex and nuanced characters through mannerisms and dialogue. (It also features an exhilarating academic tiff on whether or not to include Joyce in the English literature syllabus of Brahmpur University).

The novel is wittily self-conscious about its own length (one of the main characters, the Calcutta poet Amit Chatterji, is writing a long novel, much like Seth himself, who was a well-known poet before he began to write A Suitable Boy, which took him eight years to complete). This tongue-in-cheek approach is typical of Seth’s relationship with his readers – he cares for them like a friend, anticipating their likely reactions and shepherding them humorously but decisively through his monumental narrative.

But for all that Seth's epic sits alongside these Partition narratives, it is ultimately about family, a topic dear to Seth’s heart. His early poem 'The Comfortable Classes at Work and Play' depicts the members of his family in an affectionate, amusing style – the grandmother, who complains she is “ignored, unloved”, is an evident template for Mrs Rupa Mehra. Putting those relationships at the centre of the novel – and, indeed, the television series – may be the most “Indian” thing most Seth's writing. 

Family is also something familiar to Mira Nair, the director of the BBC adaptation, whose film Monsoon Wedding, about an Anglicized, Indian middle-class family not unlike the Mehras and the Chatterjis, shares the warmth and humour that Seth draws on to portray family life. 

Beyond the screen and back to the books, though, Seth's multi-layered novel is nevertheless a product of India's modern history and the literature it sparked – giving fans something to turn to once the series ends. 

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