“Do you believe in the virtue of compression?” asked a determined academic lady.
“Well, yes,” said Amit warily. The lady was rather fat.
“Why, then, is it rumoured that your forthcoming novel – to be set, I understand, in Bengal – is to be so long? More than a thousand pages!” she exclaimed reproachfully, as if he were personally responsible for the nervous exhaustion of some future dissertationist.
“Oh I don’t know how it grew to be so long,” said Amit. “I’m very undisciplined. But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.”— 'A Suitable Boy', Vikram Seth
On Sunday, July 26 – it will be Monday, July 27 in India by then – Mira Nair’s much-awaited adaptation of Vikram Seth’s monumental novel, A Suitable Boy, will debut on BBC. As a new generation of ASB fans is likely to emerge from thi new iteration of the novel, one would like to preface this brief guide to the characters and the universe of ASB with a brief record of the OGs, the readers who pored over each of the 1500-and-odd tightly typed tiny-print page of the magnum opus.
This is us
After all, in a certain generation of Indian readers, the ones who came of age well before the smartphone, preferred their novels to be of an “epic” nature – unironically of course – and bandied about the phrase “the great Indian novel”, we all have our ASB stories. Someone I knew in university stole a copy from the library, pretending to be pregnant. A former colleague saw Seth walking in London and stalked him for three hours, keeping a discreet distance, the book in his satchel. A younger friend who is now a comedian stood in a queue for hours with her copy of A Suitable Boy, gifted to her by an ex-boyfriend, waiting patiently for the author to sign it. (He made it a point to read the somewhat risqué message on the flyleaf before scrawling her a note about the suitability or unsuitability of certain boys.)
The most dramatic kerfuffle, however, involved my friend Aneela, who had read it in her university at Islamabad (the full kahaani is recorded here) and, long story short, it led to a broken engagement in Rawalpindi. When a perfectly suitable boy was turned down by her for the wild unknowns of future passion, possibly of an entirely unsuitable nature, the aunties across GHQ muttered annoyedly that it was all a cross-border conspiracy. As it happens, they were right. A decade later, she married a half-Bengali half-Assamese fully Indian gentleman in Melbourne.
Mrs Rupa Mehra would not have approved, tsk tsk.
Mrs Rupa Mehra, or you don’t mess with Ma
Had her husband the late Raghubir Mehra (multiple gold medal-winning civil engineer from Roorkee) lived, he would certainly have risen to the Railway Board in independent India, in which case Mrs Rupa Mehra – or Ma, as she liked to be addressed by all young people – would not have had to worry about looking high and low for suitable boys for her daughters. Various covenanted / Oxbridge-returned grooms from the right caste and background would have fallen into her lap. As it happens though, Mr Mehra died young, and Ma had to scrimp and save and sacrifice tearfully for years to ensure that her children got the education they deserved.
Now though, it is an early winter in 1950 and Ma has finally managed to find an eminently suitable boy for the even-tempered and beautiful Savita. It is true that the boy is dark, gangly, asthmatic and a mere Reader at the somewhat provincial Brahmpur University. (Brahmpur is no Calcutta, where the eldest Mehra son and only breadwinner, Arun, lives with his glamorous and irresponsible wife Meenakshi Chatterjee and works at the English company Bentsen & Pryce, and where Ma spends several months of the year.) But at least Pran Kapoor, the bridegroom, is from the appropriate Khatri caste, comes from a progressive, non-dowry-type family, and is on the right side on Angrezi, that most prized of treasures in their world. He is a professor of English literature after all.
All that Ma desires after solemnising this match is a suitable boy for her youngest child, Lata. (Lata, of course, has no interest in this project. She would much rather focus on her studies at Brahmpur University – where Pran is her Professor – attend concerts with her friend and would-be doctor Malati, act, in plays and perhaps even, rebelliously, fall in love.)
Kapoor and sons
Pran’s father, Mahesh Kapoor, an eminent freedom fighter who had spent several stints in prison, is now an MLA from the Congress Party and the minister of revenue in the state of Purva Pradesh. (His arch frenemy is the conservative RWish Home Minister, LN Agarwal.) Seth’s Purva Pradesh is a composite of Bihar and UP, and his “Brahmpur”, based on Patna, which was in the early ’50s a premier city of the Raj much like Allahabad. However, in Mira Nair’s interpretation, Brahmpur appears to be Benares, a transposition that is easy to understand for both aesthetic and political reasons.
While Mahesh Kapoor is reasonably pleased with his elder children, Pran and Veena – Veena and her husband Kedarnath have moved to Brahmpur from Lahore, having faced the tumult of Partition, and are faced with newly straitened circumstances – his youngest son, the handsome and charming Maan, the proverbial black sheep of the family, is the cross Minister Sahib must bear. As much of a central character in the novel as Lata is, Maan and his adventures provide some of the fascinating insights about 1950s’ India in the novel. However, it is entirely possible that in the show, the story of Maan’s obsession with Saeeda Bai Firozabadi, a courtesan and singer somewhat reminiscent of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi as Begum Akhtar was called, will take precedence over all these other strands.
The Nawab Sahib of Baitar represents the decaying feudal world of India, which has apparently no place in the modern socialist democracy of the new India. A learned man and a dear friend of Mahesh Kapoor’s, the Nawab spends most of his time in the library these days, leaving the running of his considerable estate to his wily munshi, and letting his massive estate – which LN Agarwal wants to confiscate as “evacuee property” – run to seed.
The Nawab’s brother has left for Karachi after Partition, but his sister-in-law Abida is a firebrand politician who has outgrown the zenana and chooses to live in the quarters meant for MLAs. The Nawab Sahib’s two sons, Feroze and Imtiaz, are both well-educated and cultivated. Imtiaz is a doctor while Feroze is a lawyer, and the two young men, childhood friends of Maan, try their best to rein him in.
When things get too sticky at home, Maan escapes to this house and always finds refuge. Even when Mahesh Kapoor brings the Zamindari Abolition bill to Parliament, which will take the Nawab Sahib’s prized possessions away. Will this Ganga-Jamuni dosti between the two families survive this and other cruel twists of destiny?
There’s something about Lata
The main Austenesque strand of the novel gives Lata Mehra three suitors:
Kabir Durrani is Lata’s batchmate at Brahmpur University, tall and dashing in his cricket whites. Handsome and boyish though Kabir might be, full of jokes and irrepressible charm, he hides within himself a deep private sorrow.
Amit Chatterjee is a noted poet (published in England and lionised in Calcutta) who is Arun Mehra’s brother-in-law. Oxbridge and Lincoln’s Inn together conspired to keep him yoked to the family profession – Amit’s father Justice Chatterjee is renowned in Calcutta for his knowledge of the law – but Amit has escaped that noose to write a novel. (Justice Leila Seth, the author’s mother, had wanted to name him Amit in fact, borrowing the protagonist’s name from Tagore’s Shesher Kobita, but it had been deemed too namby pamby for him. Seth has resurrected this name for a character who is the author’s stand in.)
And finally, Haresh Khanna, the plucky young man employed in the rather unglamorous leather trade – based almost entirely on the author’s father Prem Seth – who has several admirable qualities, even if, much to the horror to the Mehra siblings, he chews paan and wears brogues.
Now to know which of these young men Lata will choose eventually, you must wait to watch the show. Unless of course you would much rather pick up the book today and cross over into the OG Club!