Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

Socio-political Determinants in Identity Formation: A Study of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

This paper aims to show that Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is a complex document of the postcolonial experience in its rejection of the Imperial British culture. The book deals with problems of identity – personal, religious and national – through a series of contrasts. Certain hierarchies are established, then reversed and finally deconstructed. The central thematic unit of a girl having to choose a husband from among three suitors is clearly reminiscent of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. A comparison of the two books suggests that A Suitable Boy is not basically a psychological novel and that its validity lies in its clear socio-cultural implications. The first part of this paper tries to reveal the social nature of the novel’s vision and the second part questions the validity of the contrasts through which this vision is revealed. Together, more questions are perhaps raised here than answered.


James’s Isabel Archer rejects the English aristocrat Lord Warburton and the American tycoon Caspar Goodwood and commits a fatal mistake in marrying the diabolic Osmond. Lata, Seth’s heroine, is wooed passionately by the cricketer Kabir, pleasantly by the poet-novelist Amit and sensibly by the ‘cobbler’ Haresh. In finally marrying Haresh, Lata seems to be avoiding the mistakes of Isabel: she chooses her Goodwood. Unlike the Jamesean novel in which the marriage takes place somewhere in the middle of the book, Seth’s novel concludes with the marriage, so there can be no textual evidence of their marital happiness. While James makes clear how wrong Isabel was in choosing Osmond, Seth seems to be emphasizing the rightness of Lata’s choice through the incidents which lead up to her decision. But this bulky book does not probe into the psychological depths of the heroine. This aspect becomes increasingly evident when juxtaposed with the American master’s deep insight.

This does not imply that Seth is inferior to James. True, there is the thematic similarity between the two books: just as Goodwood’s passionate kiss on Isabel breaks the last connection between them, a mis-timed kiss by Haresh creates a temporary gulf between him and Lata. James’s contrast between America and Europe finds a sort of equivalent here in the contrast between the colonial and the anti-colonial attitudes of Indians. But despite such similarities, the two books are essentially different. James devotes his whole book to his heroine whereas Lata and her concerns form only a small part of Seth’s novel. At the same time her story is important too. The book begins and ends with her story. Her story reflects and reinforces several of the thematic preoccupations of the book. Further, her situation is paralleled by that of Tasneem with her three lovers – Ishaq, Rasheed and Firoz – each more unsuitable than the other. The rightness of Lata’s choice and its significance are thus not to be found in the realm of psychology but rather in its structural relation to other parts of the book.

While James treats his characters as unique, Seth sees them as representative. Lata, though an individual, is mainly the type of the intelligent woman living in the post-independent India. The very fact that Lata’s story is placed in the wide canvass of the sociopolitical history of the fifties suggests her status as primarily a social being. She is almost always defined in relation to other people, like her mother or friends. Even her personal attitudes have a strong cultural echo. They are not mere personal idiosyncrasies but authentic social attitudes. Viewed thus, her marriage does not dwindle into an anti-romantic marriage of convenience, but rather it becomes the fully responsible gesture of a socially aware individual.

Further, this accounts for the predominance of so many flat characters in this novel. Almost all characters are two dimensional – the silent, pious, suffering Mrs. Kapoor, the idealist politician Mahesh Kapoor and the opportunist Agarwal, the passionate young lover Maan, the absent-minded and monomaniac professor Durrani, the fussy and sentimental widow Rupa Mehra, to name only a few – (another indication that the book is not psychological), and these memorable, recognizable social types do form an interesting structural pattern whose import is obviously social.

Having thus established the essentially social nature of the narrative, it remains to analyze the book accordingly. But before that, it will be necessary to take a look at the ‘personal’ side of the story. In deciding to marry Haresh, Lata has rejected Amit and Kabir. Amit is warm and friendly, and Lata likes and respects him. But she cannot even contemplate a marriage with him, because “we are too alike”, she tells Malati (1296). She can reject his proposal without losing his friendship. But he is also Arun’s brother-in-law; to marry him is to be near her brother Arun whom she cannot tolerate: “ To live five minutes away from him would be the ultimate lunacy” (1297). Arun, with his British accent and his prestigious position with Bentsen & Pryce, is a vain and empty man, an anglicized Indian basking in the reflected glory of a setting empire – the typical brown sahib under the colonial hangover. In rejecting Amit who writes only in English, she is also rejecting, though indirectly, the colonial subservience to the departed yet lingering conqueror. Her decision to accept Haresh with his habit of paan and his unenglish English is finalized soon after receiving a letter from Arun advising her to the contrary. Thus her rejection of Amit and acceptance of Haresh, both being a rejection of Arun and the superficial values he embodies, proves at least to a certain extent, her sense of national identity, her pride in being an Indian, and her refusal to hang on to the colonial values. Thus it becomes clear that her ‘personal’ motives become significant mainly in the social context.

Her attitude to Kabir is more complex. Even after promising to marry Haresh, she thinks of Kabir longingly; she cannot be sure that she is doing the right thing in rejecting Kabir. “Even now I almost feel it’s he who’s left me – and I can’t bear it” (1332). Apart from her attachment to her family and her unwillingness to hurt her mother, she cannot comprehend the violent nature of his passion and jealousy. The book abounds with examples of self-destructive passion, as in the case of Rasheed or Maan. It is tempting to conclude that she lacks the heroic spirit to plunge into life and love and passion, for Kabir is all that; it is likely that she has discovered a Hindu identity for herself, which while allowing for intimate friendships between Hindus and Muslims, stops short of marriage; it is more than probable that Vikram Seth had to forbid this union so as to emphasize his vision of communal harmony expressed in the book through the relationships of Maan and Firoz or that of Mahesh Kapoor and the Nawab Sahib of Baitar. They were all good friends, then problems separate them, but even when they finally come together and become friends again, “no one knew what to talk about” (1341). Viewed like that, it will be insane for Lata to marry kabir. Anyway, it will be safer not to stress her Hindu identity too much, but accept the structural reason that it emphasizes the recurring idea of the book that Hindu-Muslim harmony, though highly desirable, is still a practical impossibility. So Lata’s rejection of Kabir is to be seen as an artistic need necessary for maintaining the coherence of the text. One must conclude that her ‘personal’ motives become significant mainly in the structural context.

Lata is the only round character of the novel. She has the dual role of being a person and a type at the same time. In marrying Haresh, she is fulfilling her function as the ‘type’ who accepts her Indian-ness. The significance is less social than personal in rejecting Kabir. He is the attractive, disturbing, masculine passion, and then it is no wonder that neither Lata nor the readers are quite ready to accept the rejection of Kabir. And Kabir, despite his play-acting as Malvolio, is her real Orsino, and the rejection suggests the repudiation of the romantic code, a code which is not very social by nature. Lata becomes psychologically complex only in her relations with Kabir. On all other levels, she is just a simple character, constantly rejecting or affirming one or another value, and faithfully fulfilling her function as a ‘type’. Of course, Seth was not creating a psychological study, and it is to the credit of Seth that he fits Lata so neatly into the vast and complex structural pattern of the novel. Thus Lata’s choice and rejection, seen in its social aspects, embody the mature response of an intelligent adult in the postcolonial situation.


Prof. R.K.Gupta, in an article, “ A Suitable Boy: Saga of Four Families” in Haritham (No.3, 1994), contends that Seth’s critical failure is in his characters. They lack depth and complexity, they are superficial, and the major failure, he thinks, is with Lata: “ Lata’s final choice of Haresh is disconcertingly anti-climactic. We never learn what makes her choose Haresh rather than Amit or Kabir” (p.74). These statements are irrefutable when the characters are viewed from a psychological perspective. But the way in which this novel works is felt to be a little different. Starting with the story of Lata, it gradually flows into her relatives and friends and lovers, and soon we are lost in a wide and intricate maze of sociopolitical history. But we are not left in the wilderness forever; with unerring precision, Seth always picks up the thread of his narrative, and the story of the chief characters continues. But each time we come back to the characters, something seems to have happened to them: it is not that they have changed radically, nor is it as if we see deeper into their psyche; instead, the characters seem to be growing more solid, taking roots in the political history of India. And after some time, it becomes difficult to separate the accumulated silt of history from the individual characters. What appeared at first as the personal prejudice of a character is transformed into the vehicle of some cultural code. The book ceases to probe deeper, and instead, it expands in ever widening circles, thereby locating the characters in their precise cultural milieu. That is why the search for motives in Lata is to be directed to the social reality surrounding her and not to the psychological repertoire.

But Seth is not content to leave the characters as absolute manifestations of historical forces. Inextricable as these forces are, unambiguous they seldom become, and so Seth undermines his own magnificent artifice by a deliberate weakening of the polarity of his contrasts. One such contrast, established firmly and then erased clearly, is between the literal guilt and figurative innocence of Maan. Labouring under the delusion that Firoz is being entertained by Saeeda Bai, Maan fatally wounds him. Following his own confession, Maan is arrested and tried but he is miraculously rescued by the magnanimity of Firoz who concocts the story of his stumbling over something and of his accidentally falling over the knife in Maan’s hands. Maan is really guilty, and the version of its being an accident is literally a lie. But this lie is presented so convincingly that it can account for all the other facts of the case, like the evidence of witnesses, or even the confession of Maan. While one part of our reasoning firmly holds with the view that he is guilty, another part yearns to prove his innocence, a yearning caused by his warmth and general affability; and this longing is rewarded when we hear the clear, resounding ring of his metaphorical innocence. Was it not an accident that Maan and Firoz met at Saeeda Bai’s house? Was it not a misunderstanding of Saeeda’s meaning that resulted in the tragedy? Maan does not seem as guilty as he first appeared to be. Thus Seth brings about a neat deconstruction between ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, which is best summed up in the words of Firoz: “And the same set of facts is open to many interpretations” (1310).

This is not an isolated incident. The whole narrative strategy of the text is based on a similar deconstructive method. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this. Both the title and the opening of the novel pose a question in the reader’s mind: Will Lata marry the boy whom her mother chooses for her? Or will it be her own choice? Finally when she accepts Haresh without consulting her mother with whom he is under a cloud then, she seems to have made a choice of her own. But Haresh was, from the very beginning, her mother’s choice; further, no sooner was Lata’s decision made public than the mother lost no time in accepting him. After Lata’s wedding she tells Varun that he too ‘will marry a girl I choose’ (1343), implying that Lata has done so. Thus the match was as much the mother’s choice as it was the daughter’s. The reader is prevented from arriving at any conclusive answer. Similarly, the title, A Suitable Boy, may be taken to suggest that Haresh is only one of the suitable boys, that Kabir and Amit are perhaps equally suitable. The uncertainty regarding the rightness of her choice implies that it will be as much difficult for the reader to arrive at the right answer, as it will be for Lata to choose ‘the’ suitable boy. Just as Lata chooses ‘a’ suitable boy, the reader may choose ‘a’ suitable reading, ‘the’ suitable reading being non-existent or virtually impossible.

Perhaps a more instructive instance will be the contrast between Arun and Haresh. Arun’s pro-colonial attitude is strongly pitted against the anti-colonial attitude of Haresh. Arun has the distinctive English speech manners and habits while he himself has never been to England. Haresh with his Indian English and the habit of paan has studied in England. What Arun resents most in Haresh is his Indian-ness. Lata also finds Haresh’s ‘Cawnpore’ for ‘Kanpore’ a little ridiculous at first. But Haresh changes his pronunciation and drops the habit of paan, thereby making the contrast a little ambiguous; it also makes the assumption of the first part of this paper rather suspect: that in choosing Haresh, Lata has been displaying her anti-colonial predilections. Thus the novel ceases to be a political statement of nationalistic fervor and becomes an artistic achievement, which refuses to be unequivocal.

Another interesting point is the familiar character-author identification. There is at least one point in the book where Seth speaks through Amit (1253-54). Amit’s explanations for his choice of English instead of Bengali as his medium for writing along with his justification for writing huge novels is equally applicable to Vikram Seth and his A Suitable Boy. Thus Lata’s rejection of Amit can perhaps be viewed as an interesting instance of the character defying the author, as in the tradition of Pirandello and his followers.

The bulk of the novel is used to portray a realistic picture of India. Vivid descriptions of the Pul Mela, the ordinary life of Rasheed’s village, the horror of communal riots, a cricket match, the whole election procedure of campaigning, polling and counting, all these lend the novel a very wide sociopolitical framework. Though the paper seal Vikram Seth uses at the end of the polling should have been at the commencement of the poll, the enduring impression is one of thoroughness. Several jokes and anecdotes from popular Indian folktales find their way into the novel. The whole gamut of the sociocultural forces helps to give a historical orientation to the characters’ lives. Oscillating between the individual attitudes and cultural forces, and often obviating the differences between the two, individual lives are shown as the unconscious working out of the historical forces.

Works cited:

Seth, Vikram. A Suitable Boy. New Delhi: Penguin Books India (Viking), 1993.

Gupta, R.K. “A Suitable Boy: Saga of Four Families”. Haritham (No.3, 1994), pp.70-78.

1 comment:

LucyH said...

Thanks so much for this. I just now finished reading _A Suitable Boy_, and I was struck by the similarities w/ _Portrait of a Lady_. I'm surprised more people haven't picked that up. I read your essay with great interest and pleasure.