A Suitable Book

I have recently finished reading Vickram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ and have thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is a huge tome and I was really quite frightened by its magnitude.  I picked the book up from Oxfam in Hereford for £3 last year, not sure if I would ever actually read it.  I had been meaning to get a copy because I remember my paternal grandmother reading it when I was 12.  I don’t know why, but that she and my Aunt were talking about the book one evening when we visited has stuck in my memory although I don’t remember the specifics of their conversation.  My grandmother was Indian and came over as a nurse during the second world war where she met and married my grandfather and hence settled here.  She died while I was married and not in contact with the rest of my family, about 9 years ago now, and it will always be a source of regret and shame for me that I was absent.

So, I spotted a copy of the book in Oxfam and bought it.  When I started reading the book (around February, I think) I quickly found myself lost in the vastness of the story unfolded by the turning of each page.  It is the first book I have found myself truely, happily absorbed in reading since I finished my MA.  Of all the books I might have predicted to do it, this was not the one.

As is my wont, I am not going to write a book review or anything predictable and sensible like that.  I just wanted to mention one really little thing that nagged at the edges of my thoughts and stuck out in my memory. I am always disproportionately curious about the emotional resonances that attach themselves to small details when I read.  I find myself much more motivated to sit and ponder why these details might have lodged themselves in my awareness than to try and create a grand unifying thesis on the meaning of the book.  That is how my mind tends to work.  I blame my Adorno fandom for this habit of picking out minutiae and finding in them an interesting lens through which to view the whole.

“And poor Meenakshi! thought Mrs Rupa Mehra. … Meenakshi the cold-hearted medal-melter was replaced for a while with the image of Meenakshi the vulnerable, tender, broken vehicle for Mrs Rupa Mehra’s third grandchild, who she felt was bound to have been a boy.

If Mrs Rupa Mehra had known the truth about Meenakshi’s pregnancy or her miscarriage she would doubtless have been less than sympathetic.” (p1030)

Meenakshi is Mrs Rupa Mehra’s daughter in law and relations between them have never been good, the melting of family medals to produce a pair of earrings being the most heinous but by no means only crime.  Despite this, Meenakshi’s miscarriage stirs tender emotion in her mother in law.  The truth Mrs Rupa Mehra does not know about is that Meenakshi induced the miscarriage in fear that the skin colour of her unborn child might announce undeniably that she has been having an affair with an Englishman.

“Kabir’s remarks were not addressed to anyone in particular, but Amit felt – for no very good reason – a strong sense of sympathy for him.

Had Amit identified him as the ‘Akbar from As You Like It’ of Meenakshi’s imaginative description, he may not have felt quite so sympathetic.” (p1142-3)

Amit and Kabir are two of three potential suitors of the book’s heroine (Lata) and have met by chance at a cricket match.  They do not realise they are rivals and their conversation proceeds amicably.  For Amit at least, there is recognition of some thread of shared human experience between them, even if the reason for the sympathy he feels is not clear.

What struck me about these passages is that they encapsulate the complexity of human relationships.  Firstly, they suggest the propensity for people to sympathise with one another and to consider their common ground.   However, they also shade in the reliance upon contingency for this to occur.  We don’t tend to set aside energy for sympathy (or tender feelings generally) towards those whose aims we perceive to be in competition to our own.  Lastly, both indicate ways in which the intricacies of how much or little we understand of another’s drives or motivations are a key factor in how we weight our feelings towards either sympathy or hostility.

These very specific interactions are set against a backdrop of significant political and religious unrest found within the novel (including catastrophically violent riots).  That our tendency to seek common ground with another can be so quickly undermined by the apprehension of rivalry between values or goals, even on the level of individual relationships, is a sobering thought. It gave me cause to consider how easy it must be for good will between bonded groups to evaporate, where group identity makes the tensions and rivalry with those outside the group all the more obvious.  Hence the relevance I found in my musings to the wider themes of social and political change in India at the time in which the novel is set (shortly after the end of the second world war).

If any one I know is interested and would like to borrow my copy for a read then please send me an email or ask me next time you see me as I’d be happy to lend it.  It would interesting to think that a book I have enjoyed, that has its own distinctly non-straightforward link to my own story and past might be enjoyed by someone I know on the basis of my writing about it.


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