The thing with millennials is that they are usually quite tolerant of eccentricities — even encouraging of it at times.
A couple of years ago when I was commuting from Delhi thrice a week to teach undergrads at a liberal arts college in Sonepat, I decided to stay on campus for a few days before term ended, in order to spend more time with my students as they worked on the final drafts of their papers. Quickly, the tiny apartment where the university had kindly allowed me to room became a hub of feverish activity that would go on till late. Students would come and go and come again, pizza delivery guys would come and go and come again, and while I sat in the corner giving feedback to one of my charges at a time, others — a revolving door policy had got instituted on its own and there would be around eight or nine youngsters at any time — would be laughing and chattering in the living area, brewing tea, eating biscuits and, every now and then, doing bench presses with the book that I had left on the coffee table.
The book engendered a lot of discussions.
It was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, the paperback edition with the parrots on the cover, an important part of the whole mis en scene, dominated as it was by floppy-haired 18-year-olds with laptops and headphones. (That’s the thing with millennials. They carry their headphones everywhere, even to the loo.)
“Are you going to read this whole book?” was the question they asked, eyes widening slightly. Every time someone new would phrase it in their own way, I would smile.
“Well,” I would reply truthfully, “These days, I read it through every time I finish writing a book. Now that I am done with Indira, I have started to read it again.”
“You mean you’ve actually read it many times?”
The thing with millennials is that they are usually quite tolerant of eccentricities — even encouraging of it at times. But this business of reading a 1,535-page tome not once but several times, making a ritual out of it, seemed to stretch at it. (Their considered response was to create delightful memes about my obsession.) And yet, I wasn’t exaggerating.
I first read ASB in school, I must have been 14 or so. I raced through it in my cousin’s house over the week of her wedding, going on to borrow a copy from the British Council library to re-read it. After three weeks, British Council allowed you to re-issue the book for another three. Of course, in those days I hated the bits with the politics and the riots, and skipped over all the discussions in the Parliament, and enjoyed, most of all, the parts set in my own city, Calcutta, filled with the voluble Chatterjees. Naturally, what I most preferred then were the Kabir-and-Lata chapters. (It was disappointing there weren’t as many of those as one would have liked.)
But in later years, I would read A Suitable Boy cover to cover, savouring every page, every segment, returning to it unfailingly every time I finished the tortuous process of writing a book of my own. The complex emptiness I felt in the aftermath of completion, the exhaustion, it seemed, required the specific balm of the worlds Seth had created, their realness a stand-in not only for India — which I live in and write for – but for the classic novel form. Through some mysterious process, the book would recharge me. And it is through these multiple later engagements that I came to realise A Suitable Boy is, by a fair margin, the greatest Indian English novel to have come out of the sub-continent. Written in a prose that is as contemporary as it is felicitous, it is also innately Indian in its embracing — and not eschewing — of a masala aesthetic (there are misunderstandings between lovers, a knife-fight between friends, even a campus theatre production), something that is not limited by a Western notion of what a literary novel must do, or be.
The ASB conversations with my students continued even after I no longer taught at their university. One of them bought the book and read it over the summer. She told me the book changed her life. Many are excited about the sequel, A Suitable Girl, and they like to discuss Seth’s honesty about his writer’s block. Others would enthusiastically send me updates about the upcoming BBC production. I tried to tell them that I didn’t really care about the series — I mean, sure, I will watch it of course — but the true brilliance of A Suitable Boy lies in how it is told as a novel. The series would merely focus on the stories of the families, on the characters, but the novel — the novel also teaches us how novels are written. As the poet and writer Amit Chatterjee, one of Lata’s suitors and the stand-in for Vikram Seth himself, explains at a party:
‘I’ve always felt that the performance of a raag resembles a novel — or at least the kind of novel I’m attempting to write. You know,’ he continued, ‘first you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover the possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it’s only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the tabla joins in with the beat... and then the more brilliant improvisations and diversions begin, with the main theme returning from time to time, and finally it all speeds up, and the excitement increases to a climax.’
I mean, sure, everybody wants to know who Lata eventually marries, but the striking joy of A Suitable Boy is the how of it all. While the novel begins in 1950 and ends in 1952, after India’s first historic elections have been held, Seth wrote it in the eighties. The events the nation lived through between 1985 and 1992 — from the Bhagalpur Riots to Liberalisation and the destruction of Babri Masjid — would have shadowed his recasting of the past. And today, as news of the state-sponsored violence in Uttar Pradesh trickles in and a form of divisive politics casts a pall over any new year festivities in the country, one remembers L.N. Agarwal, the hardliner Home Minister of Seth’s Purva Pradesh and the riots that happen on his watch.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself reaching out for my battered copy of A Suitable Boy yet again, even though I have already read it this year, not for comfort (maybe only a little) and not for escape (maybe only a little) but to run my fingers figuratively over the body of the novel’s India, the one I thought I knew so well, feel its granularity all over again. I want to memorise its contours with the urgency of one who is only dimly aware of the sense of an ending albeit her heart hopes otherwise.
Devapriya Roy is the author of five books, most recently Friends from College