Sitting Pretty

A Suitable Boy

by Vikram Seth
Harper Collins, 1,349 pp., $30.00

Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth; drawing by David Levine

The character Vikram Seth chooses in his novel A Suitable Boy to represent himself is not one of the central characters; it is Amit the poet who “was sitting pretty in his father’s house and doing nothing that counted as real work,” which happens to be the writing of an historical novel. In an uncharacteristically confiding moment, he compares writing fiction to Indian music.

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…first you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover its 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.

He is cut short by an acerbic critic, Dr. Ila Chattopadhyay, who interrupts, “What utter nonsense….Don’t pay any attention to him….He’s just a writer, he knows nothing at all about literature.” So Amit tries again and the next time round he compares his work to a banyan tree:

It sprouts, and grows, and spreads, and drops down branches that become trunks or intertwine with other branches. Sometimes branches die. Sometimes the main trunk dies, and the structure is held up by the supporting trunks. When you go to the Botanical Garden you’ll see what I mean. It has its own life—but so do the snakes and birds and bees and lizards and termites that live in it and on it and off it. Of course, it’s also like the Ganges in its upper, middle and lower courses—including its delta—of course.

Both—or all three—comparisons imply the slow and ample growth of an entity that gains impressive dimensions through size, longevity, and intricacy of design. One has to agree they are apt comparisons for a novel about four large families and the social and political life of northern India in the 1950s which fills nearly 1,400 pages.

Engagingly, the author is also capable of downplaying the book’s scope and achievement. After a reading at the Brahmpur Literary Society, Amit is pursued by the usual questions: “Why is it that you do not write in Bengali, your mother tongue?” and “Why do you use rhyming?” and also the one that Seth will have been asked with monotonous regularity over the last few months: “Why is it…so long? More than a thousand pages!” He replies:

Oh, I don’t know how it grew to be so long. I’m very undisciplined. But I too hate long books….And I have my own way of reducing that bulk….Well, what I do is to take my pen-knife and slit the whole…

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