mistaking the door for the house

I had lent my “A Suitable Boy” to Amey for (tentatively as it turned out later) 3 months. A week into reading the book, he came into class and started spouting ridicule at Seth’s literary mechanisms – the incredulity of love at first sight, the girl following the guy around the university campus as if in a daze and so on. Now I’m not an expert on love and how it happens and how love-struck people behave (go talk to Varun for that). But what I did realize was that Amey was not doing justice to Seth and so I took the novel back. He asked me why I felt that way?

Seth’s efforts in “A Suitable Boy” have been compared to Tolstoy’s in “War and Peace”. They are almost on a similar scale. I say “almost” for a reason. Tolstoy lived in the time he wrote of, while Seth had to reach back. I have not read “War and Peace” but it has been said by creditable sources that Tolstoy has described an entire society in it. Seth has done the same. The love story is just an excuse – a point of entry – a door leading into the castle. Mrs. Mehra’s quest for a suitable boy for her daughter is just a like a railway track. It is the region, the surroundings that the track goes through, thats makes Seth’s efforts so astounding. The lovers and romantics are there in plenty. They are even at the centre of the canvas. But Seth is more than happy to increase the size of the canvas and fill it with other characters – indeed, with a snapshot of Indian society in 1951-52.

We hardly pause for a moment as Lata falls into love. More momentous changes are taking place and Seth is ready to show them to us. The Grand Old Party is already rotting and turning into dust. Zamindari, for long the useless yoke on the Indian peasant’s shoulder, is being abolished. Religious fundamentalism is taking slow (but sure) roots in society and so are measures that are today causing Mandal-2. Socialism and communism are seeping into the country. It is a vibrant country struggling to be a nation – a single cohesive whole – after nearly 5 years of Independence. But the seeds of decay are already apparent – its a wonder that India has survived till now.

In this story-telling, Seth takes us from the mind of a Zamindar Nawab to that of his friend, the Revenue Minister who is framing the Zamindari Abolition Bill. We feel the pain of a landless chamar who still ploughs land under the burning sun and the pity of the Prime Minister who hands a poor child a few choice fruits ignoring his gardener’s protests. Seth moves effortlessly from a mosque filled with the faithful to the tent of a Hindu religious leader giving a sermon to his Lord’s devotees.

To dispense with all this and harp on the incredulity of a love story is not doing justice to the book. Not at all.