8.10.12

'A Suitable Boy' Readathon, No. 3

I am a horrible readathon participant - this check-in is now two weeks late and I am still roughly 200 pages behind. Bad blogger, hand slap. 

I have no original excuses really: I've been really busy and the size of this book means it's impossible to read it whilst travelling or to carry around with you, ready for a spare moment. Maybe they should feature it in the adverts for e-readers, or maybe I should have manned up about 400 pages ago and bought it to read on my iPad. There's something though about the inconvenient weight of it that fits that weight and depth of the story that I like, so despite these issues, I plan to slog merrily on with my library-loaned hardback copy til the end :)

Anyway, I am currently on page 829, and there will be spoilers in this readathon update. 

So, this book is long but incredibly satisfying, and I am still enjoying every page. The focus on this middle section has been on the court case surrounding the Zamindari Act, which hopes to remove vast land ownership from landowners and give it to their tenants, and the human face of this, which is represented by Rasheed, Maan Kapoor's Urdu teacher whose father is a landowner in a tiny village called Debaria, out in the sticks. Maan, who is the son of Mahesh Kapoor, the Home Minister and lover of musician/courtesan Saeeda Bai, is a character I am now beginning to see the point of: previously he has been chasing his family strife to no particular narrative end, but now it is clear that his relationship with Rasheed and Saeeda Bai is crucial to the Zamindari narrative of the book. He's deeply flawed still but changing, and I've enjoyed the time spent with both him, Rasheed and Rasheed's family over the last 300 or so pages. As Sam says in her readathon update, the Zamindari resolution is a little anti-climatic when it finally comes, but the characters seem to feel this also, so maybe Seth is making a comment on the nature of both the hype and resolution of great social change.

Still though, the Mehras, the Kapoor and the Chatterjis interest me most, and I enjoy the personal relationships between them. In fact, I find most of them wholly charming, and look forward to finding our how all their predicaments resolve as I move into the final third of the book. I don't like Haresh Khanna, Lata's most likely marriageable prospect at present, though, despite how keen Mrs Mehra is on him. I agree mostly with Lata: he's flashy and distracted, and who would want to marry someone who is openly in love with someone else, even if the object of his affection is Sikh rather than Hindu, which means their love can never be fulfilled? I hope for better for Lata than that. It is interesting though how caste can be discussed in relation to Haresh - he is Khatri, which means he is a suitable prospect for Lata, but he isn't afraid to deal with the stinky and disgusting leather preparation processes of his shoe-making business, which, being traditionally lower caste/untouchable tasks, freaks everyone out. He seems a bit of an anomaly, and I'm not sure if that's because he's a bit progressive in some ways, or if he's a little nebulous in himself, and a little immature. I like Kabir, the unsuitable boy we met in the first third, more and more though, which is a very good bit of subversion on Seth's part.

There have been some horrible parts too though: there is an instance of child abuse that I found so chilling that I had to put the book down for a day or two as it made me nauseous and cold. Also, the tragedy at Pul Mela was just awful, as was the death at the student protest, which I've just passed (apologies for my vagueness, but I don't want to give everything away. Those who've read it will know exactly what I mean), but the result of this is that this book presents a very realist portrait of the highs and lows of a society over time. Also, the Pul Mela tragedy shakes the faith of the spiritually-minded Dipanker Chatterji, and I've very keen to see what this means for his character development.

Seth's writing is still gorgeous and so accessible yet illustrative, and so consistent thus far over 800 pages, that my mind slightly boggles. He is a great writer. I found this passage, for instance, stunning:
'It was not unpleasant to be ploughing at this time of day. It was cool, and walking ankle-deep in cool water and mud behind a pair of well-trained and obedient bullocks (Kachheru had trained this pair himself) felt fine. He rarely needed to use his stick; unlike many peasants, he did not enjoy using it at all. The pair responded to his repertory of calls, moving anti-clockwise in intersecting circuits around the field, as close to the edge as possible, drawing the plough slowly behind them. Kachheru continued to sing to himself, interrupting his bhajan with 'wo! wo!' or 'taka taka' or other commands, and then picked up the tune not from where he left off but from where he would have been had he never stopped singing. After the whole of the first field was covered in furrows - a field twice as large as the one he farmed for himself - he was sweating with exertion. The sun had now risen about fifteen degrees in the sky, and it was becoming warm. He let the bullocks rest, and went around the untouched corners of the field, digging up the earth with his spade.'
I find Seth's way of writing, completely immersive: for the length of this paragraph, I'm tilling a field with Kachheru behind some well-behaved bullocks. I know how early it is, I know how warm I am at different times, and I am in India in the 1950s. This feeling I get from large sections of this book is like the one you get after eating a hearty, satisfying meal that you know is doing you good.

So, I like it a lot, and I'm excited for the remaining 500 (!) pages. :)

Here's what the other readathon participants say:

Sam at Tiny Library
JoV's Book Pyramid
 
Title: 'A Suitable Boy'
Author: Vikram Seth
Publisher: Phoenix House
Date: 1993
Format: Hardback, 1349 pages, and my copy is a library book.
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