Thursday, 20 June 2002

A suitable boy

Listening to:

Eduard Tubin, symphony no. 3 (Heroic). This is part of a CD from the BBC Music Magazine featuring music by Estonian composers. I’d never heard of Tubin before, but I definitely like this symphony of his. There's also a piece by Arvo Pärt on the CD. He would be the Estonia’s most famous composer, I’d guess.

I’m listening to this on a new CD player that I bought this morning at Argos. The computer on my desk here has a CD drive and a phone-out socket, but it’s become so flakey that it fails to recognise a high proportion of my discs when I put them in the drive. So, I’ve given up the ability to control my music with the mouse, but I can listen to more of it.

Just read:

Vikram Seth, A suitable boy.

This is the 1400+ page monster that I’ve been reading since the end of May. And the verdict is: it’s great. I found it absolutely enthralling. The characters are almost all sympathetic, and Seth takes the time to paint a beautifully detailed picture of post-Independence India (1951 and 1952, specifically). The novel’s duration is defined by the search for a husband for Lata Mehra. It starts with Lata’s sister’s marriage. With this marriage achieved, the sisters’ mother makes Lata her next project. The novel ends when Lata has finally found and chosen her suitable boy.

But Lata is just one of many characters, and there are many chapters where she does not feature at all. Instead, we get many others’ stories as well. These people are connected with Lata one way or the other, but they all have lives of their own, and their stories are quite involved. The other character who gets most attention is probably Maan Kapoor, who is Lata’s brother-in-law through her sister’s marriage and a bit of a ‘wild child’.

I could write for ages trying to describe all that the novel covers, but I don’t think I’d do it justice. Rather, I should defend it against the possible accusation of being a family-saga pot-boiler. I think it escapes from this charge because it’s not simplistic, and it doesn’t seem to trade in stereotypes. Big sections on the politics of land reform and religion aren’t just there as window-dressing either. I suppose it’s possible that someone with more experience of Indian literature in English would identify much of it as cliché. My experience is more limited, and it all comes across as a wonderful window on an exotic world.

To read next:

Margaret Atwood, A handmaid’s tale.