The curtains open, the quaint 1951 stage is set in the cities of Brahmpur, Delhi, Calcutta, Lucknow and Kanpur, the bibliophile is seated smugly in front of her window with a Hellenistic mug for the sake of cosiness, and the papiha swaying on a leafless branch is waiting for a tale to be hummed by Vikram Seth’s beautifully crafted characters. A pot pourrie of sorts, diffusing its sandalwood-like fragrance into the bibliophile’s grey cells.
Lata Mehra, the 20 year old heroine of the Khatri’s magnum opus is attending the wedding of her beloved and ‘fair-skinned’ sister Savita to Pran Kapoor, a pragmatic English Literature professor at Brahmpur University. He also happens to be the Minister of Revenue, Mahesh Kapoor’s son. This match was predestined by Mrs Rupa Mehra who insists everybody to call her ‘Ma’, and who is also the paradigm of an Indian mother ‘blessed’ with ‘daughters’. She reproaches her ‘difficult’ daughter Lata by stating that she too will marry a suitable boy of Mrs Mehra’s choice. Mrs Rupa Mehra , with the unfortunate suicide of her husband Raghubir Mehra, became a worrisome widow at a young age and had sacrificed immensely for the sole happiness of her children Arun, Savita, Varun and Lata. Arun, an authoritative, anglicized, pseudo-intellectual married the love of his life Meenakshi Chatterjee, an amorous and materialistic woman. Their prodigious daughter Aparna is ardently loved by Mrs Rupa Mehra. Varun is peopled as a pessimistic, under confident wino, incessantly bullied by his brother who astonishingly manages to ornament himself by becoming an IAS officer towards the end of the tome. Lata is an English literature student at Brahmpur University, who luxuriates in the company of Jane Austen, Wodehouse, Shakespere, Joyce. Branded by the Khatri ladies as ‘dark-skinned’, she stubbornly follows her heart till she realises the dangers it can produce on her tranquillity. Savita has been best described by her affectionate sister as one who was born to be married. Savita is a beautiful devoted wife who loves Pran inspite of his tiresome asthma and the uxorious –ness is returned by Pran.
Mahesh Kapoor, is caricatured as a Gandhian at heart, who had passionately fought for India’s Independence in the freedom struggle. Post-independence he is pictured to be in a forlorn state with the loose hangings of the Congress party and the dwindling condition of the nation. He is the chief architect of the Zamindari Abolition Bill which forms the backdrop of the story, traversing the territory of Constitutional Law. His wife Mrs Kapoor is a gentle lady immersed in her blooming garden and poojas. Their daughter Veena is married to Kedarnath Tandon who lost a fortune and a home in Lahore post-partition. They have been blessed with a mathematical whiz of a son named Bhaskar, justifying his name exceptionally. Unfortunately his bisexual ‘mama’ Maan Kapoor ruins the family, later in the novel, with his wayward and imbecile ways into gloom and misery, by having a torrid affair with a ‘reputed’ courtesan named Saeeda Bai, so not keeping up with his name. Such was the saga of the Kapoors who were soon to Mehra-ise themselves and, of course vice-versa.
Lata’s mother had commenced the odyssey of finding a suitable khatri match for her daughter by invoking the topic at Savita’s wedding and writing to all her relatives across newly independent India. But fate had a few roadblocks in Mrs Mehra’s plan. With her ‘modern’ and ‘forward’ friend Malati Trivedi, Lata stumbles across one of the suitors Kabir in a bookshop. Kabir Durrani, a strikingly handsome, curly haired, cricket-freak eager to join the Diplomatic Services is a student at Brahmpur University. He is the son of Dr Durrani, an unorthodox mathematics Professor at the University. A wave of undying emotion springs in the unripe hearts of Lata and Kabir as their eyes entwine for the first time. Lata is enchanted by Kabir’s boyish charm whereas Kabir is captivated by the depth of Lata’s eyes. Much to the chagrin of Mrs Mehra, starts a stubborn affair between the two literature geeks. Cupid-cum Vikram Seth strikes Lata so mercilessly that she is swooped into a mental vertigo of love and passion. All limitations are transcended when she unflinchingly pleads Kabir to elope with her as this match would never be approved by her mellow mother. Kabir, being the reasonable one of the two refuses, which is taken by Lata as a sign of Kabir’s convenient amity. But it has to be noted that despite Kabir’s refusal, he adores Lata zealously and asks her to wait for him till he joins the Indian Foreign Services. To add to Lata’s wretchedness, Mrs Mehra discovers her daughter with ‘that Muslim boy’, and is straight away transported to Arun’s swanky pad in Sunny Park, Calcutta.
With the second stage in the classical masterpiece enter the bizarrely funny Chatterjees. Arun’s father-in-law Mr Chatterjee is a ‘just justice’ at the Calcutta High Court who has been ‘glorified’ with 5 distinct brands of Chatterjees – Amit, Dipankar, Meenakshi, Kakoli and Tapan. The bibliophile believes that Vikram Seth has sketched himself as Amit Chatterjee, Lata’s suitor no.2. Amit aged 27 studied law in England but relinquished it to pursue his passion for writing poetry. He is considered one of the most eligible bachelors of Calcutta society having won accolades for his work outside as well as in India. Dipankar can be termed the most knotty Chatterjee, who believes he has overpassed the mundane affairs of day to day life and has thus devoted himself entirely in finding the ‘abominable truth’. The flirtatious Kakoli is the epitome of blatant impudence and her notorious Kuku-couplets, which she throws at all and sundry are seriously like titillating vinegar splashed onto a bland salad. Vikram Seth weaves a shocking chapter for 12 year old Tapan Chatterjee as well. Meenakshi is one step ahead of Kakoli who melts Mr Mehra’s gold medals into jewels much to Mrs Mehra’s annoyance and woe. Mrs Mehra immediately frowns on a Chatterjee courting ‘Luts’ a.k.a Lata but our heroine finds a soulmate in Amit who takes her out of the lost island she was abruptly marooned on. The Chatterjee paragraph is incomplete without a Kuku-couplet. This one is unabashedly sung by Kuku to the tune of a Tagore song at Lata’s wedding towards the end of the novel, escalating Mrs Rupa Mehra’s already deep-infested culture-shock.
‘Roly poly Mr Kohli
Walking slowly up the stairs.
Holy souly Mrs Kohli
Comes and takes him unawares.
Mr Kohli base and lowly,
Stares at choli, dreams of lust,
As the holy Mrs Kohli
With her pallu hides her bust.’
Terrified that her Lata would also start singing couplets, Mrs Mehra takes Lata to Kanpur and Lucknow to meet suitor no.3 Haresh Khanna. Haresh Khanna is a fair-skinned, enterprising, self-made, optimistic ‘khatri’- a glistening lagoon in a ‘Muslim and Chatterjee’ desert. Haresh graduated from St Stephens, Delhi and went onto to study non-conventionally about shoes in Middlehampton, England. In the masterpiece he switches jobs from ‘Cawnpore’ to Calcutta as he vehemently disagrees to compromise on his ethics. He is taken in a storm by Lata’s simplicity and seraphic beauty, which compels him to bury his unrequited love for a Sikh girl named Simran. Haresh is furiously rejected by the Calcutta party and is snorted at for his alleged ‘cobbler ways’ and pan-chewing habit, which he later leaves to impress Lata. The two heart-broken individuals start writing letters to each other at the behest of Mrs Mehra and our heroine steadily sees the ‘cobbler’ in a non-judgmental light throughout the novel.
Who would Lata end up marrying? Will the passionate love for Kabir take over ‘khatri’ propriety? Will Amit’s eccentric ways with words bewitch Lata into matrimony? Will the optimistic ‘cobbler’ be able to navigate through the unyielding doors of Lata’s heart?
The yarn of imagination spun by Vikram Seth is worthy of unending applause. Keeping the title in mind a surprising political backdrop of post-independent India is given which in a way influences Lata in deciding her life-partner. The tale touches innumerable chords from Zaminadari, feudalism, bisexuality, religious strife between Hindus and Muslims to Constitutional law, Property Law and the Civil Services. It elucidates the difficulties faced by the courtseans, musicians and the royal household when the government decides to pass the Zamindari Abolition Bill affecting their livelihoods drastically. The blazing affair between Maan Kapoor and Saeeda Bai forms the basis of Lata’s decision. A number of pages have been dedicated to Maan’s Kapoor’s saga, the constitutionality of the Zamindari Abolition Bill and the Hindu-Muslim riots has been often questioned by many to be redundant. If one only patiently reads the 1400 or so page novel he/she will definitely understand how each story is sewed together to make the perfect calico of an English classic. The only real characters in the book are Jawaharlal Nehru, Kidwai, Jayprakash Narayan; all depicted to paraphrase the political turmoil the country was facing in 1951.
It took me a month to complete this paragon of English Literature. When I finally finished reading the last words of the book, the only string of alphabets that came out were-‘Gee! I worship Seth’. The most distinguishing feature is that every chapter is numbered in the contents page with a couplet. To maintain the lucidity of the novel Seth provides a family tree for each family so that the reader does not get clobbered up with the vast number of characters sculpted. The Times magazine has proclaimed Seth to be the best writer of his generation and I undoubtedly agree with the statement.For those interested souls Vikram Seth will be coming out with the Suitable Girl in 2013.
As of now I terribly miss reading the magnum opus. It has taught me a lot on the flickering nuances of human nature. It took me to a dazzling world furnished with human delirium and dilemma. This review does not do justice to Vikram Seth’s toil and sweat; in fact no one can ever review such a classic- It simply has to be read.
I shall end this ode to my favourite writer with a Mrs Rupa Mehra letter to Lata when she was on the threshold of deciding the suitable companion-
“When the world has been unkind, when life’s troubles cloud your mind,
Don’t sit down and frown and sigh and moon and mope.
Take a walk along the square; fill your lungs with God’s fresh air,
Then go whistling back to work and smile and hope.
Remember, Lata darling, that the fate of each man (and woman) rests with himself.”