A Saga of Four Families in India

THE table of contents in Vikram Seth's much-publicized novel, "A Suitable Boy," operates as a kind of verse map, a lighthearted guide through this ambitious and discursive 1,349-page book.

Each of the 19 paired descriptions ("A couple glide down-river in a boat./A mother hears that mischief is afloat."), represents two- or three-hours of reading and is a deceptively simple gloss on Seth's meandering story. But the contents page succeeds in drawing the reader toward what is otherwise an intimidatingly long book.

Although originally conceived as the first volume of a sweeping tetralogy or quintet about life in India after that nation's independence, "A Suitable Boy" isn't a panoramic novel with breathtaking views, grand climacterics, and subtly striated themes.

Instead, Seth's book is a deft and straightforward, occasionally ironic, mosaic of stories built around the intersecting lives of four families - the Mehras, the Kapoors, and the Khans, who live in Brahmpur, the capital of the fictional state of Purva Pradesh; and the Chatterjis, who reside in Calcutta. The plot that provides the book's title and basic structure is Mrs. Mehra's search for a husband for her youngest daughter, Lata.

Seth's chronicle begins in the early 1950s with the wedding of Savita, Lata's elder sister, and ends just two years later with Lata's marriage.

Along the way, Lata maneuvers with increasing confidence among three suitors. One is a romantic Muslim student, Kabir Durrani, who sweeps her off her feet and suggests that they elope when her traditional Hindu family prohibits their marriage. The second is Haresh Khanna, an enterprising businessman in the shoe-manufacturing trade with a methodical mind and an impulsive streak.

The third suitor, Amit Chatterji, is the brother of Lata's sister-in-law and Vikram Seth's alter ego - a poet writing a historical novel that has grown almost uncontrollably long. Nearly 1,300 pages into "A Suitable Boy," Chatterji explains that his novel is more than 1,000 pages because he's "very undisciplined." This isn't true; like Seth, he simply ignores convention.

In their poetry, both Seth and Chatterji prefer the outmoded opportunities of rhyme to what might be described as the modernist opportunism of free verse.

For his part, Seth is the author of three poetry collections (all at least partly in rhyme), a travel book, and "The Golden Gate" (Random House, 1986), a dazzling novel about the destinies of five young professionals in California, composed of almost 600 sonnets in iambic tetrameter and modeled on Alexander Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin." ("The Golden Gate" won both the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia and India's prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award.)

Through perhaps 250 scenes in his new book, Seth traces his characters' personal battles as well as some of the concerns and conflicts of "the new, truncated Independent India."

Mahesh Kapoor, Savita's father-in-law and a senior politician in the Congress Party, sponsors a controversial bill that will strip unproductive, mostly Muslim, landholders of their estates, transferring the land to sharecroppers. A dogmatic man who gets impatient with his wife's shortness of breath and piety, he fights for the bill with an uncompromising sense of duty, even though his oldest friend, the Naweb Sahib of Baitar, will lose his family property once the bill is passed.

Other subplots range from music to religious conflict: Kapoor's son Maan falls in love with Saida Bai, a Muslim courtesan and singer twice his age; Savita's husband, Pran, a professor at the university where Lata studies, struggles to get James Joyce on the list of prescribed authors for Modern British Literature; the wealthy Raja of Mahr, one of Saida Bai's old clients, rebuilds the destroyed Siva Temple next to the Alamgiri Mosque, forcing Muslim worshipers to face Hindu idols every time they turn west ward to pray - leading, not surprisingly, to a riot.

Some may find that "A Suitable Boy" is a novel with little psychological acuity. It should be said, however, that as a country India in the early 1950s was creating rather than examining itself, and that emotional analysis has always been seen as a challenge to Hindu traditions and social institutions.

Mrs. Mehra would change nothing by wondering how her father can be cruel to a beggar only minutes after weeping at a mawkishly sentimental film. For the same reason, Lata doesn't question her elder brother's condescending treatment of their brother Varun.

The novel has a quiescent tone, a turning away from the tumult of insight, emotion, and cumulative individual action. There are riots, workers' strikes, and communal violence but few crises of the characters' devising and fewer still that can be resolved by an individual's actions. Coincidence and fate substitute for psychological action by the characters. The narrator, though omniscient, records only his characters' conscious thoughts.

Yet Seth gently mocks his own emphasis on detailed chronicles when he provides, for instance, a list of the people whom Cuddles, the Chatterjis' dog, has bitten over the past 10 years: schoolchildren, lawyers, a doctor, some electricians, and, more recently, the man "who had come to the door to take the decennial census."

Mrs. Mehra, in some ways one of the strongest characters in this book (though parodied at every turn), sees herself as a mother who "sacrificed every comfort for the education and happiness of her children" and who controls her children "for their own good."

Significantly, it is Haresh, the only orphaned character in "A Suitable Boy," who seems to be Seth's model for the country's new citizen: a confident leader (in his case in business) who combines vision with common sense.

Even Seth's natural conservatism cannot prevent Mrs. Mehra and others who would influence the younger generation from realizing that they must revise their assumptions and expectations lest they result in "rash action - even outright defiance" by those who can now challenge India's older generation.

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