‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth is a thick book, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t get beyond the first couple of hundred pages. I was young then, and was probably on the lookout for something more quick-paced. Besides, the India that it described was more or less the India I lived in, so what was new? Novelty and pace, I was told at teacher training, keep young minds challenged and on the ball.
Recently I watched the Netflix mini series adaptation of it by world famous creative minds – film director Mira Nair and writer Andrew Davies, amongst others. I should say, I binge watched…because I didn’t press the red button of the remote until three in the morning after the final credits rolled in and Netflix started to tell me what to watch next. Perhaps Nextflix would be a more apt name!
The mini series is produced by BBC. Apparently, Andrew Davies’s script adaptation of the novel leaned towards a ‘Pride and Prejudice’ kind of rendering after the huge popularity of the BBC TV series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with him as the scriptwriter. While the question ‘who will Lata marry’ was central to Davies’s script, it was clear to me that the mini series ‘A Suitable Boy’ is no ‘Pride and Prejudice’. This is because both Mira Nair and Vikram Seth tweaked Davies’s script to bring it closer to the novel.
Jane Austen’s novels of manners did not tell the reader anything about what the Empire on which the sun never set was up to, or how the Darcys and Lady Catherines of her narratives afforded the gardens and mansions that they did, while the men and women who inhabited her pages fussed over the behaviour of others, gossiped about who would marry who, played the pianoforte, danced in balls, fell in and out of love, plotted about how to climb the social ladder, made and broke friendships and got betrayed and then recovered. I love Jane Austen, but, as I said, a question like ‘who will Elizabeth marry’ as central to the narrative could, perhaps be applied to Elizabeth Bennet, and define what ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is about. The same could not be said of Lata and ‘The Suitable Boy’.
In this mini-series set in 1951 in India, a nation awakening to its destiny after centuries of foreign rule, the political has a way of entering the personal. Falling in love across the Hindu-Muslim divide created by the artificial division of India along religious lines is a challenge for the Lata of then, but equally so for the many Indians who want to marry across caste, religious and class lines today. The more some things change, the more they remain the same. Especially the ‘problem with Muslims’ the way the present Indian regime is doing its utmost best to define as ‘they are anti-national and they are foreigners’ shows that in some ways the India of today has regressed to a point worse than in 1951. Then, as seen in this series, marrying across religious lines was taboo. Today, a Muslim could be legally considered as not belonging to the citizenry of India. Even if she and all her ancestors were born and lived all their lives there. At least ‘A Suitable Boy’ could be said to have a happy ending in this sense, when the Hindu family of Lata is pretty much saved by the Muslim family of the Nawab, and embrace, literally and figuratively. As for the India of today, we have to hope that the politics of hate makes room once more for the syncretism that we as Indians are so privileged to have been given as a birth right – a gift of no mean proportion.
In Haresh Khanna, we see empathy for the ‘chamars’ – the leather workers, the lowest in the caste hierarchy. That he, the London returned manager relates to them as human and is penalized for this is again as true of the India of now, as it was then. What’s more, he believes in ‘getting his hands dirty’. He handles leather and creates a pair of brogues that earns him a job at a Czech shoe company. For Arun the anglicised upper class brother of Lata, Haresh is a ‘cobbler’ and not worthy of her attention. These caste and class references enrich and layer the narrative. The portrayal of social life in the ‘oh so British’ Calcutta are highly entertaining to watch.
The mini series ‘A Suitable Boy’ could also be read as the coming of age of two young people in emerging, independent India. Lata is caught between her loyalty to her family and to her own free spirit, between tradition and modernity. The film begins with her telling her mother that she never wants to marry, posing a huge challenge to the widow, for whom it is a matter of duty to se her children settled. In the ‘final solution’ to this problem too, I see resonance with the India of today. Lata, goes through a painful journey to arrive at the point that her mother wants her to. How many young people do I know in India who find that their decisions happily coincide with the dreams their parents have for them? Enough. The second coming of age story is of Maan – a reckless and very charismatic young man. His growing up requires learning that passion needs to be tempered with other qualities in order for him to become whole. To my mind these two young protagonists and their respective rites of passage can clearly be plotted through the six-hour series.
Which audience did this series have in mind? Indians in India, the Indian diaspora, Westerners in the West, Westerners in India? Category ‘other’? That’s a hard one and I am probably not the right person to answer this question. But let me give it a try. Are you interested in India, its history, its people? Do you want to experience craftsmanship looking back at you from walls, from objects, from fabrics, and wonder at a time when people created magnificent things with their hands? Do you want to get to know some fine acting talent coming out of India? If you answered yes to two of these, then this one is for you – to lighten up your long lock down evenings.