I’d heard so much about this book for a long time. But I’d never come across it. Last year, however, it was being talked about a lot when the BBC drama was released. Eventually, I got round to reading it. At 1544 pages, it is one of the longest books I’ve read, and it took me well over 2 months to finish it.
Set in 1950s newly independent India, this novel by Vikram Seth centres around young Lata, and her mother’s ambition to find her a suitable boy to marry. Longer novels tend to begin slow, as there is a lot of time to set situations up. Not so with this book. Seth uses the first 200 pages to introduce the reader to a raft of characters – Lata’s family, their extended relations, and all of her suitors and their families too. The result is a complex and intricate set of lives in the towns of Brahmpur, Cawnpore, Calcutta and others. Normally, I find such books hard to read, but this one draws the reader in with its wonderful detailing of events, places and things.
There was one overarching concept that bothered me. I found it difficult to stomach how ‘modern-day’ the behaviours of the women were. My grandmother grew up in the most progressive state of India in the 1950s. And in those days, young unmarried women could not dream of travelling 1500km by train alone, going on boat rides with boys, and walking back home after ‘tawaiaff’ performances alone. All this and more in Lata’s life, and that too in the most regressive and conservative region of India. One could argue that it is because her father is dead, and she is free from familial patriarchy. But she has her grandfather, brother-in-law etc in the same town. So that level of freedom is just made up.
Apart from this, the book is wonderfully written and the story told beautifully. Jane Austen could have learnt a million lessons from Rupa Mehra before she wrote her Mrs Bennett, but I’ll let that slide for now. Anyway, I’d recommend this book as a lingering long lockdown read. Enjoy!