Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata – and her mother’s – attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.
When faced with a wall of paper such as this (1474 pages), a choice inevitably presents itself. Will it be worth the time and effort taken to read this, or would it be more productive to read a few shorter books in the same time span? Luckily choosing this Indian epic was the right option, and the time spent savouring this novel was well worth it.
When reading, I loved how it harked back in style to works of earlier ages. It was easy to draw comparisons with the Russian epics, and War and Peace in particular, as well as Moby Dick for the sheer level of detail that the reader never realised they wanted to know.
Although the story takes place in less than two years, and with its vast array of characters, it is very much in the spirit of those classics, treating the reader to a glimpse of life in post independence India. With the upheaval of the partition with Pakistan as a backdrop, social and religious tensions are explored but at the heart of the story its the family spirit, and myriad connections that gives the book its flow. An India, and a young generation trying to find its own way.
“Here in the library, lost in religion or philosophy or the speculation of astronomy even worlds might seem small.”
The blurb gives the impression that the plot is simply about Lata, and her overbearing mother trying to find a suitable boy to for her to marry. Thankfully, the story is so much more than that, encompassing everything from politics, to the local shoe industry, and plenty of rhyming couplets. It’s not a typical A to B plot but a view of life as a whole. An experience of India. It’s not a book you will want to rush through but rather enjoy the currents of the lives depicted.
The beginning of the book has all the extravagance of the openings of both The Godfather parts 1&2, it richly establishes the scene and sets out relationships and hierarchies . There is also the darker undertone – at the happy occasion of a marriage – of arranged marriages, class, and racial prejudices and divides. All this and I was only halfway down page 16. This very generous scene setting is a great introduction and foundation to the wider story.
At around page 300, I came to the conclusion that I would have been happy for another 3000 pages, so caught up in the experiences of the characters did this reader become. I just loved the pace and the direction of each story, as well as seeing how interconnected all the characters were. At Page 427, new characters were still being introduced – as they would continue to be for many more pages – in fact, well into the 500’s, I still felt that Seth was still setting the scene.
Next post I will finish up this wordy review but an appropriate way to end this part would be to give you my non spoiler highlight of the book, and that would be a character with the name of Mr Biscuit.