After Suitable Boy, India in frenzy over A Suitable Girl
Friday 03 July 2009
It was a novel that told the story of India in a time of change and transition, as a newly independent country fought to find its way. It was a mammoth tale, told in almost 600,000 words. Detailing an anxious mother's search for a match for her daughter, it was called A Suitable Boy.
Now the poet and novelist Vikram Seth has revealed he is working on a sequel set in today's changing India. It is said to have earned Seth an advance of £1.7m, and the title alone has been enough to spark huge anticipation: A Suitable Girl.
Suitably enough, Seth revealed details of his new project in the week that an Indian court decriminalised gay sex, in effect overturning a 150-year-old law introduced by the British. Seth, who had campaigned for gay rights in India, said his new novel, to be published in 2013, will reflect recent changes.
"There are many, many changes in Indian society but many things remain the same," said Seth, speaking yesterday from his home in Salisbury. "The greatest pleasure," he added, "will be to get back in touch with the characters and find out what has happened to them."
In A Suitable Boy, the main character is the rebellious 19-year-old Lata, whose mother tries to find her a husband. In the sequel, which the 57-year-old writer said he has "doodled" bits and pieces of, she will be in her eighties and searching for a bride for her grandson. The rights have been bought by the Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton.
The Kolkata-born Seth said that there was a gay sub-plot to A Suitable Boy, but did not say whether in the sequel Lata's grandson might opt for a male partner rather than a young wife. He added that it was coincidental that his announcement of the sequel came as the Delhi High Court decriminalised gay sex. He told an Indian journalist that the court's decision was "wonderfully good, humane and lucid".
Seth's original story, which sold more than a million copies in its UK paperback edition, played out against the backdrop of the years immediately after partition, a hugely traumatic event that left hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims dead. The newly independent country was struggling to deal with the challenges of famine, mass poverty and uncertainty about its future.
While deprivation and hunger have never left the subcontinent, the India of A Suitable Girl will be markedly different. Economic reforms have created a confident, consumerist middle class, India is a regional power, and will soon become the third largest economy in the world. By 2031 it will have the largest population.
Yet as Seth points out, many of the issues important in 1952, when his original story was set, are still important: land reform, the rights of women, religious intolerance. But, he adds: "As a novelist, I cannot write about an issue as a dissertation or political essay. The causes have to be something my characters are interested in, or caught up."
The writer and critic Sunil Sethi said Seth’s original novel struck a chord with those interested in post-independence India. “It was every middle-class grandfather or grandmother’s story,” he said. “The changes in India in the last 20 or 30 years have been as large as the nation has ever seen. If he can capture the changes, then I think A Suitable Girl will be a success too.”
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