The title story of the novel is the one of Lata Mehra and her search (or rather her mother's search) for a suitable boy to marry. The novel opens at the wedding of Savita & Pran and introduces many of the characters we will be seeing more of later. Lata is struck by the fact that her sister is marrying a total stranger, accepting passively a marriage arranged by the family, later she will choose between passion and an arranged marriage for herself. Maan Kapoor is another central character that we get to know in depth following him through his obsession for Saeeda Bai, exile from the city and the dramatic scene involving Firoz. There's far more though than the stories of only Lata and Maan, both of whom are sometimes almost forgotten for several chapters, so many other unforgettable characters amongst the Mehra family, Kapoors, Chatterjis, Rasheed & his family, the Nawab Sahib & his family, Saeeda Bai's establishment. I found Arun & his wife Meenakshi, the anglophile snobs absolutely hilarious.
Besides being "just a soap opera" revolving around the lives of half a dozen families of Bramphur, this is an ultimate book about India following the years after the death of Gandhi and independence from the British. Partition and ever increasing tension between Hindus and Muslims are ongoing themes and the continuing more subtle influences of the British on Indian culture. Every walk of life is covered from the untouchables of the Rudhia district to the Raja of Marh and his son.
Don't let the size of this book discourage you, I found it easy to read over a period of time; each of the 19 sections is like a mini story in itself, with many short chapters in each section. I took several breaks in reading this, always drawn back the way one is drawn back to a family and old friends to see what's become of them now. Long as it is, I wished it could go on forever.
Who is Vikram Seth and how is it possible that he is able to play with words that makes me laugh for joy? If you want to read a sypnosis, read the above reviews; if you want to read a response then read my incoherent ramble.
I feel transported to an India that is a little familar--I, too, am a child whose country was once colonized by the British--Lord, do I know of Chivas marmalade, Quink washable royal blue ink etc--Seth's dialogue is peppered with "two tight slaps" that I remember my dear mama promised me if I misbehaved. The dialogue, the strangeness of looking up to a race that despises you is all too familar and sad to me, and yet I can understand. I know why Meenakshi buys British and not rationed goods. (Hmmm... it's time to reread Jamaica Kincaid's excellent "A Small Place" to remind me of the effects of colonialism)
Not having read Seth's poems, I love his poetic prose (sounds trite, but this is the only way I can seem to define his narrative style) His words are consonant-rich, embedded with vowels and multisylablles that sing even as you read them out loud. He has a marvelous and playful sense with words; to have them would seem to be enough, but to have them AND create a rich story like this humbles me.
The book reminds me of Spenser's Faery Queen, with the characters appearing and disapppearing in gallant prose. I also think of Cao Xue Qin's Story of the Stone, a rich 17th century Chinese saga of multi-families and gender issues. I feel so happy to have read this! But be glad I won't attempt a couplet like the Chaaterji children ...