A suitable sequel
So how is A Suitable Girl coming along? How many pages old is she?
To be honest, not much has been written, other than a few doodles here and there. It’s mainly inside my head at the moment.
When did the idea of a sequel to A Suitable Boy come to you? Did you have a sequel in mind when you had finished writing A Suitable Boy?
Not quite, though it is true that there are a few hints in the novel that have led readers to suspect that I had a sequel in mind (for instance, the couplet at the end: “The curtain falls, the players make their bow, and wander off the stage — at least for now”). Were these deliberate? I don’t know. I’ve toyed with the idea of a sequel to A Suitable Boy several times in the years immediately after it came out, but abandoned it soon after. It’s only recently that I found myself mulling about the characters again… thinking, what if Lata (Mehra, the 19-year-old heroine of A Suitable Boy) were alive today… why didn’t I think of her to be a grandmother before?
Was it the pressure from publishers that put these thoughts in your head again? 2013, when A Suitable Girl is slated to come out, will be the 20th anniversary of A Suitable Boy. The timing seems perfect.
If you talk about pressure, and not just from publishers but also from readers, then that has been there, but if I didn’t give in to it earlier (when, in fact, it was stronger), why should I do so now? I wouldn’t be able to respond to such pressures unless I felt a stirring inside my head, and it’s only now that I’ve been feeling it.
A Suitable Boy was set in an India going into its first general elections as an independent nation. In fact, around the time you were born…
Yes. As a matter of fact, it ends on the precise day I was born. There’s even a reference to this event at the end of the novel. Rupa Mehra wants to return to Calcutta on June 20, 1952, to be present at the birthday of a dear friend. I was born on that day in Calcutta, at the Elgin Nursing Home. I mention the nursing home too, I think.
News has it that the sequel will be set in contemporary India, more or less. Tell us a little bit about what went into this choice of time and place?
It’s because of this gap in time that I prefer to call A Suitable Girl a “jump sequel” — it will travel 60 years and two generations ahead of A Suitable Boy. But, of course, the novel will move back and forth in time a great deal, so you will get a glimpse of the intervening years as well.
Does it mean less research for the writer?
Does it? I don’t think so. Maybe a different kind of research, especially into the intervening period that I talked about.
Does your decision to finally pen a sequel to A Suitable Boy have anything to do with the changes taking place in modern India, let’s say, since the opening up of the economy?
The changes you are talking about involve and interest me as an Indian, and of course, they will enter the book in some way or the other. But as a writer of fiction, I am more interested in the lives of my characters. It would be easier for me to write about the changes in today’s India, many of which are superficial, in essays or tracts, or look at them using my academic training as an economist.
What percentage of characters from A Suitable Boy will make an appearance in A Suitable Girl?
Many of them will have been dead, of course. But some will, for sure. I will be more certain about this as the characters start appearing on the scene. Lata, as you know, will be 80. Bhaskar Tandon, the young mathematician, will be in his seventies. But I can’t really afford to look at characters as carry-overs from A Suitable Boy because I can’t assume that those who will read A Suitable Girl will have read its parent-novel.
After A Suitable Boy came out in 1993, you were criticised by some for dabbling in the “popular”, as opposed to a “serious” literary genre. After An Equal Music and Two Lives, the “literary” lobby claimed you as its own once more. How do you feel about facing similar criticism again?
Is there a necessary distinction between the serious and the literary? In A Suitable Boy I was trying to be serious but not academic. If a novel has a fair amount of humour and a particular kind of dialogue, does it immediately cease to be serious? Before A Suitable Boy, I had written poetry, a novel in verse, travelogue, poems for children and also translated poetry, but no prose fiction. I haven’t really been confined to a particular genre in my writing career.
Are you comfortable with the fanfare with which the impending arrival of A Suitable Girl has been announced? Doesn’t it remind you of the hype surrounding films these days?
I would be lying if I said I’m completely at home in it. But if you’re in the book business, the publishers are taking care of every little thing for you, and as a writer, the least you can do is handle these things with good grace. Do I like doing interviews? No, mostly, and there have been many where I’ve switched my mind off completely. But I don’t mind this one. It’s around noon here, and I’m lying on my bed, looking out at a pleasant view from my window, and I don’t mind answering your questions.
Which writers do you count as your inspiration when you sit down to write a family saga like A Suitable Boy or its sequel?
Oh, many. But the 18th century Chinese five-volume novel, The Story of the Stone (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin was the biggest influence on me when I wrote A Suitable Boy. I also like the Victorian novelists and some comedy of manners.
A Suitable Boy had crossed the 1,400-page mark. How long will its sequel be?
Honestly, I have no clue. It’ll be as long as its characters make it. I had no idea A Suitable Boy would be so long when I started writing. Who knows how long A Suitable Girl will be? But one doesn’t usually hear about a very tall father begetting a dwarf, does one?
How much of the responses you got from readers of A Suitable Boy will you use in A Suitable Girl? Have you also had people asking you to put in your views on contemporary social and political issues, such as the ongoing debate on Article 377?
After A Suitable Boy, many readers told me it should have been half its size, many said it shouldn’t have been written at all, and some very kindly said it could have been longer. Some of the reactions I’ve got from family, friends and even strangers will probably get incorporated in the new novel. But I won’t make my novel a vehicle for my philosophical and social thought. Yes, I have opinions on a number of issues, on land reforms, on the Hindu-Muslim divide, on gay rights. I was elated to hear that the archaic Article 377 was read down recently. But that will not be a reason for a gay theme, if at all there appears one, in my new novel. In any case, gay characters have appeared in my earlier novels as well, including A Suitable Boy if you remember (referring to Maan Kapoor and Firoz Khan being former lovers).
Finally, why a suitable ‘girl’?
Yes, indeed. Why? Why not an unsuitable boy? Do you think ‘A Suitable Woman’ would have been better?
Maybe not… since it’s not a sequel to A Suitable Man…
Right. So there.
Which is your favourite Vikram Seth work? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org