A Suitable Boy – BBC ONE/Netflix review

I binge-watched A Suitable Boy yesterday. It was the only way to get a sense of the scale of the thing. A Sunday evening hour here and a Monday evening hour there are of no use to us. We have to gaze out at the paddy fields, lose ourselves in a ghazal and cover our feet with the dust of Brahmpur. We need to spend time in the world that Vikram Seth created and Andrew Davies and Mira Nair have brought to the small screen.

My relationship with the TV drama was of course overshadowed with my relationship with a book I loved and devoured several times during the 1990s. Willing Davies and Nair to succeed (at what, exactly?) did not prevent me from preparing myself to yell at the telly if they failed to grasp some nuance that I half-remembered from twenty years ago.

Episode 1 was not a good start. I had remembered loathing Maan and his self-indulgence,  and there was a lot of him. There was exposition, too, both too much (‘It’s your sister’s wedding’) and not enough (‘Veena lost everything in Pakistan’). The sheer sweep of the book meant that if you didn’t like a sub-plot there would be another in a minute, but the TV gave us just two main story arcs – those of Lata and Maan. There wasn’t space for much else.

But perhaps we who cling to the novel should shut up for a bit. You can’t cram 1400 pages into 360 minutes. It is unrealistic to expect it, ridiculous to complain that our pet bits have been left out, and in any case we run the risk of dismissing a great exercise in story-telling without explaining what it is we really loved about this brick of a book. We have to engage with the medium as it is.

And by episode 3 I had begun to realise that the dual-plotting was rather clever. The novel A Suitable Boy is about choosing futures. Lata is the most obvious but she is a symbol for newly-independent India, which of course experiences its first general election while our heroine is making her mind up. Whether it is debates about which novelists should make it into the canon, politicians arguing about land reform or Haresh cobbling out a career, we are drawn to the energy of people creating things that are new.

That said, in choosing a future we are aware of the past and – sitars aside – the traditions embodied by Rupa Mehra and in particular Mrs Mahesh Kapoor are largely unexplored, even if Davies and Nair do rather more to show that the younger Chatterji generation would be made irrelevant by the Khannas and Durranis who would benefit from India’s new freedoms. The recent horror of partition is largely untouched and communal tensions not especially explored though arguably screen time would not have allowed it. So we watch as Lata chooses between Kabir, Amit and Haresh, while wider issues of nationhood and the role of religion and tradition are played through the relationships Maan has with Saeeda Bai, Firoz and Rasheed. Lata grows and so does Maan. 

I don’t believe that the book A Suitable Boy is a love story, but the TV series certainly is. We finish feeling sated and knowing that we have enjoyed a great story, well told and beautifully presented. Perhaps that is enough from a TV drama.

This morning, though, I turned to one of my many copies of the novel. Here’s a scene that made it. But here’s one that didn’t. And another. And another. And as I flick through the pages I realise what is missing: a sense of wonder and exploration and a greater understanding of the world and my own family. But that is something that could never have been provided on the small screen.

So here’s where I think I am. The TV adaptation is beautiful and lush. I loved it and will probably watch it again. It made me think differently about some of the characters (especially both Maan and Mahesh Kapoor). And it has brought me an additional future pleasure. I will set out now to re-read a novel I have not encountered for 20 years. A novel that explores families at their best and worst, politics and the law, and how different communities can live side by side. It is warm and funny and angry. I can’t wait. And if you, dear reader, have enjoyed the TV series but have not yet read the book, it doesn’t matter that you know the destination. Join me on the journey. You are in for a treat of a ride. 

A Suitable Boy is available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer. And you can get the book here (affiliate link).

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