A Suitable Boy

My relationship with partition, and the hindu-muslim divide that ensued, is rather deep. I have on numerous occasions been told the horror stories of the trains that were looted, and set ablaze. I have Uncles who departed from Lahore with a large family, and arrived in Delhi, as an orphan. I have grand parents whose jewels and gold and silver vessels were looted and they arrived in India with just a pair of clothes, and lived in refugee tents for months, before they were allocated land in India. My own father, arrived in India in one of such trains, when he was just a baby. He was born in July of 1946, and India became independent in Aug 1947.

I have read Manto’s Thanda gosht, and other short stories, and I have also read Khushwant’s accounts of the partition. If you grew up in a Punjabi, Multani or Sindhi family in 1980s, your grand parents and to a large extent your parents were victims of the partition. So it was not uncommon for the elders of the family to break into stories of partition just like we talk about the 2001 recession. A lot of grit that you see in Punjabi’s, including me, is representative of what our past generations had to fight, to earn a place in the new India.

That period’s backdrop is what drew me towards, A Suitable Boy, back when I was in 9th standard. I distinctly remember picking up the book at the local library, and feeling audacious about reading a 1000+ page novel. I did no finish it in that attempt. I also found it a lot more vivid, and I was not prepared for it. I skimped, and jumped chapters, and got the gist of the book, and also fell in love with Vikram Seth. Only to fall out of love, quite soon, when I realized he uses more words, than he needs to. Ouch!

I picked up the book again in college. And read it cover to cover. Now I don’t want to compare the book to the web series. But Mira does justice to the story. She does not deviate. She does not make it more appropriate for 2020 India. She retains the dignity of the word “suitable” in the name. But what’s fascinating is that the actors lend their charm, and their personality to the characters, and make them appear a little bit different from what I remember. I actually loved Kabir’s character in the web series, more than the book. He is not as much of a hopeless charmer, as the book accounts.

Now I never quite settled with the way this book ends. I wanted Lata to marry for love, and marry Kabir. Her choice in Harish, is but that of a woman of the 1950s. She is stepping into a new world, much like her country, and she is not certain if she is willing to take on the drama that comes with an inter caste marriage, especially of that to a Muslim. I only wish that Lata would acknowledge that. Instead she finds one to be more suitable than the other. Leaving us as the reader to define Suitable in her context. Suitable in this context is some one who is more grounded, more real, more like us, and someone whom the family would approve. Not someone we feel more like ourselves with. Not someone who makes us feel hears, and understood.

I was particularly reminded of this book when I found myself in a situation where I was advising my best friend who wanted to date, let alone marry, a man of another caste. I won’t go into my recommendation. But I recall being hopeless that 2000’s India was no better than that of 1950s. And that 50 years of freedom were not enough to fill the wounds that were inflicted during the partition.

The town of Saharanpur where I grew up in was the town of several royal muslim families. Many of them were my father’s friends. I attended birthday parties, and other family events at the Rasul’s and Khan’s quite often. I never felt like a minority or an outsider. When in reality I was on a number of occasions, the only girl, and sometimes the only Hindu girl. Our little town had grown beyond these lines, even in 1980s. Or at least that was my hope.

But then the Ayodhya massacres happened. Our milk man of over twenty years did not show up to deliver milk the next day. There was a curfew in his part of town, is what we were told. Then the curfew spread to the entire town. We were all in a lock down. My father, under the pretense of going for the weekly grocery shopping, got the permit, and went to the part of the town where Baba lived. He asked around, and no one had seen him. His family shared that they had been searching for him. And they had feared that he was taken away by the mob that came a few days ago. They were fearing the worst.

Baba never delivered milk to us every again. We never saw him. And I witnessed my own version of the partition, during those years. We stopped going to the Rasul’s and the Khan’s bday parties. Or did they stopped inviting us. We moved to Delhi soon after, and it all became a thing of the past. But I still recall Baba’s smile and his blue checkered rumaal on his shoulders. He always had a new one on Eid.

I think this is why what happened in the Capitol does not frighten me. When it comes to witnessing humans from the fringes of society, I have seen them before. What is sad is that from 1950’s to 1980’s to 2000’s and now 2021, we keep fighting on the basis what differentiates us, instead of looking deeper into what unites us.

I binge watched A Suitable Boy for 6 hours today. I pretty much did nothing else.

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