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A Suitable Boy

By´╝ÜVikram Seth


Part One





1.1


‘YOU too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas. The wedding-guests were gathered on the lawn. ‘Hmm,’ she said. This annoyed her mother further.

‘I know what your hmms mean, young lady, and I can tell you I will not stand for hmms in this matter. I do know what is best. I am doing it all for you. Do you think it is easy for me, trying to arrange things for all four of my children without His help?’ Her nose began to redden at the thought of her husband, who would, she felt certain, be partaking of their present joy from somewhere benevolently above. Mrs Rupa Mehra believed, of course, in reincarnation, but at moments of exceptional sentiment, she imagined that the late Raghubir Mehra still inhabited the form in which she had known him when he was alive: the robust, cheerful form of his early forties before overwork had brought about his heart attack at the height of the Second World War. Eight years ago, eight years, thought Mrs Rupa Mehra miserably.

‘Now, now, Ma, you can’t cry on Savita’s wedding day,’ said Lata, putting her arm gently but not very concernedly around her mother’s shoulder.

‘If He had been here, I could have worn the tissue-patola sari I wore for my own wedding,’ sighed Mrs Rupa Mehra. ‘But it is too rich for a widow to wear.’

‘Ma!’ said Lata, a little exasperated at the emotional capital her mother insisted on making out of every possible circumstance. ‘People are looking at you. They want to congratulate you, and they’ll think it very odd if they see you crying in this way.’

Several guests were indeed doing namasté to Mrs Rupa Mehra and smiling at her; the cream of Brahmpur society, she was pleased to note.

‘Let them see me!’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra defiantly, dabbing at her eyes hastily with a handkerchief perfumed with 4711 eau-de-Cologne, ‘They will only think it is because of my happiness at Savita’s wedding. Everything I do is for you, and no one appreciates me. I have chosen such a good boy for Savita, and all everyone does is complain.’

Lata reflected that of the four brothers and sisters, the only one who hadn’t complained of the match had been the sweet-tempered, fair-complexioned, beautiful Savita herself.

‘He is a little thin, Ma,’ said Lata a bit thoughtlessly. This was putting it mildly. Pran Kapoor, soon to be her brother-in-law, was lank, dark, gangly, and asthmatic.

‘Thin? What is thin? Everyone is trying to become thin these days. Even I have had to fast the whole day and it is not good for my diabetes. And if Savita is not complaining, everyone should be happy with him. Arun and Varun are always complaining: why didn’t they choose a boy for their sister then? Pran is a good, decent, cultured khatri boy.’

There was no denying that Pran, at thirty, was a good boy, a decent boy, and belonged to the right caste. And, indeed, Lata did like Pran. Oddly enough, she knew him better than her sister did - or, at least, had seen him for longer than her sister had. Lata was studying English at Brahmpur University, and Pran Kapoor was a popular lecturer there. Lata had attended his class on the Elizabethans, while Savita, the bride, had met him for only an hour, and that too in her mother’s company.

‘And Savita will fatten him up,’ added Mrs Rupa Mehra. ‘Why are you trying to annoy me when I am so happy? And Pran and Savita will be happy, you will see. They will be happy,’ she continued emphatically. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ she now beamed at those who were coming up to greet her. ‘It is so wonderful – the boy of my dreams, and such a good family. The Minister Sahib has been very kind to us. And Savita is so happy. Please eat something, please eat: they have made such delicious gulab-jamuns, but owing to my diabetes I cannot eat them even after the ceremonies. I am not even allowed gajak, which is so difficult to resist in winter. But please eat, please eat. I must go in to check what is happening: the time that the pandits have given is coming up, and there is no sign of either bride or groom!’ She looked at Lata, frowning. Her younger daughter was going to prove more difficult than her elder, she decided.

‘Don’t forget what I told you,’ she said in an admonitory voice.

‘Hmm,’ said Lata. ‘Ma, your handkerchief’s sticking out of your blouse.’

‘Oh!’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra, worriedly tucking it in. ‘And tell Arun to please take his duties seriously. He is just standing there in a corner talking to that Meenakshi and his silly friend from Calcutta. He should see that everyone is drinking and eating properly and having a gala time.’

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