This section contains 4,770 words
(approx. 12 pages at 400 words per page)
Lata is arguably the central character of the novel. She is the younger daughter of Mrs. Rupa Mehra, a widow. She is first seen at the wedding of her sister Savita to Pran Kapoor. Lata is a student at the university. She has a quick mind and is quite well read, though somewhat naive about life and relationships. Lata questions the idea of an arranged marriage like that of her sister where the couple know nothing at all about each other. Her attitude is typical of the young Indian population after the separation of India and the British. Although Lata is free to go to the university and shopping with friends unaccompanied, she recognizes that there are still limitations placed on girls that are not placed on boys. When Lata meets and becomes intrigued by Kabir Durrani, she throws caution to the winds and arranges to meet him secretly. To point out her naivete, it is not until Lata has fallen in love with Kabir that she learns he is a Muslim. Coming from a Hindu family, Lata realizes that Kabir would never be considered as a "suitable boy" for her to marry. Lata's closest friend, Malati, also comes from a Hindu background, but she is not as steeped in that culture as Lata. Malati encourages Lata to continue seeing Kabir. Lata shares a love of poetry with Kabir and goes often to meetings of the Literary Society where she meets him. They take a clandestine boat ride.
Lata is not a willful girl. She simply has a more open mind and questions tradition when it does not make sense to her. She continues to think about Kabir who searches until he finds out where she is. He writes letters to Lata and she replies. In Calcutta, Lata meets the Chatterji family and becomes friends with their eldest son, Amit, a well-known poet and novelist. They share a love of literature. Mrs. Rupa Mehra, however, keeps a watchful eye on that relationship because she does not think Amit is a "suitable boy" for her daughter. The Chatterji family has a reputation for being somewhat odd.
Lata is amazed at her mother's tireless search for the "suitable boy" for her to marry. They go visit a distant cousin, Kalpana Gaur, who introduces Mrs. Mehra and Lata to Haresh, a young man with whom she attended school. Haresh is from a somewhat lower social circle than the Mehra family, but he is acceptable to Mrs. Rupa because he would not demand the dowry a more affluent family would ask. Haresh makes no bones about the fact that he is still in love with a Sikh girl whose family will have nothing to do with him. Lata likes Haresh, but she does not see him in her future. She is playing along, keeping her real feelings for Kabir away from her mother.
Over the course of time, Lata becomes quite fond of Haresh because of his thoughtfulness and the wonderful letters he writes. Her feelings for Kabir, however, remain just under the surface. After Amit gets up the nerve to ask Lata to marry him, she turns him down but finds herself more attracted to him than ever. As with Kabir, she has a great love of literature in common with Amit. As the novel draws to a close, Lata is in a quandary over having to make a decision. Malati is sure she will opt to marry Kabir because of the romantic love Lata feels for him. To Malati's astonishment, Lata settles on Haresh for very practical reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he is the only "suitable boy" in the eyes of her mother. Lata believes that in time she will learn to love Haresh because of his kindness and uncompromising work ethic so that she will always be taken care of financially.
Mrs. Rupa Mehra
Mrs. Rupa Mehra is a widow and mother of Arun, Savita, Varun, and Lata. She is a traditionalist and a firm Hindu. Since she is widowed, it falls on her to find suitable spouses for her children, an avocation she goes about with diligence, never taking the wishes of her children into consideration. Although her elder son married into the notable Chatterji family, Mrs. Rupa does not really approve of Meenakshi, his wife. Mrs. Rupa is nosy, wanting to know everything about everyone—especially her family. She is deeply religious, though she cannot really tell anyone about the religion she professes. She is deeply concerned about Lata who seems to be having a great many liberal ideas, so she is anxious to get her married off to a "suitable boy" at the earliest possible moment.
Mrs. Rupa is as superstitious as she is religious. She frequents astrologers and worries about inauspicious times and matches. She is also a notable hypochondriac. She goes to doctors, usually the sort that simply hang out a shingle and profess knowledge about certain miracle cures. If she hears of a disease, very likely she will become convinced that she has it.
Mrs. Mehra is frugal, saving the cards that people send to her to cut out flowers and other illustrations to do handmade cards she sends to others. Her frugality seems a bit out of place when she always seems to have money for train travel and buying extravagant items from time to time. Nevertheless, she manages to impose on her children and relatives without any pang of conscience. She does not get along well with her eccentric father which resulted in his locking up his house and leaving the area when it was time for Savita to marry. The result was that the wedding had to take place at Prem Nivas, the estate of Mahesh Kapoor, Minister of Revenue.
Although there are times in the novel that the reader might gladly strangle Mrs. Rupa Mehra ("My children never tell me anything."), she ultimately comes across as a sympathetic character, a mother who wants the best for her children. Mrs. Rupa represents the traditional Indian parent holding firmly to traditional religion and long practiced Indian culture.
Kabir is the epitome of the "unsuitable boy" in this story of Hindu marriage customs. His main failing is the unfortunate circumstance of having been born a Muslim. Kabir is not overly religious and is atypical of the Muslim male looking for a plurality of wives. He falls in love with Lata almost from first sight and pursues her relentlessly. Unaware of his Muslim heritage, Lata quickly becomes fascinated by his rugged good looks and his athletic build (he is a star rugby player). Because she knows that her family, and especially her mother, will never accept a Muslim husband for her, Lata attempts to sever the relationship. Kabir, however, is an incurable romantic and draws Lata back to him like a moth to flame.
Kabir's sensitivity is portrayed in his love of literature, especially poetry. It is a passion that he shares with Lata and provides a convenient meeting place at the Literary Society. When Kabir learns that Lata has a role in the university production of Twelfth Night, he auditions and gets a part in the play. His motivation is to be near Lata rather than any desire to become an actor. Lata, by this time, has decided to separate herself from Kabir, so his plan ends without success.
Kabir becomes an unsung hero when he locates and saves Bhaskar Tandon, the son of Kedarnath Tandon and Veena Kapoor Tandon, after a terrible accident during a Hindu festival. Throughout the novel, there is never anything negative about Kabir other than the fact that he is Muslim. His father, Dr. Durrani, is a notable mathematician at the university. Kabir had recognized Bhaskar Tandon because the savant boy is a private student of his father's.
Kabir is a symbol of unrequited love as he continually pursues Lata from Brahmpur to Calcutta. Becoming acquainted with Amit Chatterji, the poet, Kabir arranges for him to read his poetry at the Literary Society in Brahmpur which draws Lata to attend. Ironically, Amit is also a suitor for Lata's hand. Because Lata cannot forget her attraction to Kabir, he becomes a symbol of the Bollywood image of marriage for love as opposed to arranged marriages. It is too soon in Indian culture, however, for this idea to become acceptable to traditional families such as the Mehras.
Mahesh Kapoor is the central character in the sub-plot of politics in the early days of Indian independence. He is the father of Veena Tandon, Pran Kapoor, and Maan Kapoor who all figure prominently in the novel. Mahesh is the consummate politician. He has risen to the rank of Minister of Revenue and is the primary author the the Zamindari Abolition Bill. This piece of proposed legislation would allow ownership of small farms that had been operated by lower caste families for a number of years. While that fact sounds commendable, there is a great deal of opposition from large land owners who will lose portions of their estates should the bill become law. Consequently there is a great deal of opposition to Mahesh Kapoor and his proposed resolution.
Mahesh is so wrapped up in his political career that he ignores the behavior of his younger son, Maan, who has become enamored with a notorious Muslim courtesan, Saeeda Bai. He throws it off as merely a passing infatuation that will eventually burn itself out, though his wife is much less skeptical. One of Mahesh's oldest friends is the Nawab Sahib of Baitar who, despite being a large land holder likely to lose a great portion of his estate over the Zamindari Abolition Bill, still remains friendly with Mahesh. Their sons, Maan Kapoor and Firoz Khan, are likewise best friends.
Mahesh Kapoor is an idealist, believing that the country should do the right thing to promote the lower castes which have been feudal servants under the British rule. When he becomes disillusioned with politics in general and his Congress Party in particular, he eventually resigns as Minister of Revenue. Soon he finds himself on the outside looking in, no longer respected for the high level of office he once enjoyed. Eventually returning to the Congress Party, he stands for election to a seat from the Baitar district. An unfortunate accident involving Maan and Firoz which almost costs Firoz his life and threatens to put Maan in prison costs him the election.
Mrs. Kapoor dies unexpectedly and Mahesh is devastated once again. He returns to politics as a duty, but his old spark has gone, making him only a warm body needed to form a majority. Idealism has led him to a tragic end.
At the outset of the novel, Maan Kapoor is a dilettante without direction in life. His father is too involved in his political career to pay him much attention. Other families dismiss Maan as "unsuitable" for consideration as a possible husband for their marriageable daughters. Maan's friends are rowdy and unacceptable to his family. Maan is first seen in the story as a prankster during the celebration of Holi where revelers splash colored water on each other. He is inebriated and totally uninhibited as he attacks his brother's wife with the brilliant colors. At the annual Holi concert hosted by his father, Maan becomes infatuated with the entertainer, the Muslim courtesan, Saeeda Bai Firozabadi. Subsequently, Maan visits the home of Saeeda Bai on numerous occasions until they finally become lovers. His relationship with the Muslim woman causes a scandal of gossip in Brahmpur. In order to communicate in writing with Saeeda Bai, Maan begins to study Urdu under Rasheed, the teacher of Tasneem, rumored to be Saeeda Bai's younger sister.
Rasheed and Maan eventually become friends and Maan goes to visit Rasheed's home. The Muslim family becomes fond of Maan because of his respect for their customs. Maan stays at Baitar estate which belongs to the Nawab Sahib, Firoz's father, and becomes friends with Waris, the grounds foreman. They go hunting together and Maan sees that Waris is devoted to the Khan family. When Maan's father is encouraged to run for parliament in the Baitar district, Maan becomes interested in politics and turns out to be a real asset to his father's campaign. The predominantly Muslim constituency are all fond of Maan.
Back in Brahmpur, Maan visits Saeeda Bai when Firoz is there attempting to see Tasneem with whom he has fallen in love. Saeeda Bai is frantically attempting to keep the two of them apart. Maan has been drinking and attacks Saeeda Bai after she takes a fruit knife with which she seems to be planning to attack Firoz. Maan strangles Saeeda Bai with one hand while wresting the knife from her hand. In the ensuing melee, Firoz is stabbed by the knife in Maan's hand. The resulting scandal throws Mahesh Kapoor's campaign into a free fall. Maan is arrested and charged with attempted murder while Firoz lies unconscious in the hospital in critical condition.
Finally Maan is saved from prison by Firoz's testimony that he had slipped and fallen on the knife held by Maan. He adds that Maan was too inebriated to know exactly what had happened. Saeeda Bai corroborates Firoz's testimony and Maan is set free. In the novel Maan represents the difficulty of bridging the chasm between the Muslim and Hindu worlds.
Malati represents the more modern of the Hindu youth in India. She is flamboyant and opposed to arranged marriages. She at first disapproves of Pran at his wedding to Savita, but later changes her opinion because of his good character and the way he and Savita have learned to love one another. Malati urges Lata to go with her feelings about Kabir. Lata relies on Malati for her advice and misses her greatly whenever she is away from Brahmpur. Malati is not above having flings with numerous young men, and she pays no attention to any gossip about her. Malati also encourages Kabir to pursue Lata. Although she is a minor character in the novel, she is important for her influence on Lata. In the end, when Lata settles for the "suitable boy" Haresh, Malati still maintains that Lata is foolish for not choosing Kabir over the objections of her family.
Seth uses Malati as a kind of foreshadow of the future of Indian attitudes toward relationships and marriage. Although her character in the novel is somewhat one dimensional, it is essential to the story line as a contrast between her and Lata, who questions but does not resist tradition. On any subject, Malati is never without strong opinion. Inadvertently, she becomes a reason for Lata to reject Kabir when she meets Kabir by accident in a restaurant and Lata is told that a mysterious woman had been seen sitting at the table with him.
Savita's husband is a professor at the Brahmpur University. Although from an upper caste, Pran is dark complexioned. Even at his wedding to Savita, some guests are overheard to gossip about Mrs. Rupa Mehra's likely "black grand babies." It is implied, but not actually stated, that Pran's skin color hampers him in his career. Though he is a popular and very cooperative, doing whatever is asked of him by his superiors, there is an active move to prevent him from getting the promotion to Head Reader for which he has applied.
Pran is not in good health much of the time, a fact which also hinders his promotion. He sits on several important university committees and directs the Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night. He is one of the members of the discipline committee who decides the fate of students who violate university rules. Pran is a loving husband and devoted father after Savita gives birth to their first child. Had Mrs. Rupa been better off financially, she would never have chosen Pran for Savita, but his kindness and generosity eventually bring her to suspect she could not have made a better match.
Eventually, Pran wins out and gets the promotion. He recommends including James Joyce in the literature curriculum. This identifies him as socially and politically progressive, a man dedicated to bringing Indian education into the twentieth century.
Firoz is the best friend of Maan in spite of their families' religious differences. Firoz is a Muslim, though he is not particularly religious. He is a lawyer and the son of the wealthy Nawab Sahib of Baitar. He is the catalyst for two serious situations in the novel. First, his attraction to Tasneem, supposedly the sister of Saeeda Bai, alarms the courtesan and she tries to keep the two young people apart, notwithstanding that he is Muslim and gainfully employed as a lawyer. Any other guardian of a young girl would certainly consider Firoz to be a "suitable boy" for marriage. As it turns out, Tasneem is not Saeeda Bai's sister—she is her daughter and the father is none other than the Nawab Sahib, Firoz's father. Firoz is devastated by the revelation and does not believe it is true. His father has been sending regular monthly allowances to Saeeda Bai ever since Tasneem was born. People all think it is the Raja of Marh who supports her and Tasneem.
The second calamity involving Firoz occurs the same night in Saeeda Bai's house. Firoz has demanded to see Tasneem. Maan, inebriated, is there and sees Saeeda Bai take a fruit knife from her basket. He struggles with her and gains possession of the knife, but he is too intoxicated to really know what is happening. At that point Firoz lunges toward Maan and falls on the knife in Maan's outstretched hand. The stabbing represents severing the ties between the Kapoors and the Khans which has great significance regarding Mahesh's political career.
The Raja of Marh
The Raja symbolizes the Hindu fanatically religious. Although he abhors all Muslims, he is not above assignations with the notorious courtesan, Saeeda Bai. The Raja is promiscuous, pompous, and aggressive. He intends to erect a Hindu Temple to Shiva adjacent to a Muslim mosque, which is bad enough, but the temple will have as its centerpiece the huge statue of the phallus of Shiva. That will place the idolatrous artifact directly between the mosque and Mecca which is an abomination to the Muslims. The Raja's willful determination precipitates a riot in Brahmpur with a disputed number of deaths. When Maan delivers a book of poetry to Saeeda Bai during one of the Raja's visits, he becomes insanely jealous and tears a page out of the book before Saeeda Bai can prevent it.
The Raja thinks he is above the law and continually gets into trouble. He goes ahead with his plans for the Temple of Shiva, supervising the removal of the phallic statue from the Ganga River to be carried uphill to the temple. All seems to be going well when, near the top, the ropes begin to break and the phallus rolls back down the hill and back into the Ganga.
Notorious for his insatiable womanizing, the Raja has completely ignored his son, the Rajkumar, who is an avowed homosexual with designs on Maan. The Raja seems to be unaware of anything at all about his son.
When the Zamindari Bill becomes law and is upheld by the Supreme Court, the Raja loses most of his vast holdings and has to be ejected forcefully from the legislative chamber. The Raja symbolizes the worst part of Hindu society and comes to a humiliating end.
Saeeda Bai is a notorious courtesan renowned for her singing. She is hired for private parties as an entertainer with some musicians who accompany her. However, that is not the way she makes most of her living. One man in particular, the Raja of Marh, is a frequent guest in her house who pays for her sexual services. There is also a monthly envelope that arrives punctually and becomes something of a mystery, which eventually reveals the fact that Tasneem is not her younger sister but her daughter by the Nawab Sahib. Because of her beauty and talent, Saeeda Bai is tolerated by both Hindus and Muslims as an entertainer. When she comes to perform at a party celebrating Holi at the house of Mahesh Kapoor, Maan Kapoor becomes enamored of her. A great deal of local gossip takes place after Maan is seen going often to Saeeda Bai's house. Maan is in no hurry to get married and is unperturbed when the gossip suggests that he is no longer a "suitable boy" for the marriage eligible young women of Brahmpur. Saeeda Bai becomes fond of Maan and eventually falls in love with him. She treasures an illustrated book of poetry Maan gives her, though it becomes a great bone of contention between her and the Raja.
Saeeda Bai's shady past becomes a catalyst for tragedy when Firoz, who has fallen in love with Tasneem, discovers that Saeeda Bai has lied about the girl all those years and Tasneem is actually his half-sister. Saeeda Bai is actually a tragic figure in the novel when she loses Maan's love after the tragic incident of Firoz's nearly fatal stabbing in her house. She does, however, corroborate the testimony of Firoz at Maan's attempted murder trial which causes the judge to dismiss all charges against Maan.
Saeeda Bai was raised by her mother to become a courtesan. Had she been born into another affluent family, her beauty and talent would have been put to greater use as an asset for finding her a suitable boy. Because she is who she is, Saeeda Bai is destined to heartbreak over her love for the handsome Maan.
Begum Abida Khan
Begum represents the rarity of a female member of parliament. She is the mortal enemy of those who support the Zamindari Abolition Bill. Her strong character is best demonstrated by the exchange of comments with The Honorable Minister for Home Affairs, Shri L. N. Agarwal and the Honorable Minister of Revenue, Shri Mahesh Kapoor on the House floor. She refuses to adhere to the rules of the House, having to be called to order many times by the House Speaker. At the when meeting the Zamindari Abolition Bill is passed by the House, Begum proceeds to make a speech. When cut short, she influences all the members of the Democratic Party to walk out of the House.
Begum Abida Khan overcomes an attempt by L. N. Agarwal to confiscate her husband's house by having the servants turn on all the lights. Agarwal is acting on the knowledge that Begum's husband is now living in Pakistan under the Partition act. With the help of Nawab Sahib, the house is saved.
Begum Abida Khan represents the Muslim minority opposed to the separation of India and Pakistan and especially the Zamindari Abolition Bill which will take land away from wealthy land holders. She is an expert speaker and not above bending the rules of the House to get her points across. She also represents the modern, immodest Indian woman who disdains the zenana that isolates women in their homes.
Rasheed is the Muslim counterpoint to Mahesh Kapoor. He is an idealist who wants to see justice done to the lower castes. Although he disapproves of Saeeda Bai's vocation, he agrees to tutor Tasneem in Arabic. He is also fluent in Urdu, the language Saeeda Bai reads, and agrees reluctantly to teach Maan Kapoor. Because Maan is very tolerant of other people's religious beliefs, he and Rasheed eventually become close friends. Rasheed takes Maan to his family home, the same area where Maan's father owns a farm. Rasheed explains the plight of the people in that district blaming the wealthy like his own family for the disparity between people in India. Rasheed goes to the government official in charge of records and sees to it that Kachheru, a lifelong servant of Rasheed's family, has legal title to the land he has farmed for himself all that time. Rasheed's actions ostracize him from his own family. He continues, however, to lobby for the rights of the people. When it becomes evident that he is ineffectual and that India is not likely to change any time soon, Rasheed commits suicide.
Haresh, the suitor who ultimately wins Lata for a wife, is a young man of ambition in the shoe manufacturing business. His drive is as big as his ambition and he maintains a positive outlook, even in the face of adversity. At the time he meets Lata, he is actually out of work and openly in love with a Sikh girl whose parents will have none of him. By sheer determination, Haresh overcomes his adversities and the resentment of Czech managers at the shoe company. Haresh's greatest attribute is that he will not ask others to do what he himself cannot do. As his fortunes increase, so does his interest in Lata with whom he constantly corresponds. As far as being a "suitable boy" for Lata, his work ethic and position make up for the fact that he is an orphan. He is a bit pretentious, affecting what he considers to be British grandeur. However, he is both polite and diplomatic. He wins over Mrs. Rupa quickly, but it takes much longer for him to win over the Czechs. Although at the end of the novel Lata does not love Haresh, she is confident that she will learn to love him and that he is the best and most practical match for her.
Meenakshi Mehra, the wife of Arun Mehra, is the penultimate modern Indian woman. She is beautiful, self-centered, and lusty. Meenakshi has extramarital affairs, but is content with her marriage to Arun, who seems oblivious to his wife's behavior. Mrs. Rupa Mehra does not like her daughter-in-law, thinking her uncouth and worldly. Meenakshi takes the gold medal Mrs. Rupa gives her to be melted down and made into earrings. The medal is a prized award given to Mrs. Rupa's late husband. Meenakshi's saving grace with Mrs. Rupa is that she is the mother of the adored grandchild, Aparna.
Kedarnath, a shoe merchant, is married to Veena Mahesh, sister to Pran and Maan. Kedarnath has all the problems of merchants in post-liberation India. His son, Bhaskar, is a mathematical savant. Kedarnath introduces Haresh to the shoemaker, Jagat Ram, and other friends. Kedarnath is a solid family man.
Nawab Sahib of Baitar
The Nawab Sahib is the father of Firoz Khan. Although he is Muslim, he and Mahesh Kapoor are good friends until the unfortunate accident involving Firoz and Maan Kapoor. The Nawab Sahib is in danger of losing a great deal of his family land through the Zamindari Abolition Bill. Even though Mahesh is the main author of the bill, he holds no resentment against his friend until the incident at the house of Saeeda Bai. A shocking turn of events reveals him as the father of Tasneem, a beautiful girl everyone thought was Saeeda Bai's sister.
Mr. Justice Chatterji
The judge is head of the Chatterji family. He is the father of Meenakshi, Dipankar, Kakoli, and Tapan. The family members are all intellectual and have a habit of saying things in rhyme. The judge is a very respected man in Brahmpur and figures prominently in the social scene. Mr. Justice Chatterji symbolizes a change in Indian customs as he accepts Kakoli's German suitor.
Kakoli is somewhat rebellious and represents the youth who dislike the idea of arranged marriages. She is outspoken to the point of rudeness at times. Kakoli becomes attracted to a German youth, Hans, and insists on bringing him home to the Chatterji house.
The youngest child of the Chatterjis, Tapan is a student in boarding school when he become the object of one of the senior boy's lust. A normally good student who enjoys school, Tapan becomes reclusive and sad. Amit and Dipankar, his older brothers, get Tapan to admit what has been bothering him, and they are able to persuade their parents to allow Tapan to change schools.
Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor
Mother of Maan, Mrs. Kapoor also represents traditional Hindu culture and values. She is the one who worries about Maan's relationship with Saeeda Bai. Mrs. Kapoor is noted in the community for her beautiful gardens. When Maan is accused of the attempted murder of Firoz Khan, it becomes too much for her to handle. While Maan is in jail, Mrs. Kapoor dies suddenly.
This section contains 4,770 words
(approx. 12 pages at 400 words per page)