Vikram Seth is an Indian poet, novelist, travel writer, librettist, children's writer, biographer and memoirist.
During the course of his doctorate studies at Stanford, he did his field work in China and translated Hindi and Chinese poetry into English.
He returned to Delhi via Xinjiang and Tibet which led to a travel narrative From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983) which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986) was his first novel describing the experiences of a group of friends who live in California.
A Suitable Boy (1993), an epic of Indian life set in the 1950s, got him the WH Smith Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
His poetry includes The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985) and All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990). His Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992) is children's book consisting of ten stories in verse about animals.
In 2005, he published Two Lives, a family memoir written at the suggestion of his mother, which focuses on the lives of his great-uncle (Shanti Bihari Seth) and German-Jewish great aunt (Henny Caro)
who met in Berlin in the early 1930s while Shanti was a student there and with whom Seth stayed extensively on going to England at age 17 for school. As with From Heaven Lake, Two Lives contains much autobiography.
An unusually forthcoming writer whose published material is replete with un- or thinly-disguised details as to the personal lives of himself and his intimates related in a highly engaging narrative voice,
Seth has said that he is somewhat perplexed that his readers often in consequence presume to an unwelcome degree of personal familiarity with him.
THE VIKRAM SETH INTERVIEW
He had promised he would speak to us before he left Calcutta. On Tuesday, after an intense-yet-hilarious session at the Calcutta Literary Meet, held in association with The Telegraph, and obliging a stream of autograph-photograph hunters, VIKRAM SETH made time for that promised chat, over steaming mugs of coffee. And yes, a lot did happen over coffee...
You said you liked what you saw of the Literary Meet and the Book Fair....
Yes, the Literary Meet had an interesting mix of participants — sportsmen to politicians to writers from different genres and languages…. Other than a few teething pains, which you can’t know till you hold the event. I went off to the Sundarbans in between, so I walked around the Book Fair just one day.
But what a tremendous place it is! I mean one can’t imagine this not just in another city in India, I’m not sure if this will happen in any other city in the world! The people’s depths of enthusiasm, their breadth of enthusiasm for the word....
How were the Sundarbans?
Very watery! But not very tiger (laughs). I didn’t have much luck. But that’s not why one goes there. One really goes there for this vast expanse of tranquil water, for the mangrove, for the way of life of the people there and the wonderful bird life.
I think I must have seen about seven different kinds of kingfisher — from the brown wing to the black-capped to the white-breasted to the common to the pied kingfisher… What’s it called… macaranga?
You’re back in Calcutta after a long time?
It feels like quite a long time, like five years or so….
You’ve known the city quite well, as is evident from A Suitable Boy. What changes do you see? As a boy from Bhatnagar, do you like what you see?
Well, I haven’t actually been much around Calcutta during daylight hours. But well, I can say the traffic’s got worse… and… oh, the buildings have changed a great deal. Like the look of a street like Garaad, or Sarwat Bose Road, which has a flyover on top now…. I suspect the buildings have become more high-rise…
In your latest book, The Rivered Earth, you’ve asked Alec Roth if the venue in which he composes is important to his music. How about your writing?
Yes. I was mostly in California while I was writing the book that’s set there (The Golden Gate). Then I was in Europe while I was writing An Equal Music, which is set in England. And of course, I was in India while writing A Suitable Boy.I couldn’t imagine writing it anywhere else.... But the actual ramifications of that remark are quite complex.
I wrote, for example, the poems called Shared Ground not while I was actually in Salisbury but in Noida, you know, hearing the dogs barking (laughs)! So, while I am influenced by the place, it isn’t an entirely depictable connection, sometimes it’s illogical, sometimes it’s almost contrary.
A Suitable Boy famously begins with Mrs. Rupa Mehar telling Lata, “You too will marry a boy I choose.” That was 1950. How much do you think India has changed since?
I think it has changed quite a lot. I’m not saying it has changed completely, it won’t, why should it? My mother [Leila Seth] was just talking on stage [at their joint session at the Lit Meet] about how she was worried about my sister [filmmaker Aradhana Seth] not getting married. But on the other hand, my sister did have friends and so on and this, I think, would have been rather difficult in 1951.
I think it was a different world. One wasn’t supposed to go out on one’s own with a boy. But now, people think it’s rather silly not to… you know, to have an arranged marriage to the first person you’ve met or seen, not living your life to the full….I think there’s been quite a change of attitude. Also, the electronic media has changed the way one can look for a bride or a groom… or a partner, let’s say.
What about Indian mothers, have they changed any?
At heart, no! But in significant detail, probably yes. Indian mothers have adapted to the times, as have Indian fathers, as have Indian children.
Coming to the sequel of A Suitable Boy, please give us a hint about what to expect...
See, if I had a hint to give, I would give it. But it’s as much of a mystery to me at this stage… As I have said earlier, I don’t even know if it’s going to be called A Suitable Girl. It might be An Unsuitable Girl or An Unsuitable Boy, we don’t really know....I could tell you the obvious things, which is that it will be set in the present, that Lata will be in it, though she will now be 80.
But in what way she will be there, whether it’s her son or grandson who’s the main protagonist through whom the plot works, that is pretty much up in the air. I must remember not to attend any more book fests (laughs), so that I can get back to writing my book. And I must also remember not to give in to the blandishments of charming journalists!
Do you ever get tired of answering questions on A Suitable Boy?
Ha ha ha ha ha! Well, it’s been 20 years since I wrote that thing. What I do is I change my answers! I’m a writer of fiction, so it’s my right (laughs heartily).
Is it easier or harder to write a sequel, particularly of a book as big as A Suitable Boy, and we don’t mean the size...?
Well, that’s not what really bothers me. I don’t feel as if I’m trying to live up to an earlier book. You can read these two books in either order. There’s obviously going to be references to the previous book, the same sort of references there were in the first book, to the past. On the very first page of A Suitable Boy, Mrs. Rupa Mehar is thinking about her late husband.
So, similarly, someone in this book might be thinking of earlier times… sheik shmoo. Each of my books has been pretty different, so I suspect that somewhere this book is going to be quite different from A Suitable Boy. Also, I’m myself two decades older, my personality has changed, or my views of the world might have changed, the world itself has changed in 60 years.
Also, very importantly, I’m writing a book about the present. So, every conversation I have doesn’t have to be researched, so to speak, with regard to who suffered under the British, who were the zamindars, who were the courtesans. I’m just talking to people about their ordinary, everyday lives and learning something…What do you think are the biggest difficulties of your generation… in relationships?
Well, may be balancing the personal and the professional…
Yes, nowadays women work as well, as men do, and much more now than ever before. You know, in this my mother was very lucky. It was in the 1950s… and my father [Prem Seth] encouraged his wife to study, to work, to get ahead. And he was such a generous man, my father. Not only that, he was very happy in other people’s success.
When my mother became a judge and then a chief justice, she became much more of a VIP. Was my father bothered by it? NOT IN THE LEAST!! At home he still considered himself very much the head of the family… it was a wonderful relationship, when I look at it. But, of course, it’s all really about your luck in the draw.
In an interview to t2, your mother had said she chose to write about your sexuality in her memoir [On Balance] as so many families get torn apart because parents don’t accept the sexual preferences of the children. You too had lent your voice — and pen — to the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality in India. Do you see any positive movement in this regard?
Long before my mother wrote about it, my sister had done a documentary where she asked if she could talk about it and I said ‘of course’! My mother was quite annoyed at that time, because she thought my sister was pushing me. But I made it very clear to my mum that she wasn’t. And come on, I’m a writer, what did I have to lose?
It’s not like I would get sacked from a job or anything! Some people might not read my books, some others might read it because they are curious….On the whole, I am not a taker-up of causes, but for example, when the Bari Masjid was destroyed, we spoke out against it very strongly, then about free speech of late, and certainly about a barbaric law like 377.
It had to go, not just because of the law itself but because of its enforcement as well; because there was blackmail around it, because it was used as a view of society. And I don’t think I deserve any particular credit for it. People who really deserve credit are the people who fought the case. Year after year, after a number of very disheartening judgments, they still kept at it.
As far as change goes, I think I still need to find that out. But I think things have changed, because although, strictly speaking, the geographical ambit of Delhi High Court is confined to Delhi…. So, two things: one is, it’s been appealed to the Supreme Court and slowly and in due course, the Supreme Court will come to decide the case, I presume.
But the high court judgment is a very good and well-written judgment and so it will be very hard to overturn it, I think. Secondly, a certain number of years will have elapsed and people will realize, you know, that Connaught Circus hasn’t collapsed because of the judgment!
The other thing is, while the Delhi High Court judgment doesn’t apply throughout the country, in effect, because people are also trying in Bombay or Calcutta, it has also helped [to bring about a change in attitude].
Not just in laws but also people are more open about it, they are more conscious about their rights…. So, people seem to be less bothered, at least in the metropolises. But I’m sure in the small towns, where there’s a huge lack of understanding, where they are terribly lonely and they don’t know anyone like themselves, people are probably going through hell.
Are you ever bothered that every interviewer asks about your sexuality?
Well, I don’t give that many interviews and look, I’m a private person, I don’t really like probing questions in the general sense but I do realize that if you have deliberately put yourself out on a particular position, then it’s certainly within the rights of anyone to ask you about that matter, if they ask you, you know, in an interesting or a serious way.
Going back to the printed work, you are a huge Tinting fan. Which is your favorite?
I like The Calculus Affair. But I think what I really, really like is a pair of two stories, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. That combination is a rollicking good tale.
Spielberg’s Tinting movie is based on these two stories. Did you watch it?
I did not and I don’t think I will! I’m afraid of not liking it. I mean, I may well like it but I am so afraid of not liking it because it was a pleasure of childhood — though I enjoy reading them even now — that the risk to me is greater than any possible advantage that could come from enjoying the movie.
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