Poets / The Sunday Times / Writers

Vikram Seth: On Section 377 and writing ‘A Suitable Girl’

What do you say to a man who has kept you waiting for five years? Before us stands author and poet Vikram Seth; shirt open to the waist, hair tousled by hands and breeze, he’s uncertain of who we are and why we have come to intrude on him. I’m wet from the hips down, having waded through the waters that encircle the little island of Taprobane, but my recorder is dry and my notebook is open. I know enough not to take this interview for granted – the last time Vikram was in Sri Lanka for the Galle Literary Festival it was 2008 and he wasn’t speaking to journalists. This time he says he will spare me 5 minutes – I negotiate for 10 and eventually receive 13:45 – but there is still some material from a reading and short conversation to be mined and in the end, it is just enough.

Just over a month ago, Vikram was on the cover of the magazine India Today, holding a board that said: ‘I am not a criminal.’ Inside, in a brief, yet deeply moving essay, he argued against the now notorious Section 377 of India’s penal code and for everyone’s right to love – regardless of caste, creed or sexual preference. It was a rare political statement from a writer who seldom invests his clout in popular causes. Now, he responds to a compliment on it with: “Thank you, well, I didn’t quite throw the weight of my influence behind it, rather it was the weight of my feeling. While I do my work, so to speak, through my books, I do feel a writer is also a citizen and just like anyone else has views on various subjects. If I feel strongly enough, I express those views.” It’s just that when Vikram Seth has something to say, the world takes notice.

In person, Vikram is small made and wild-haired, he smiles readily and is courteous in the way few famous people are – he asks and then remembers my name and speaks easily to the small group of fans gathered at the Serendipity Coast Festival’s ‘mini-literary festival.’ Vikram’s friend, Geoffrey Dobbs, is our host and moderator. Ostensibly, we are here to talk about the author’s new book. The much anticipated sequel to his most famous novel, ‘A Suitable Girl’ has already been making headlines though fans won’t see it for at least another two years.

Published in 1993, ‘A Suitable Boy’ opens with a memorable summary of the book: “‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.” In between this beginning at the wedding of Lata’s elder sister Savita and the end, where Lata celebrates her own nuptials, Vikram covered an extraordinary amount of ground. He staged a madly ambitious portrait of post-colonial India on the brink of its first general election. With no common enemy to spur them on, an entire subcontinent was engaged in the fraught, messy business of knitting together a national identity out of a multiplicity of religions, languages and ethnicities. The novel took for its subject matter the politics of a great man and the manoeuvring of a matriarch; becoming an epic narrative that weighed equally the account of India’s infancy and the angst of a young girl in love. At 1349 pages, it was famously the longest ever written in the English language. Not surprisingly, writing it consumed nearly a decade of the author’s life.

Now, 60 years down, Lata is in her eighties. “She’s looking back on a full life, with all its ups and down, and also 60 years in the life of a country. She’s also looking forward, life doesn’t end at 80,” he says, “you can face in both directions.” Vikram will not reveal anything more specific – his characters he says, are shy, even recalcitrant. He is more willing to talk context and setting. To write ‘A Suitable Boy’ Vikram spent a great deal of time interviewing, travelling and researching the period in order to get the minutest of details right – for instance, where did people leave their shoes when they visited a courtesan or how often All India Radio broadcast bulletins in a day.

His research for this novel will be of a different order altogether: “it is complicated by the fact that ‘A Suitable Girl’ is set in the present and so in sense, everything that is happening around me is at the risk of being grist – even this interview,” he says, adding “you have to get your facts right. If you don’t, people stop believing in the book, in a funny way.” The writing of this book too is slow going. Vikram is likely to collect all his research and then write in one continuous stretch, a single arc; revising it only upon completion of a first draft.

In fact, we’re lucky to see him at all – in the throes of a writing jag he’s said to become conspicuously reclusive. After all, a significant chunk of his thirties were spent locked up in his parents’ home in Delhi, writing furiously and seeing few people as ‘A Suitable Boy’ took shape. (His mother, India’s first female Chief Justice, says she saw his father, a successful entrepreneur dubbed ‘Mr. Shoe’ after his product, in the character of Lata’s suitor Haresh.) With his £250,000 advance for that book, Vikram promised to keep his father stocked in whiskey – their choice of nightcap through those years. Unfortunately, his advance for ‘A Suitable Girl’ – a princely $1.7 million – was not destined to be spent as pleasurably.

When the author failed to conform to his publisher’s schedule (which would have had the sequel in bookstores last year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the book) they demanded their money back. Dismissing it as a “glitch,” Vikram says “books take their time. The publisher wanted me to deliver – chop, chop – on the date.” Where publishing that first book was risk, the hoopla surrounding this novel guarantees sales. Still, Vikram says the prospect of publishing it remains daunting. “You can submit any bullshit, and people will publish it now. You have to have an inbuilt detector to judge its quality…one has to go not by sales but whether the book is worth killing trees for.” Wrapping up our interview he says he will spend the coming months engaged in fierce activism on the Section 377 issue while he travels about the sub-continent – the latter, he feels, he “owes to the Girl.”

Such is Vikram’s fame that one often forgets he’s only ever written 3 other novels. Many of his most dedicated fans obsess not over Vikram’s prose but his poetry. He hasn’t released a new collection in 14 years – but promises that there may be one within a year or two from now. Who can be certain though what form it will take? Here is a man whose oeuvre of 13 publications includes a travelogue about hitchhiking through Tibet (‘From Heaven Lake’); a critically acclaimed novel in verse about San Francisco written while completing a PhD in economics at Stanford (‘The Golden Gate’); a collection of 10 hilarious fables in verse for children (‘Beastly Tales’) and a collection, published a year later of Tang poetry from Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu, translated from Mandarin into English (‘Three Chinese Poets’). Most recently, Vikram penned a libretti composed of 4 texts inspired variously by the Chinese, the European and the Indian civilisations and the elements in nature (‘The Rivered Earth’).

“My publishers tell me what I suffer from is brand disintegration,” he says later as his session is underway. Pointing to the likes of Agatha Christie or Dick Francis, he says, “People know what kind of stuff you’re going to write and then you produce it for them and they’re happy and your publisher is happy and presumably you’re happy, but the muse, ah, the muse may not be happy. The muse is not amused,” wincing at the joke, he blames it on his arrack sour. (The cocktail is clearly a hit. As part of his reading, he shares an acrostic written in honour of Taprobane in which it features prominently: ‘The sunset hour/an arrack sour/ pours peace on pain,/ringed by the lights/of a full moon night,/books wax and wane,/as from afar/no unkind star/eyes Taprobane.’)

His other choice of readings that evening are taken from ‘The Rivered Earth’ and inspired by his new home – a rectory in Salisbury that once belonged to the 17th-century metaphysical poet George Herbert. In his elegant tones, he recites from memory Herbert’s poem ‘Love (III)’ – “Love bade me welcome …” – before responding with, ‘Host,’ his poem in which he thanks the poet for standing ‘just out of mind and sight, / that I may sit and write.’

Such is the intimacy Vikram has shared with his readers through the years that his reading immediately brings to mind an old, favoured poem. In ‘Homeless,’ the author spoke of envying those ‘who have a house of their own,/ who can say their feet/ rest on what is theirs alone.’ A request and he is willing to recite it once more for a crowd that bursts into applause as he, eyes closed, brings the session to a finish. It is difficult to explain that sense of having celebrated the blessings in a stranger’s life but perhaps, dear reader, you understand anyway. As Vikram stands up, he is immediately surrounded by people wishing for a word with him. However unlikely it may seem, we feel we know him well. And in that moment, he reciprocates the sentiment, and stands chatting for longer than he must.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 2 February, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pictures by M.A Pushpa Kumara.  

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