With his own musings
Vikram Seth’s honest and candid depiction of his stimulations and experiences carry perfect blend of humour (or melancholy) and intrinsic intellect, making him relevant at any point in time; writes Suraj Kumar
Isn't it difficult to understand how a writer with such a candid touch of humour manages to weave even melancholic strains with the words he is gifted with by the ultimate giver! Equally sophisticated is the task to figure out which one is more real and which is a fabrication. This is the impression one gets after reading his Summer Requiem — but then again, the poetry collection is just one of his many palpable expressions arising out of one of his many muses. One tends to gain perspicacity around Seth when acquainted with the very persona of Vikram Seth — through his wide array of works ranging from poetry to travelogues, mediated of course with his timeless classics in the form of novels — because his works are honest depiction of the experiences he gathered over time.
A writer who very often forgets the initial lines of his own poetry while addressing gatherings and claims himself to be a lazy person, going to the extent of saying there should have been a ministry of laziness! He is also known to switch seamlessly to astuteness when it comes to publishing business. A person with a high degree of academic intellect cutting across politics, economy etc., as we know him, doesn't let the smell of intellect and preaching seep into his novel. The intellect is intrinsic and is imbibed in his works without giving a hint of its existence.
There is hardly any doubt that Seth's works have put him in the league of writers like Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh – his style, though, is largely distinct and his remarkable educational background speaks for itself. But, apart from the mammoth intellect and skilful grip over the language, what sets Seth apart is his relevance. Through a look around the world and a parallel recollection of Seth's identifiable works — one could find heaps of problems and draw parallel understanding of these problems. The better grasp over the problems offers not the solution but the courage and conviction to find those solutions.
Seth left his mark with poetry, his novels, his travelogue, his calligraphy, his 'Not A Criminal' poster on the India Today cover and many an honest public outpouring on critical issues like love jihad, religious intolerance and sexual orientations.
One of the best parameters to gauge relevance of any idea or expression is the resistance it faces in the socio-political context — larger the resistance, greater the relevance! Relevance of Seth's work was evident when the BBC adaptation of A Suitable Boy was streamed on Netflix last year and irked many who are still stuck with conventional thinking. It was not just about raising the issues of love jihad, casteism etc. that made Seth a class apart. It was rather the treatment of those issues in the typical Seth way that is the crux of the issue. He serves reality in its crude form without filtering or colouring it with his opinion bias. Apart from his writings, Vikram Seth comes out vocally and firmly against the particular issues like sexuality and religious intolerance. There is again a distinction though — more than being a table-top intellectual who would utter words of wisdom over every issue that resurfaces, Seth speaks of the very reality he has lived with.
Vikram Seth's sexual orientations were that of a gay. Having experienced the change as a child, he stands firmly and has been consistently raising his voice for gay rights and speaks upfront irrespective of who stands at the opposite end — the courts or the administration. He does it all with the knowledge and the acceptance of the fact he belongs to a privileged and liberal society — something that most of the people are bereft of. He is aware and apprehensive for those for whom speaking for their own right remains a distant privilege.
Writer of muse
Take all Vikram Seth's literary classics — from his maiden poem collection Mapping (1983) to An Equal Music (1999) — it has been all about how remarkably he catches the muse and inks it down on paper. Seth's sheer conviction and confidence within himself have been the major drivers of his literary career. He frequently says in his interviews that once the muse comes in, he doesn't have to wait for it — for if he waits, the muse won't! It is this conviction of his character that grabs those occasions and translates them into masterpieces. In this regard, his work life can roughly be likened to a flowing river that takes all that comes her way and stops nowhere other than the ocean — the ocean of creation. The muse for Mapping hit Vikram Seth when he was pursuing his masters in economics at Stanford University, California. As per his conviction, Seth didn't wait for his doctorate to end and followed the muse. After having spent a largely unhappy life at the Doon school India, Seth had managed to get some good vibes at Tonbridge School in Kent from where he went to Oxford on scholarship. As he further moved to California in the late 1970s, he found a new ambience that perhaps triggered his thoughts towards literature. His award-winning novel, The Golden Gate was perhaps written against this very setting. Seth's natural instinct drifted him away from the discipline he was supposed to master — economics — and he made the least attempt to resist being drifted away. Seth's new-found interest in Mandarin drew him closer towards China. Vikram Seth had a wonderful time out there; he would spend heaps of time reading Chinese literature, exploring calligraphy and debating policemen over Indian films. He somehow managed to get a pass to Lhasa and set off for a long but beautiful road journey to India — again, collecting muses all the way and translating them into his celebrated travelogue — From Heaven Lake (1983).
Apart from A Suitable Boy, two of his other novels that deserve special mention are — An Equal Music and Two Lives. An Equal Music (1999) is said to be dedicated to his long-term partner Philippe Honore. The plot of this book is set in London and makes a significant departure from Seth's typical witty and humorous approach. Unlike his India-based works that focus on social and familial sophistications, An Equal Music is based on musicians from different countries and delves into the fine intricacies of musical instruments and notes. His detailed research on this front won him appreciation.
While muse may be a blessing for a writer, there is yet another phenomenon called writer's block that haunts them with a void that would stop them from writing anything. Seth too had his dark phase before completing A Suitable Boy. He has partly attributed this to the 'loss of love' in wake of his dissociation with Philippe Honore. Seth's undefeating conviction again came to rescue as he put that darkness on white paper — giving us another masterpiece in the form of a poetry collection Summer Requiem.
In terms of timeline, Seth belongs to the old school but his novel ideas and skilful and honest depiction of the same makes him relevant even today. From Mapping to Summer Requiem and from The Suitable Boy to the upcoming A Suitable Girl — his works serve many as thought-provoking companions. A lot more to expect from him!
Views expressed are personal