THE SERIAL OBSESSIVE WRITERFeatured

Written by ASIFA AHMED
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For a man who has given us greats such as The Golden Gate, A Suitable Boy, and most recently, Summer Requiem, Vikram Seth comes across as an extremely regular man; until he brandishes his wit and knowledge of literature, music and the world at large, that is

Iam obsessive but I am serial obsessive. Having done one, then only I do the other, “says author-poet Vikram Seth on how he switches from poetry to prose, and vice versa. The author’s latest book of poetry, Summer Requiem, which features poems written over a span of 20 years, was published sometime ago. The poems were written individually and not as a book. “Some written during this time period haven’t featured here — the ones that I haven’t honed or perfected as yet,” he says, dressed in a pale blue shirt with a stole casually thrown over his shoulders.

The book is published by Aleph helmed by David Davidar — Seth’s publisher for his magnum opus — A Suitable Boy. Davidar says: “Vikram is the most protean talent I have worked with in the thirty years that I have been a publisher. He is technically accomplished at pretty much every genre he turns his hand to.” And there is a reason why Davidar feels that Seth’s work finds takers. He says: “Vikram creates works of exceptional style but more importantly tells stories that are filled with depth, warmth, irony, compassion, insight, and that indefinable spark that lifts his best work to levels that are superlative.”

Seth’s 10th book of poetry, true to its name, resonates with the theme of the death of summer, possibly the passing of love or youth. While the word “Requiem” implies a service or mass said over the dead, Seth is quick to point out: “When summer dies, autumn comes on, which is a very rich period and winter, especially in India, is one of the loveliest seasons. And even if it is lost, there is at least a kind of reconciliation and the possibility of wisdom.”

The art of writing

But if one thinks Seth sets aside specific timeframes to write poetry, prose or even children’s or adult’s books, the author is quick to dismiss the suggestion. “I don’t divide my time between different genres. It just depends on what I have been inspired by, at that moment; I write that,” says Seth.

But for Seth, inspiration sometimes proves to be a bit troublesome. “I find that sometimes my inspiration is unruly. I am hoping to do something and then I get an inspiration to do something quite different. While you have to exercise a certain amount of self discipline, you can’t go completely against your inspiration.” What Seth does is to go with the flow and sometimes struggles against the current.

The fact that Seth dons both hats, that of a poet and an author with equal élan is also apparent in the frequent appearance of poetry in many of his novels. “Acrostic,” he recollects with pleasure when one points out the poems in A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music. He adds: “That is what this form of poetry, where the first letter of each line spells out a word, is called,” points out Seth.

While A Suitable Boy had the name of the protagonist as Lata, An Equal Music had the acrostic of Seth’s then-partner, the French violinist Philippe Honoré — to whom the book was also credited in the epigraph. And yes, a reader can watch out for more in his upcoming and much awaited sequel — A Suitable Girl.

The book, which was slated to be out by 2016, has been delayed and will not hit the stands before 2017. But Seth is nonchalant: “A book will take the time it has to take. There is no point in rushing things and compromising with quality,” he says categorically. The book will be a jump sequel set in the present times rather than taking it forward from 1952, where A Suitable Boy ended.

Davidar too is looking forward to A Suitable Girl. He says: “It is very rare for literary writers to write sequels to iconic novels. Yes, you have novels that are designed to take place over several books (like Anthony Powell's twelve volume A Dance to the Music of Time or Amitav Ghosh's recent trilogy) but it is rare for great standalone novels to have successors, so to speak. For this reason, among others, I think the response to A Suitable Girl will be quite extraordinary.”

Penning it down

When Seth decided to start writing, he wasn’t sure if he could make a living out of it. “I didn’t have money and my parents allowed me to stay in the house. There was food and a roof above my head. It was generous of them. Who would allow their children in their 30s to do that?” he says.

Gradually a book unfolded. His first was a travelogue — From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), followed by one of poetry The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985). But it was with The Golden Gate, a novel written in verse, that the magic of Seth’s pen was really acknowledged.

The book was adapted into an opera, which had music by Conrad Cummings. However, Seth was not closely involved with the production and is yet to see it. “Cummings did send me CDs of the opera but I guess I am a little scared to watch it. When any of your work is cast in a different medium, whether it is films or opera, you are afraid you will lose your characters when you see them cast as someone else,” he reflects.

Seth does most of his writing in bed. “With a calm duvet or a razai which is not too busy with patterns,” he adds. When writing, he tries not to answer the phone, browse the internet or worse — play candy crush.

But yes he is particular about one thing while writing poetry — he always does it in longhand. Prose he can write either ways — on the computer or longhand.

The author-poet divides his time between India and the UK, and says: “If a book is set in India, it makes more sense to spend time here. But sometimes, one writes a book away from the place so that one can recollect in tranquility and with a certain amount of distance the events of that place.”

Besides writing, there are a variety of things the author loves (he quickly checks you if you use the word “dabble”) some of which have found their way into his works. Seth sings Khayal (a modern genre of classical Hindustani singing) as well as German Lieder, and was inspired by music and his partner Honore to write An Equal Music. Initially though, he resisted the idea. “I thought I would lose the immediacy of pleasure that I got from music,” he recalls. But as the image of Michael Holme and Julia became stronger in his imagination, he realised that he could not push it away. “And if I lost my love for music in the process — so be it,” says Seth, who has studied under Pandit Amar Nathji, a disciple of Ustad Amir Khan Sahab and understands a fair amount of Indian Classical music theory. He earlier played the flute, (badly, he says) and not the violin — which has been repeated often enough on the web to masquerade as the truth.

But where would one find Seth if not writing or singing? “I love singing, swimming and other things that begin with the letter S. Sleeping, I mean, of course,” he says, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

Besides quick wit, Seth has many other talents — being a polyglot is one of them. He can speak Welsh, German and Chinese besides English, Hindi and Urdu. But don’t expect him to write his next book in any of these. “I don’t know these languages as well as a native speaker. Therefore, other than writing letters or other formal things, I don’t think I can express myself in those languages as a poet or as a novelist.” Although Seth has written some Hindi poems, he isn’t sure if they are good enough to pass muster.

Family matters

Not surprising, since the bar has been set high in the Seth clan, beginning with his mother, Justice Leila Seth, the first woman judge in India. The author is all praise for his father, whom he feels had an important role to play in his mother’s success: “It is indeed unusual for an Indian man to take such pleasure in the achievement of his wife where she becomes a VIP — where people know her better than him.”

It wasn’t just professionally that the Seth couple had high expectations of their children. “They set standards of hard work and of courage. My parents are generous people. My father has always been happy in other people’s achievements.”

The best known of the three Seth siblings (his brother Shantum leads Buddhist meditational tours, while his younger sister, Aradhana, is a photographer and filmmaker who has worked on Deepa Mehta’s movies such as Earth and Fire), Vikram clearly is setting his own standards.

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