March Issue 2012
Profile: Vikram Seth
“You look a lot like a friend of mine, Chiki,” proclaimed Vikram Seth, peering towards my face with curiosity as I set up my audio recorder in the cigar lounge of the Carlton Hotel, which was being used as a media room for the 3rd Karachi Literature Festival.
“Yes, Chiki.” And as if suddenly struck by the uniqueness of the name, Seth continued “I don’t know if that’s her real name but I’ve always known her as Chiki.”
I hesitantly asked why I resembled her.
“I guess it’s the eyes and the nose. Or wait, you have the same lively expressions as her,” replied Seth, gesturing towards his own face as he spoke. After the interview, I did a bit of Googling and my best guess is that the friend Seth was referring to was none other than Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Penguin India with whom Seth is currently signed.
The point of including this brief exchange in print is not to relive my awkwardness but rather to reveal how Seth talks to strangers even with a sense of genuine interest. There is no intimidation — even though Seth has a lot to intimidate with. His first novel Golden Gate is written entirely in Onegin stanzas. His magnum opus A Suitable Boy is one of the longest novels in the English language and won him the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1994. It is hard to imagine that the polyglot-librettist-Vikram Seth I had read about, is the same Vikram Seth sitting cross-legged in front of me on the leather couch, ordering pastries and coffee for himself.
And after he finished ordering, the interview officially began. I had previously heard that he was working on a sequel to A Suitable Boy and asked what kind of progress he had made on it.
“I’ve heard about it too,” Seth said with a smile. “And it’s nowhere. But it is buzzing around in my head and I’m thinking about it. And I’ll think about it more once I’m finished with all these festivals.”
Seth speaks crisply and each word is carefully enunciated, with traces of a British accent. When I asked Seth about the difficulty of continuing with characters that he has already written about, he replied “Well, I’m lucky because most of them will be dead. But it would be interesting to look back at life. Lata was 20 in A Suitable Boybut what will she be like now that she is older? What pleasures and subtractions have life given her? And I will still have some fresh characters to enjoy. The second or third generation will most likely be at the heart of the activity in the book but probably not at the heart of the meditation of the book.”
While Seth is perhaps best known for A Suitable Boy, he has written everything from a travel-book to operas. When asked about the challenges of each medium, Seth responded, “You’ve asked me a hugely complex question. But I’ll have to give you a simple answer.”
Seth then went on to describe how he works with different forms, “I don’t go about it from the point of view of challenges. When I write in a particular form or on a particular theme it’s because I feel impelled to do it. Having said that, you’re quite right. There are different challenges to each form. For example in something like A Suitable Boy, the organisation of the many characters and the different actions is very complex. Yet, it shouldn’t feel complex to the reader. It shouldn’t seem dissertational even if other issues are discussed. The style shouldn’t be so overwrought that it feels like poetry. If in poetry you’re heightening it, then in prose you’re paring it back, or in some cases even making it journalistic. The readers should believe what is going on, they should not be held back by your style. One hopes that after they read the entire book they say something like, ‘Oh, I want to read everything he’s written.’ But while they’re reading you just don’t want to be there. One should not exist.”
But right after declaring that the writer should be invisible in his writing, he added, “Now that is the kind of novel I write. Other people write wonderful novels full of flamboyance and the writer is very much there. And even having said what I said, in An Equal Music, there are passages which are very heightened. They are somewhere between prose and poetry. So every rule I make, every announcement I make, everything I state, you should take it with a shaker full of salt.”
I brought Seth back to the topic of challenges, though, because I had read that Seth, who has written in many forms, finds short stories difficult.
“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly, “I’ve written a few short stories and they’re all terrible. Luckily they haven’t been published. I do look back at them, thinking maybe I was being strict and they were perhaps good but they simply weren’t. But you know I like the form very much and you here in Pakistan have some very good short story writers. But so far I haven’t been able to write short stories and before A Suitable Boy I had not even written one decent short story so it was my leap into prose.”
“And you wrote a mammoth book.” I added.
“Yes, I wrote a mammoth book. But it wasn’t supposed to be mammoth. I thought it would be 300 pages but slowly it…” and Seth trailed off.
“Took over?” I offered.
“Yes. But it’s not like I had no control over it. That would make me a wimp of a writer. But yes, it was an organic control and it became clear that this thing wasn’t going to be some kind of bonsai but instead some kind ofbargad, and I had to go along with it. And there, you’ve got your headline for this interview: A bargad and a bonsai.”
This prompted me to think about potential headlines but Seth interrupted my thoughts.
“What do you call a bargad in Pakistan?”
And I had to admit that I was not sure which tree he was talking about.
“Dreadful!” he proclaimed, and then kindly added that he was talking about banyan trees. He then briefly told me about his recent trip to Moenjodaro and Bhambhore, sharing “Hum Bhambhore mein thay abhi aur wahan bohat bargad thay.”
I was about to ask my next question but Seth cut me off and instructed me to ask a long question so that he could take a bite of the Ã©clair a waiter had left by his side a few moments earlier. I obliged by rambling on about writers who develop strict routines and rituals to help them write and mentioned that some, like Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Murakami, are avid runners.
“Oh they run!” Seth said with bemusement. “I don’t run but my father does. I don’t have any rituals. I’m lazy as hell. I sit in bed and write. I grumble a lot. I wake up thinking, uff, what am I going to do with myself today — and for the rest of my life. Luckily I’m an obsessive person so if an idea or something gets to me then I’m writing all the time. Then I’m not thinking and I’m not part of the world. So in lieu of discipline I have obsession.”
It is perhaps this obsessive nature that lends an authentic quality to his work and I asked Seth about the kind of research that goes into a book.
There was a long pause as Seth had just taken a bite of his Ã©clair. After finishing his bite he replied, “Well, again there are two aspects: The worry aspect and the pleasure aspect. The worry aspect is that if, for instance with An Equal Music, I got some fundamental fact about the violin wrong then it might be believed by non-violinists but it won’t be believed by people whose lives I’m trying to write about. And that to me is very important. And if people don’t believe what I’m writing then no matter what prowess the book has got, it is a failure.”
Seth took a sip of coffee before continuing. “The other part is the pleasure aspect. That is the more you read about a specific period you become more interested. And sometimes you discover a strange fact or two. For example, during the time of the first general elections in post-Independence India, they ran out of postage stamps. So they had to bring back the old King George series into circulation and I used this telling detail when Mahesh in A Suitable Boy gets a letter and when he looks at it he’s shocked because instead of a stamp of Gandhi he sees the stamp of his old enemy King George. And it’s not just these chatpatta details but also, for instance, legal questions about land reforms and what they might have meant to people back then. You know a kiss might not mean much now but in 1951? Even holding hands by the Ganga would have earned you two tight slaps! So all this research is to better understand the people I write about.”
During the festival, many writers had said that they write because it is the one thing they are good at. One would think that Seth, who speaks several languages, has deep knowledge of music and who almost got a PhD in economics, had more choices.
But Seth disagreed. “Well, knowledge of several languages and music does not help one get a job in music or as an interpreter. But yes, I could have become an economist. And I found it pretty interesting, especially when you mix economics with politics and sociology and not when it’s too narrow and mathematical. But then again, obsession came along. The first time I really felt completely carried away by an idea and form was when I was writing The Golden Gate. I couldn’t have cared what happened to my future or my dissertation. I just had to write it. And if I had not had very generous, tolerant parents, I would have had to do something else. You can’t just be like, ‘Oh I’m a genius!’” And Seth brandished his arms as he said these last words, unaware that on the other side of the glass wall people had been watching him throughout the interview.
“You can’t do that. You have to earn your living. You don’t have a choice. So if I had to choose I would have done something else and tried to write at the same time. I don’t believe the whole ‘Oh talent will always come forth.’” He said this with another flourish of the hands. “Talent does not always come forth. I believe that there are many people who, because of lack of opportunities or poverty, end up doing something else to make a living.”
I then somewhat hesitantly steered the conversation to a more personal issue. Seth, who is bisexual, has publicly criticised Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality and in 2006 wrote an open letter regarding this legislation. I asked Seth about the loss of privacy that comes with publicly challenging these laws and he responded, “I never made any bones about it. I had already written poems about my sexuality. I have some poems clearly addressed to a man, some addressed to a woman and some addressed to a certain ‘you’ that could be either male or female. And many years ago my sister Aradhana interviewed me for BBC and she thought it was legitimate to ask me about it. Now my parents, especially my mother, were quite upset about this but Aradhana quite rightly said that this is not supposed to be an idealised portrait and while I am her brother, I am also her subject. And people ignored it, which is fine because I don’t like my private life being talked about. But when it came to Section 377 it became pretty much incumbent on me to speak up about it; after all it’s this absurd law given to us by the British. And the thing is I don’t have a lot to lose. Nobody is going to sack me. Some people might not read my books but then some might go and pick them up. I don’t like that my private life is more public now. But even if 5 percent of the population is gay then it would be ridiculous to think that ‘oh I’m just going to say nothing.’”
Seth, however, made it clear that he is not some hero and added, “Forget about me for a moment. The real credit goes to all those people who actually went to court and fought the cases, year after year, against very disturbing circumstances. And you know even in Pakistan…”
Seth hesitated to continue, perhaps worried that it might be offensive to criticise Pakistani laws before a Pakistani, so I acknowledged that Pakistan has its share of controversial laws regarding women and minorities as well.
“What can one say?” said Seth, with his palms extended in front of him, as if carefully weighing the words with which to talk about these sensitive issues.
He carefully continued, “I’m not saying there is no oppression of women in India, there is a great, great deal. But at least I think there isn’t a religious aspect to it. And if it comes down to religion and humanity, then the latter has to trump the former.”
There were a few moments of silence as his last words sank in. My allotted time for the interview was ending and as a parting question, I casually asked Seth what he was reading.
“Well, I’m actually reading Urdu poetry these days,” and Seth took out a thin paperback from his bag and flipped through the pages, showing me the Hindi and Urdu script printed side by side.
“What else am I reading? I don’t know, I watch a lot of TV.” He added.
“Well, you have to tell me what you’ve been watching on TV then.”
“Just right now I was watching this Maha person…” Seth said, brows furrowed as he tried to remember the name. “Who is that militant woman, going to parks and intercepting dates?”
Seth was talking about our very own Maya Khan and was apparently as appalled by her behaviour as the rest of Pakistan.
“And who is that fellow with the red hat?” asked Seth, evidently intrigued by Pakistan’s famed conspiracy theorist Zaid Hamid and remarked that when he hears Hamid, he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I also like Najam Sethi sahab. He has this chatpat style and he speaks well. I really enjoy listening to him to talk.”
As much as I would have liked to hear Vikram Seth continue with his analysis of Pakistani television personalities, I knew my time was up and Seth had other interviews to give. Before I stepped out, Seth asked for a copy ofNewsline and the next day when I gave it to him at his book signing, he made me sign it, stating, “I sign for other people, so other people should sign for me too.”
This profile was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Of Bonsais and Banyans.”
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.