Vikram Seth is surprised to hear that his bestseller, A Suitable Boy, is now part of the canon of postcolonial fiction taught in English graduate courses in the West. Especially as he rejects the idea of a ‘canon’ or a ‘school’ of South Asian writing.
I recently caught up with Seth during his North American tour for the release of his latest novel, An Equal Music. The 47-year-old economistturned-novelist prefers to keep his interviews brief. With a packed schedule on his month-long tour, he is clearly trying: to pace himself. “I don’t read much South Asian fiction,” explains Seth (he is known to enjoy detective novels and John Grisham). “In fact, I deliberately avoided reading it while I was writing A Suitable Boy. I didn’t want to be too conscious of what other writers had written. I didn’t want my characters to become influenced by the characters of other writers.”
When pressed, however, he confesses that his favourite Indian writer is R.K. Narayan. But Seth maintains that his work and that of his contemporaries have little in common other than geographic context. “The works of South Asian writers are very different and they stand on their own. There is not much consistency even within my own writing. And I set my books in different geographies deliberately. But I set them in places where I have lived: India, China, London, San Francisco. These are places where I’ve had the chance to feel at home, and this allows me to write from the inside,” he says.
What made an economics PhD student who comes from the Delhi elite suddenly become a writer? “I was at Stanford, analysing my data on economics from rural China. And one day while browsing in a bookstore in San Francisco, I came across a couple of translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin — a novel in verse form. I was fascinated by how different and beautiful the two translations were. This inspired me to write my first novel, The Golden Gate, which uses the exact same stanzaic form, iambic tetrameter, as Eugene Onegin.”
From Heaven Lake
Vikram Seth never did finish his doctoral dissertation. But his love for China found voice in Three Chinese Poets, the 8th-century verses of Tang dynasty poets like Wang Wei. He translated them from the Mandarin, a language he is fluent in. “Wang Wei’s poems are very moving because they’re about fundamental things: love, friendship, parting. I made a point of visiting the places where he and the other poets had lived.”
Ironically, it is one of his China narratives which remains the most popular with Indian audiences. From Heaven Lake describes his journey through the minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet in Western China and offers the unique perspective of an Indian-in-China during the Cold War era.
Unlike Salman Rushdie, who has developed a larger-than-life persona since the 1989 Iranian fatwa, Vikram Seth is a noticeably private person. Rushdie writes prolifically on everything from Kashmir and Indian and Pakistani politics to Thatcherism, but Seth is more frugal with his political commentary. Asked about the role of the writer in a region where freedom of speech does not always have full play, he says, “I’m not an overtly political writer because there is no point preaching to the converted.
It’s counter-productive to make overt statements like ‘secularism is good’, and so on. But a writer’s political views are bound to come out in subtle ways. Mine come out in the obsessions of my characters.”
Seth did, however, come out of his shell in 1992 by signing a statement in The Times of India condemning the destruction of Babri Masjid. “I signed it because I felt that far from being a triumph, it was a disgrace to Hinduism. And it is the duty of any citizen to make such a statement,” he explains. With similar conviction and urgency, he produced a poem for the victims of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Seth positively bristles when asked about Rushdie’s comment in The New Yorker that India’s best writing is in English. “That doesn’t pass muster with me. Given the rich tradition from the Vedas to Urdu poetry, how could he have said that? English writing is an important strand in all of that history, but to call it the greatest tradition is too presumptuous.”
He is also dismissive of the emphasis on colonialism, marginality and the migrant sensibility that dominate classroom analyses of Indian writing. “I don’t feel this burden of the colonial past,” he maintains. “And while I suppose when one is living in a foreign land one is always partly absorbed in the culture and partly out of it, I don’t want to make much of this migrant sensibility.”
An Equal Music revolves around the love between two classical musicians. Seth’s own love affair with classical music began when he practised the khayaal tradition of Indian classical singing under a renowned ustad. Economics and later writing compelled him to put his music on hold, but he soon found a new love. “When I was living in London and writing A Suitable Boy I would relax in the evenings by playing my tanpura. A friend of mine, the Austrian ambassador, suggested I listen to some Western classical musicians like Schubert.”
He had no formal training in the Western classical tradition, but Seth immersed himself in London’s music scene and gained a keen understanding of the trials and tribulations faced by struggling musicians. This experience helped him in the writing of An Equal Music, a novel that is equally enlightening to the neophyte of classical music, inspiring the reader to discover the gamba sonatas of Bach. The book is set in London and Vienna and Venice, a clear sign that its author refuses to be pinned down to India alone. But when the touring is done, Vikram Seth does go back to his home in New Delhi. And he is part of something, perhaps not a ‘genre’ or a ‘canon’, that is breathing new life into English fiction.