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Vikram Seth: A Suitable Writer and Must Read Books by Him

Vikram Seth: A Suitable Writer and Must Read Books by Him

 by Meghna Chatterjee

“If I'm compelled to do something, I don't shy away from it simply because I haven't tackled it before.”

With the breeze that had blown on a shimmery summer of 20th June in 1952, Vikram Seth, a poet renowned for his deep rhyming poetry, and a writer who is regarded as one of the finest authors of prose was born to Prem Nath Seth and Leila Seth.

Pages from Personal Life

Being a son of a 'Bata Shoes' executive and a barrister, Seth had his share of schoolings from St. Xavier’s High School in Patna and then from The Doon Public School in Dehradun. Although he had been the editor of The Doon School Weekly, the schooling life of The Doon had a glooming impact on Seth.  

He had a ‘terrible feeling of loneliness and isolation’ during the six years he had spent in the boarding school of Doon and even darkly desired to never hear the diurnal ‘Chhota Hazri bell again.’

Seth mentioned that there was no such reason to be unhappy given the occupied days he had, yet he was. The rough adolescent period was exhausting his young spirit. His shrinking violet demeanour towards joining gangs and sports, plus his inclination to reading refuted the manly image of a boy had earned him the bullying ethos from his classmates. 

Also, maybe because the lack of family life that entails a sister’s nearness, father’s concern, and a mother’s love affected him.

“Poetry, I think, intensifies the reader's experience. If it's a humorous facet of the story, poetry makes it more exuberant. If it's a sad facet, poetry can make it more poignant.”

Seth had mastered his A-Levels from Tonbridge School, pursued further studies at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and Stanford University where he did a PhD. in Economics in England.

*whispers* Vikram Seth has openly expressed himself as forthright gay. His mother specifically had a hard time coming to terms with his sexuality as at that time homosexuality was criminalised. 

He had been in a relationship with Philippi Honore, a French musician, for more than a decade until their break-up. It is also said that his collapsed relationship had thrust him into a writer’s block that had delayed the sequel to his famous novel, ‘A Suitable Boy.’

It had been at the expense of systematically dismantling a contract with the publisher, the Penguin Random House.

Seth had described those times as ‘periods of darkness in his life.’ Honore had reportedly been Seth’s inspiration for his 1999 novel, An Equal Music, which revolves around a troubled violinist who could not forget his love Julia whom he meets after a decade, only to start an affair again when she is married; the clandestine love brings sorrow to their careers and Julia seems to fade to silence as she loses her sense of hearing.*

The Milestone: A Suitable Boy

Published in 1993, Seth’s novel had come out as a surprise to himself, especially after seeing the mass reaction for the book that had swoon the readers across the globe. Set during the 1950s, the plot revolves around the fictional Brahmpur located along the banks of Ganga between Varanasi and Patna.

“The ifs and buts of history...form an insubstantial if intoxicating diet.”

The core story is about a 19-year-old Lata Mehra who is given the tough choice of choosing between three potential suitors, Kabir Durrani with whom she is in love but her family is against their marriage because of his Muslim identity, Haresh Khanna and Amit. Lata possesses substantially no attraction for the latter two. Her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is another concern for Lata because of her persuasion to make her daughter marry a man she considers ‘a suitable boy.’

“And an equation is the same whether it's written in red or green ink”

Several other subplots shape the story the book grows into. However, Seth had not planned on incorporating multiple themes like politics and the situation of women. Rather, it was supposed to be confined to Lata’s quest for choosing the suitable boy. In the six years, one thing had led to another and now Seth had been catapulted into the limelight. 

Add to Cart: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

The phenomenal tale is divided into 19 parts. The inspiration to write this novel had risen when once while travelling Seth had heard a conversation between a mother and her daughter where the latter was being told, ‘You’ve got to marry someone chosen by me.’

The Sequel: Awaited for Years

In 2009, the joyous news of an upcoming sequel, possibly titled ‘A Suitable Girl’, to the novel had been announced and the probable year of publishing had been around 2013-14. But, supposedly, Vikram Seth had been unable to complete the novel because of a writer’s block, enhanced by his post-breakup trauma.

The elapsed deadline had resulted in a fallout between the writer and the publisher. He had then signed in with another publisher, Orion, saving the day when Penguin House had persuaded to return the $1.7 million advance. 

The next date had been 2017 but seemingly even that has elapsed. For now, uncertainty is the only answer to the Seth fans eagerly waiting for part two.

‘A Suitable Girl’ could be set in present times unlike the 1950s of its prequel and portray an old Lata who is searching for a bride for her grandson, therefore justifying the title. However, it has been speculated that the title might or might not be justified and can be changed too. It all depends on what story Seth spins.

The Poet in Seth

Seth has always primarily recognised himself as a poet first. His poetry penning style is quite different from that of both modern poets and modern thinking. He, even though being a well-established poet, still follows the norm of writing rhyming lines like in the olden days. Yet, his sheer sense of humour, the touch of irony, and ability to put complex postmodernist ideas like loneliness and loss into such easy words has won the hearts of critics.

Mappings

Published by the Writers Workshop, the book is a curation of poetry written by Vikram Seth. It was the first book of poems by him published around the timeline of 1980-81.

Making his signature simplicity of writing notable here again, the poems convey the inner thoughts of Seth as he had travelled from Panipat to the extents of America. There is sadness and also the feeling of loneliness mixed with his own insights.

The poem ‘Rakhi’ is a heartfelt token of love from Seth to his sister Aradhna; probably portraying his homesickness and nostalgia.  

The Frog and the Nightingale

The tale spots a naive nightingale and a cunning frog who vows to eliminate competition in his bog. The innocent bird, unaware and blinded by the frog, gets trapped in the frog’s conspiracy. While the bird suffers, the frog profits and awaits his ultimate win.

“Well, poor bird - she should have known

That your song must be your own.”

Touching the themes of jealousy and exploiting others for personal gain, the fable of the frog and the nightingale emphasises that being naive and blindingly believing could prove fatal, as it did for the poor bird. 

The Tale of Melon City

A humorous story for children that revolves around the ‘laissez-faire’ policy and indirectly, mocking the Government of India during that time because of the sagging nature of its decision-making capabilities.

The story tickles the funny bones with its satire regarding a ‘just’ king who made all ‘placid’ decisions ‘placidly.’ The twist of events might get the dumplings wondering how can someone be so ‘just’ and ‘placid’ to make a Melon, yes a fruit indeed, the king of the kingdom.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden

The book is divided into three parts consisting of the synonymous mention of China, India, and California with ‘Wutong,’ ‘Neem,’ and ‘Live-Oak.’ 

The book consists of several poems under the categories provided. Adorned with sonnets, quatrains and couplets, each category reflects his life in the time stretch of his travel of the triad. The poems are put up to showcase his life during the study period in China, his native land India, and moments of loneliness in California.

There are several other poem collections including ‘Beastly Tales’ published in 1991 that retells classic fables, spanning 4 countries plus a ‘Land of Gup,’ with two stories from each. The 10 poems have amplified doses of humour with clever writing indubitably.

The libretto, ‘Arion and the Dolphin,’ is a retelling of the Greek myth about Arion along with illustrations, harmonised with Seth’s colourful paintings from his artistic pen indeed. The legend traces the friendship between a musician, Arion, and a Dolphin who had saved his life but events take a turn when the dolphin dies.

Notable Books by Vikran Seth

These works might not be as famous as ‘A Suitable Boy,’ yet are critically acclaimed and a worthy read.

1. The Golden Gate

Published in 1986, this book is the first novel by Vikram Seth that had laid down the foundation of his roots to make art as a novelist. The novel is in verse composed of sonnets in iambic tetrameter. 

The story is about the collision of 4-5 people and their lives that get interwoven tremendously. Touching the themes of homosexuality, feminism, chauvinism, the negligence towards alcoholism, and the pain of rejection in love, Seth’s tale is set in San Francisco telling the entangled lives of a group of yuppies. Different mindsets and goals collide to bring out the mixture of the witty and amusing tale with postmodernist inputs.  

2. Two Lives

A non-fiction crafted by the master, the book is a love story that defies the boundaries of both ethnicity and distance. The love saga is about none other than Vikram Seth’s uncle and aunt.

From Seth’s quill, the story revolves around his Uncle Shanti Behari Seth and German Jewish aunt Hennerle Gerda Caro who deal with all the highs and lows life throws at them with love. The book is more of a reminiscing, anecdotes, and the letters that facilitated Vikram Seth to create a gem as such that sprouts an epic love affair.

Awards Awarded to Vikram Seth

Seth has been the recipient of several prestigious awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1988, Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2005, and Padma Shri in 2007. His travel memoir, ‘From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet,’ which recounted his journey when he had been studying in China and had decided to visit Delhi for summers via Tibet, had won him the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1983. For ‘The Humble Administrator’s Garden,’ he had been the awardee of Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

In 2001, he was felicitated with the Commander Order of the British Empire with an EMMA award for Best Novel in the same year for ‘An Equal Music.’ In 2013, he was the laureate of NDTV’S 25 Greatest Global Living Legends in India.

For A Suitable Boy, Seth has been awarded the WH Smith Literary Award and also the Commonwealth Writers Prize. The voluminous novel has been regarded as one of the longest books of English Literature running over nearly 600,000 words and 1400 pages. Critics have compared the epic novel to War and Peace of Leo Tolstoy and Middlemarch of George Eliot both for the length and style of writing. Seth had been influenced by the 5-volumed 18th Century Chinese book by Cao Xuequin, “The Story of the Stone.”

Today on Vikram Seth’s birthday, let us celebrate the Living Legend of India who had sought to upturn the norms, was an advocate against the discriminatory laws on consensual homosexual acts in 2006 to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and to this day is a poet by heart.

“The trick to being a novelist is to act like an iceberg. Make it seem as if you're displaying only one-tenth of what you know, and the other nine-tenths isn't visible and never mind if that part is pure styrofoam!”

Waiting for ‘A Suitable Girl’! Till then, adieu dumplings! 

- Meghna Chatterjee

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