The Indian novelist, poet, musician Vikram Seth was a star draw at the Lahore Literary Festival last month. We spoke with the celebrated and self-effacing literary legend recently about his work and more. Excerpts:
A Suitable Girl, the much anticipated follow-up to your most famous book, A Suitable Boy, is scheduled for publication in 2016. Why the sequel?
The success A Suitable Boy enjoyed led my publisher to suggest, some 20 years back, that I write a sequel to it. But at that point in time I was somewhat written out and needed to lie fallow. Other things rose to the top of my mind: I wrote An Equal Music, Two Lives, and I really thought that I was finished with the characters in A Suitable Boy—despite the fact that there are hints in the book to the contrary. A few years ago, confronted by the political turmoil in India, and the whole region, I got to thinking what Maan or Lata would make of these events. I realized Lata would be 80 years old and Maan would be much the same or older. I thought that instead of taking up the story from the 1950s, which would bore me, why not set the sequel in the present. As a result of that I could not only talk about the changes or non-changes in India from the first general election to what would now be the 16th general election but also write about a life well-lived, or badly lived, with Lata looking back on the last 60 years as well as also looking forward—while at the same time advising her grandson, who maybe doesn’t have that good an equation with his parents so he talks instead to his grandmother about the possibility of his finding a suitable girl.
Will the sequel be as voluminous as the 1993 original?
I hope not. I don’t approve of long books myself, but A Suitable Boy needed to be the length that it was simply because I got very interested in my characters and I needed to find out, for instance, whom Lata was going to end up marrying, which got me to actually finish the book because that was the only way I was going to find that out. I divided the 150 or so original chapters into three or four parts each. So while the book is still a bit of a long slog, it’s in bite-sized chunks. I was surprised the book turned out to be as big a success as it was. It was a bit weird in the sense that I discovered quite quickly that fame is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I was exhausted after a while and all I wanted to do was go home, but then there was one [book] tour after another that had to be done.
Boy is often compared to War and Peace for the grandeur of its scale. Was Tolstoy an inspiration?
My own inspiration when it comes to long books comes from the Chinese novel The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin. When it comes to these inflated comparisons to dead novelists I tend to take them with a pinch of salt. If you really start believing all this, you’ll never be able to write another book and, besides, you’d make yourself intolerable to yourself and to everybody else. What matters more is if a book stands the test of time—whether it rings true to the reader—that is the true compliment a writer lives for.
Some critics have suggested that your writing has served to resolve your own feelings toward the Partition of India.
I do have strong political feelings, but I don’t think I would go to the extent of writing a book to make a political point. The best way of espousing a certain philosophy, in my view, is by doing it through one’s characters and in a convincing way so that the reader should not feel that the table in some sense is being tilted by the writer’s bias. Of course, my feelings about religious tolerance and about women’s rights do come out in my work, but I feel these shouldn’t be too overt. When it is time to speak up, I do—like I did when the Babri Masjid issue came up, when I and other citizens brought out ads on the front-pages of Indian newspapers against the injustice that had been done. Every writer has the right, as well as the duty as a citizen, to speak up about patent injustices or idiocies that their government or society is involved with.
English-language fiction from South Asia has found global resonance. How do you view the criticism that some South Asian writers are merely explaining this part of the world to a bewildered West rather than being genuine to their reality?
I feel very strongly that if a story does not ring true with the society that it purports to portray then it fails in its purpose. If The Golden Gate had not resonated with the people of San Francisco and it had been praised on the East Coast or in India or England I would still consider it an artistic failure. You risk artistic credibility with books that don’t make sense to the people about whom they are written. Although I must admit that if a book is fun to read then it can succeed at some level; it may not be a true revelation but if it’s a rollicking good read then so be it. It’s only when it’s both boring and untrue that it cannot be redeemed.
How cutthroat and competitive is the publishing world
It has become very cutthroat. Just last year I had an ugly experience with Penguin Books U.K. which so outraged me that I wrote a book about it. [Seth was asked to return the $1.7-million advance for reportedly not meeting the deadline for A Suitable Girl.] I wanted to get the record straight about the incident, which dealt with my work in particular and which exposed the sleazy business practices in the publishing world. People with such a hardened and cynical business approach ought not to be in publishing at all. Granted, publishing is a business that has to earn a profit, but there has to be some kind of rationality with respect to the product you’re dealing with, and at least a modicum of ethics. You need people in publishing who care about books and words, but many of these publishing firms are now run by financial types who couldn’t care less. For them it’s just a product. The book that I’ve written [on publishing] is at the moment around 250-pages long. I would like to narrow it down to 100 pages—just to leach it of too much indignation and yet describe things as they really are, describe a writer’s life to people in general: how the inspiration comes, where it suddenly disappears, how writers live, how they negotiate, what having an agent is all about, how publishers treat writers and each other, etc. It’s a tough world out there and writers should know what it’s really like when they’re starting out with all this idealism and enthusiasm and trust.
You’re also an award-winning poet. Why is poetry less financially successful than prose?
I have always thought of myself as more naturally a poet and was surprised to find myself writing prose. Poets, if they do gain any eminence, hardly ever gain financial eminence. For instance, most of the English poets of the 19th century, one way or the other had private incomes. Earlier still, both in Europe and in India, poetry, like classical music, mainly flourished owing to the patronage of a court or an emperor. Often, however, poets were left to languish—despite the fact that poetry, more than prose, is what is remembered by people; for example, it’s much easier for us to quote a couplet from Mir Taqi Mir than a passage from a letter by Ghalib. We read or recall poetry for consolation or amusement or stimulation or enlightenment. It’s about rhyme and meter and a tightness in the choice and arrangement of words which captures the essence of one’s mood.
You’ve translated Chinese poetry into English. What sparked this interest?
It was while I was still at Oxford that I wandered into a bookstore and began looking through a book of translations of the works of Wang Wei, an 8th-century Chinese poet. I found his works about nature and friendship very moving, and so I decided to study Chinese. But it was when I was at Stanford that I really concentrated on it in the gaps that my economics studies allowed. And I was glad that I did that because it allowed me to go to China where I lived and did research in economics and demography for two years, as well as traveled to the places where these poets had lived, and later hitchhiked home to India through Tibet. On my return from China, I not only translated Wang Wei but also two of his contemporaries, Du Fu and Li Bai, and then these last 10 years I have spent studying Chinese calligraphy. I found it helpful that during gaps in my writing, instead of fretting that the inspiration was not coming, I would turn my attention to calligraphy. It became an obsession—so much so that I even learnt Arabic calligraphy, which is very different because in Chinese calligraphy you use a brush and in Arabic calligraphy you use a cut reed.
In 2012, you unveiled three ‘word paintings’ for Absolut. How did this come about?
The makers of Absolut Vodka had seen some of my calligraphy at the Kolkata Literary Meet and asked me to participate in a series that Absolut had done for many years with artists ranging from Andy Warhol to Subodh Gupta, each of whom had inventively used the iconic shape of the Absolut bottle to create works of art. I was intrigued, yet unsure at the same time how my attempts would turn out. But the more I contemplated the bottle, the more ideas I got—I thought of combining writing with painting and of using more than one medium: oil, acrylic, Chinese ink, seal-paste. So I did three paintings: one based on the Devanagari script, one on the Urdu script, and one on the Chinese script.
After A Suitable Girl, what’s next for Vikram Seth?
Writing A Suitable Girl is fascinating because it’s set in the present. After I have finished the novel, and a few short associated novellas, I would like to go back into painting and calligraphy because I find I can lose myself in it. In The Rivered Earth I have included two pieces of calligraphy: one is Chinese, that is, two lines from a poem by Du Fu—and although doing that calligraphy took just a few seconds, there was a decade’s worth of effort that went into it—and the other piece is an Arabic roundel, like a mandala, in which I combined the words for the seven elements with the seven stars of the Great Bear in the night sky. All this I did under the supervision of my teacher based in Jordan with whom I was in touch via email during the Arab Spring.
From writing prose to composing poetry to learning Chinese and then calligraphy and painting, do you consider yourself as somebody with a short attention span?
I do feel I have a short attention span, which is all the more reason people are surprised at how I could have written a book the length of A Suitable Boy. When it comes to things that don’t interest me much, I find I have a short attention span. But I have a tendency to get obsessed, and when I get obsessed by something, I can be a bit like a terrier in the sense of really getting into it and absolutely not letting go. But I would never think of inflicting on the public something I am obsessed with if I did not think it was up to the mark. You have to have an in-built bullshit detector for your own work because after a certain juncture people are willing to publish even your laundry list and then praise it. The way I look at it, if you do that in the hope that your work will fly, what will happen is that your name will sink.
From our March 29, 2014, issue.