Template:Infobox Writer Vikram Seth (pronounced Template:IPA), born June 20, 1952 is an Indian poet, novelist, travel writer, librettist, children's writer, biographer and memoirist. An unusually forthcoming writer whose published material is replete with un- or thinly-disguised details as to the personal lives of himself and his intimates related in a highly engaging narrative voice, Seth has said that he is somewhat perplexed that his readers often in consequence presume to an unwelcome degree of personal familiarity with him.
- 1 Background
- 2 Education
- 3 Personal life
- 4 Writing
- 5 Published works
- 6 Prizes and awards
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Vikram Yada was born in Hyderabad (now [[Chennai}; his family living in secunderabad including the Bata Shoe Company town of Batanagar, near RP Road, Patna and London, though never Hyderabad proper during his childhood, he himself spending extended periods away school from the age of five. His father, Prem, was an executive of the Bata India Limited shoe company who migrated to post-Partition India from West Punjab in Pakistan; he had unsuccessfully courted a Sikh girl before meeting Seth's mother, Leila; she had had a chaste premarital dalliance with an unsuitable Christian boy and was the first woman judge on the Delhi High Court as well as the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court, at Simla. She studied law in London while pregnant with Seth's younger brother and came first in her Bar examinations conducted only weeks after she delivered her second child. That child, Vikram Seth's younger brother, Shantum, leads Buddhist meditational tours; his younger sister, Aradhana, is a film-maker married to an Austrian diplomat, who worked on Deepa Mehta's Earth and Fire. (Compare the characters Haresh, Lata, Savita and two of the Chatterjee siblings in A Suitable Boy: Seth has been unusually candid in acknowledging that many of his fictional personnel are drawn from life; he has said that only the dog Cuddles in A Suitable Boy has his real name — "Because he can't sue"; Justice Leila Seth has said in her memoir On Balance that other characters in A Suitable Boy are composites but Haresh is a portrait of her husband Premo.) Having lived in London for many years he now maintains residences near Salisbury, England, where he is a notable participant in local literary and cultural events and in 2006 bought and renovated the house of the 17th century Anglican divine and metaphysical poet George Herbert and in Delhi, where he lives with his parents and keeps his extensive library and papers.
He attended The Doon School in Dehradun, and told a Doon Founder's Day gathering in 1992 of his "terrible feeling of loneliness and isolation" while studying at the prestigious institution. Seth said,
Sometimes, at lights out, I wished I would never wake up to hear the chhota hazri bell. For days after I left I thought of school as a kind of jungle, and looked back on it with a shudder. I was teased and bullied by my classmates and my seniors because of my interest in studies and reading, because of my lack of interest in games, because of my unwillingness to join gangs and groups.
The experience — intensified to outright sexual abuse at the hands of older boys — is given to Tapan, the younger brother of Amit Chatterjee, the character bearing numerous similarities to Seth himself in A Suitable Boy (Amit takes charge of withdrawing the boy from the school and enrolling him in a day school). The widely-quoted comments themselves, however, and the fact that he made them, perhaps should not be relied upon entirely to characterise either his schooldays or Seth the man; in his speech to the Doon students he also spoke of the advantages the school conferred on him and offered words of encouragement and inspiration. And in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Margaret Throsby, his slightly younger contemporary at Doon, the anthropologist and novelist Amitav Ghosh, expressed surprise at the report of how Seth had characterised his school days: in his own recollection Seth had been deservedly lionised by both students and staff, his winning personality and brilliant intellect having been well in evidence even then.
He completed his A-levels at Tonbridge School in Kent, England, and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He undertook doctoral studies at Stanford University where he has stated that he spent "11 years (from 1975 to 1986) not getting an economics Ph.D." While formally engaged in postgraduate economics courses at Stanford he also undertook poetics studies — he was Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing in 1977-1978 — with the poet Timothy Steele, whose traditionally structured verse with formal rhyme and metre (together with that of Robert Frost and Philip Larkin) inspired Seth to adopt a similar formal discipline in his own poetry. "I wanted to have some contact with the writing program," Seth recalled in 2003 interview. "So I went to this office and asked if there was anyone who could help with poetry. There were two poets there and the one nearest the door was Timothy Steele, who writes with rhyme and metre. If the other fellow had been closer, I'd probably have turned out a poet of free verse."
In 1980-82 Seth did extensive field work in China gathering data for his intended doctoral dissertation on Chinese population planning; he was attached to Nanjing University while in China and became fluent in Mandarin within six months, later translating Chinese as well as Hindi poetry into English. He took advantage of his Chinese language fluency to return home to Delhi overland via Xinjiang and Tibet, resulting in From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), a combination travel narrative and personal memoir written at the suggestion of his father.
A famous polymath, Seth detailed in an interview (in the year 2005) in the Australian magazine Good Weekend that he has studied several languages, including Welsh, German and, later, French in addition to the oft-noted Mandarin, English (which he describes as "my instrument" in answer to Indians who query his not writing in his native Hindi), Urdu (so useful to him during the travels in Sinkiang and Tibet detailed in From Heaven Lake), which he reads and writes in Nasta’liq script, and Hindi, which he of course reads and writes in the Devanāgarī script. He plays the Indian flute and the cello and sings German lieder, especially Schubert.
Seth is famously astute as a businessman. His late literary agent Giles Gordon recalled being interviewed by Seth for the position:
Vikram sat at one end of a long table and he began to grill us. It was absolutely incredible. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, which novelists we liked. There really was a lot of Eng Lit in it. Then he asked our views on agenting and how we would go about selling his books. The three of us were very self-conscious and rather resentful of doing this in front of each other. Agents never get interviewed by authors.
But notwithstanding the acute commercial savvy Seth has become renowned for, he later explained to Gordon that he had passed the interview not because of commercial considerations, but because unlike the others he was the only agent who seemed as interested in his poetry as in his other writing. That being said, Seth followed what he has described as "the ludicrous advance for that book" (£200,000 for A Suitable Boy) with £500,000 for An Equal Music and £1.4 million for Two Lives. He prepared an acrostic poem for his address at Gordon's 2005 memorial service:
- Gone though you have, I heard your voice today.
- I tried to make out what the words might mean,
- Like something seen half-clearly on a screen:
- Each savoured reference, each laughing bark,
- Sage comment, bad pun, indiscreet remark.
- Gone since you have, grief too in time will go,
- Or share space with old joy; it must be so.
- Rest then in peace, but spare us some elation.
- Death cannot put down every conversation.
- Over and out, as you once used to say?
- Not on your life. You're on this line to stay.
In each of Seth’s novels and in much of his poetry, there have been central or peripheral gay themes and characters (see in particular the central relationship in The Golden Gate and the association between Maan and Firoz in A Suitable Boy). Seth has been discreet but not secretive about his personal life, occasionally citing his early poem “Dubious” without further comment:
- Some men like Jack and some like Jill
- I'm glad I like them both but still
- I wonder if this freewheeling
- Really is an enlightened thing,
- Or is its greater scope a sign
- Of deviance from some party line?
- In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight
- What is my status: Stray? Or Great?
Seth has said that "the 'I' in my poems is almost always me," so one might well early have concluded from his citation of this poem alone that he identified as bisexual; also, Mappings and Seth's other books of poetry contain love poems addressed to both male and female objects. However, Seth's mother, Justice Leila Seth, has dispositively laid the issue to rest. She has written in her memoir On Balance ,
At the time [of a dispute with Seth over sleeping arrangements for a visiting friend] I didn't realise that Vikram was bisexual. This understanding came to me much later and I found it hard to come to terms with his homosexuality. Premo found it even harder....But we loved him and accepted it without understanding it.
Beyond the dedication in An Equal Music, Seth has expressly acknowledged his ten-year relationship with his former partner, Philippe Honoré. Indian-born San Francisco journalist Sandip Roy reports that Seth discussed the issue of his sexuality candidly in a television program with his sister Aradhana. In a book tour radio interview, Roy probed further: Seth said that this was not something he'd ever hidden, but that he just didn't wish to be defined by it. On the other hand, he said that he was conscious of the fact that being open about his sexuality might help other bisexual or gay people, and that he had given leave to his mother to write about it partially for that reason.
Seth has been increasingly forthright in recent years on the issue of gay rights in his native India. In an interview on CNN-IBN aired 21 January 2006, Seth talked about the law in India relating to homosexuality. He called section 377 of the Indian Penal Code barbaric and archaic. He advocated its removal, saying that the British who introduced this have removed it in their own country. He gave three reasons for it being removed: (1) it is silly (as India is following something outdated); (2) it is cruel (as it causes intolerable pain and self-doubt); and (3) it is harmful (as it promotes underground activities which pose a health problem). He wished that young Indians would not have to worry about their sexuality. He suggested that the government was afraid of losing votes and it was fear that drove its indisposition to amend the current draconian criminal sanctions against homosexuality. Continuing with the theme, Seth said in an interview with Sheela Reddy published in Outlook India on 2 October 2006,
I don't particularly like talking about these matters myself. I am a private person and I don't feel my friends' lives and my own should be part of the public's right to know. But in a case like this where so much is at stake, where the happiness, at a conservative estimate, of 50 million people and their right not to be fearful or lonely and to be with the people whom they love is at issue, and the happiness of their families as well, then it really is incumbent on us to speak out.
Seth is now best known for his novels, though he has characterised himself as a poet first and novelist second. He has published five volumes of poetry. His first, Mappings (1980), was originally privately published; it attracted little attention and indeed Philip Larkin, to whom he sent it for comment, referred to it rather scornfully among his intimates, though he offered Seth encouragement. Whether or not Seth's poetry is expressly influenced by Larkin, it contains similar elements: a highly colloquial vocabulary and syntax with enjambement and rhyme; closely structured form but without rigidity.
Travel writing: From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet
His travel book From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983) was his first popular success — even here he makes frequent asides in verse — and won the Thomas Cook award for travel writing. Among its considerable charms for Seth's admirers is the extensive insight it affords as to Seth as a person, who is for once candid about the reality and effect of living abroad — though not in particular of being in Diaspora — a theme which arises in his poetry but nowhere in his fiction:
Increasingly of late, and particularly when I drink, I find my thoughts drawn into the past rather than impelled into the future. I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of my earlier student days in England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias. (p.35)
Hybrid: The "novel in verse" The Golden Gate
The first of his novels, The Golden Gate (1986), is indeed a novel in verse about the lives of a number of young professionals in San Francisco. The novel is written entirely in rhyming tetrameter sonnets after the style of Charles Johnston's 1977 translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (although Eugene Onegin, both in the original Russian and in Johnston's translation, are in the Onegin stanza of iambic tetrameter). He had encountered it in a Stanford second-hand bookstore and it changed the direction of his career, shifting his focus from academic to literary work. The likelihood of commercial success seemed highly doubtful — and the scepticism of friends as to the novel's viability is facetiously quoted within the novel; but the verse novel received wide acclaim (Gore Vidal dubbed it "The Great California Novel") and achieved healthy sales. The novel contains a strong element of affectionate satire, something occasionally missed by Seth's more earnest critics, as with his subsequent novel, A Suitable Boy.
Novels in prose
A Suitable Boy
After the success of The Golden Gate, Seth took up residence in his parents' house back in Delhi to work on his second novel, A Suitable Boy (1993). Though initially conceived as a short piece detailing the domestic drama of an Indian mother's search for an appropriate husband for her marriageable Indian daughter against the background of the formative years of India after Independence, the novel grew and Seth was to labour over it for almost a decade. The 1471-page novel is a four-family saga set in post-independence, post-Partition India, and alternatively satirically and earnestly examines issues of national politics in the period leading up to the first post-Independence national election of 1952, inter-sectarian animosity, land reform and the eclipse of the feudal princes and landlords, academic affairs, inter- and intra-family relations and a range of further issues of importance to the characters. The Indian journalist and novelist Khushwant Singh has said of the novel that, "I lived through that period and I couldn't find a flaw. It really is an authentic picture of Nehru's India." The novel was, despite its formidable length, a bestseller, and propelled Seth into the public spotlight and assured his reputation. English critics greeted A Suitable Boy with almost universal enthusiasm (notwithstanding its somewhat controversial passing-over for the Booker Prize shortlist), though it received mixed reviews from some American critics.
An Equal Music
Seth's third novel, An Equal Music (1999), set in contemporary Europe, focuses on the lives of classical musicians and their music: so integral to the novel is the discussion by the characters of their performance repertoire (some of it very slightly obscure) that Seth successfully marketed a companion double CD containing performances of all the music referred to. Readers and critics without musical knowledge occasionally complained that Michael, the protagonist, was simply not a likeable (or unlikeable) enough character to sustain interest throughout a substantial novel and that the focus on the music for its own sake can be trying for the uninitiated. Musically knowledgeable readers, especially those who perform, were with rare exceptions unstinting in their enthusiasm and praise. Paolo Isotta, one of Italy's most significant music critics, wrote in the influential newspaper Il Corriere della Sera of the Italian translation that no European writer had ever shown such a knowledge of European classical music, nor had any European novel before managed to convey the psychology, the technical abilities, even the human potentialities of those who practise music for a living Seth credits his then-partner, the French violinist Philippe Honoré, as inspiring him with the idea for An Equal Music in an acrostic sonnet on Honoré's name which is the epigraph to An Equal Music:
- Perhaps this could have stayed unstated.
- Had our words turned to other things
- In the grey park, the rain abated,
- Life would have quickened other strings.
- I list your gifts in this creation:
- Pen, paper, ink and inspiration,
- Peace to the heart with touch or word,
- Ease to the soul with note and chord.
- How did that walk, those winter hours,
- Occasion this? No lightning came;
- Nor did I sense, when touched by flame,
- Our story lit with borrowed powers -
- Rather, by what our spirits burned,
- Embered in words, to us returned.
Seth together with Philippe Honoré marketed a double CD of the music mentioned in An Equal Music, performed by Honoré.
Biography/Memoir: Two Lives
His most recent book, Two Lives, is a non-fiction family memoir written at the suggestion of his mother, and published in October, 2005. It focuses on the lives of his great uncle (Shanti Behari Seth) and German-Jewish great aunt (Henny Caro) who met in Berlin in the early 1930s while Shanti was a student there and with whom Seth stayed extensively on going to England at age 17 for school at Tonbridge and then to attend Oxford. As with From Heaven Lake, Two Lives contains much autobiography and this is a considerable part of its appeal.
Seth's considerable range is demonstrated by the meticulous historical accuracy of A Suitable Boy, with the finely nuanced cultivated-Indian English of the narrative voice and the entirely in-character voices of the principals of the story; the correspondingly accurate depiction of northern California yuppies of the 1980s in The Golden Gate; and his portrait of the world of western classical musicians in An Equal Music. He has continued to produce volumes of poetry at intervals alongside his publications in a range of other forms, including translations from Chinese poets. Despite his formidable erudition in a wide range of disciplines, both his prose and poetry are strongly characterised by their accessibility and he has said that he labours considerably to ensure this.
In most of Seth's writing (apart from An Equal Music, narrated in the first person by its central character), there is a strong, and always engaging and attractive, narrative persona — sometimes, as in From Heaven Lake, obviously Seth himself; at other times, in his novels and poems, intermittently so. He has complained about some of his readers assuming on book tours a degree of intimacy with him that they have not earned.
A film of A Suitable Boy is slated to go into production in 2007, an earlier attempt at a television serialisation having been abandoned.
Prizes and awards
- 1983 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet
- 1985 Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) The Humble Administrator's Garden
- 1993 Irish Times International Fiction Prize (shortlist) A Suitable Boy
- 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book) A Suitable Boy
- 1994 WH Smith Literary Award A Suitable Boy
- 2001 EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award) for Best Book/Novel An Equal Music
- 2005 Pravasi Bharatiya Samman
- Times Online article on Michael Mayne Retrieved 2 August 2006.
- Doon Online Features & Spotlights. "Vikram Seth"
- ABC Mornings audio interview with Amitav Ghosh
- Timothy Steele's Homepage
- Shyam Bhatia, “Blazing ahead: From ‘cute’ to ‘arrogant’ to a millionaire, Shyam Bhatia traces the success chart of Vikram Seth, Deccan Herald, 31 August 2003
- Curtis Brown UK, Vikram Seth's tribute at Giles Gordon memorial service
- Seth, Leila. On Balance. New Delhi: Viking, 2003, ISBN 0-670-04988-3, p. 429.
- "Up Front Radio," 30 December 2005
- Silvia Albertazzi, 2005.
- Chaudhuri, Amit (ed.). "Vikram Seth (b. 1952)." The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature. New York: Vintage, 2004:508-537.
- Literary Encyclopedia biography
- Emory biography
- Contemporary Writers Biography
-  Silvia Albertazzi (2005), "An equal music, an alien world: postcolonial literature and the representation of European culture," European Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, 103–113
- 1999 BCC audio interview with Vikram Seth
- "Poetic License" by Cynthia Haven, "Stanford Magazine," May/June 1999
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