As the 20th anniversary edition of “A Suitable Boy” hits bookstores, author Vikram Seth talks about life beyond writing
It is a mellow, mellow afternoon, just the way late winter afternoons are. The silk cotton trees on the roads of Lutyens’ Delhi are stately; wagtails and red-starts are happy and barbets are calling. Soothing in a quiet sort of way, the balmy sunshine reminds me ever-so-faintly of the warmth of a mother’s lap – just how a mother strokes her son to sleep on her lap, those cuddles and kisses and whispered lullabies. It is also a time for many a suitable boy or girl to discover that life’s joys do not necessarily come sundown. Talking of suitable boys and girls, who better than Vikram Seth to involve in a little conversation over a happy meal at Le Meridien’s Eau de Monsoon restaurant?
It takes Vikram a while to reach the restaurant but once he is inside all the snarls of Delhi’s traffic are left behind; the little doorway to our left lets in the cool breeze without giving away the warmth of our talk. And, as it turns out, Vikram has many reasons to feel warm and cared for – Aleph is just celebrating the publication of the 20th anniversary edition of his book “A Suitable Boy”, having earlier got the rights to publish his forthcoming A Suitable Girl. The Boy still has plenty of takers, The Girl shall take a couple of years to be ready. One book into its 20th edition, the next being talked about two years before it is likely to hit the book stores. It must be fun to be Vikram Seth!
Vikram, slightly agitated over all the talk surrounding Section 377 – the media, forever looking for people of substance to voice their opinion on Section 377, often resorts to him for his take on the controversial section which makes consensual relations between adults of the same gender a crime – however, recovers his poise immediately and is happy to talk of his works. He is a slow writer, he confesses at the beginning. It is taking him many years to finish his next book. He is a slow eater too, as I were to soon find out.
He begins his meal with a few sips of red wine – it is Villa Maria, a pinot noir, a popular wine from New Zealand, I learn later. For me a glass of seasonal juice will do just fine. I take a couple of sips, avoiding the rest for waiting on our table are chapli kababs. Now Monsoon’s kababs are usually pretty delectable. Today is the day when I realise that the record is well earned. Vikram nods his approval with generous smiles as he shifts happily from chapli kabab to shami kabab and on to tandoor king prawns with equal ease. Not a question asked, no apprehension expressed. It is a quiet moment to savour as he happily strikes a deal with our only-too-willing photographer. “First you take the pictures. Then we eat at leisure. Food is supposed to be enjoyed,” he says, going on to tell how he loves his biryanis, the Awadhi, the Hyderabadi, the Konkani. And how he feels food is to be eaten slowly to be really relished.
He is, however, far from skilful in the kitchen but can he sing! Only when the company is right and the mood overtakes him. All this probably stems from the rigorous training under the late Pandit Amarnath from whom he learnt khayal for 10 years. Then, seeking wider horizons, Vikram got down to learning western classical music too. “I used to do riyaaz for hours. But then I had to go to the university, learn languages.”
He still listens to soothing classical music when he is not writing. When writing, every other note disturbs him. Even melodies. Then it is time for total solitude.
As he starts talking of how he learnt Urdu for “A Suitable Boy” and how he penned Beastly Tales while staying in Delhi, lamb burrah arrives on the table. The aroma is too tempting. Rightly, Vikram decides that good food should be eaten fresh and hot. The burrah is dealt with quickly. The rotis barely attended to all this while. “Beastly Tales came about one hot summer when we used to have too much load-shedding. I used to go to a family friend’s place and spend long afternoons writing.” As the mind draws pictures of the author sweating and writing in Delhi’s unforgiving summers, Vikram throws another surprise. “I don’t read much. I love spending time with family and friends which leaves little time for anything else,” he says, happily adding, “I am no help at home. I cannot cook, I cannot mend a plug.”
So, how does he compensate for his inadequacies at home? Umm. We let the matter die. Meanwhile, a tempting dessert makes its way to our table. It is chocolate pave, pistachio kulfi with berry compote. He would like to relish it slowly. Alas! Time does not permit such luxuries. Just a little taste of the sinfully sweet thing, and he is on his way, leaving behind a trail of memories, a couple of questions.