He's been in the news both for his views on Section 377 and the sequel to his much-loved ‘A Suitable Boy’. Vikram Seth in conversation with ZIYA US SALAM..
Delhi is enveloped in the first fog of the season and I find myself in a little cocoon all my own. I am pacing up and down Le Meridien’s reception — with anxiety as a constant, if undesirable, companion — waiting to meet Vikram Seth. He is preceded, however, by his image. In my mind, I go through all that I have read or heard about him — far from an ideal rehearsal, as I was to soon find out.
Vikram Seth is known to be shy. Did someone say, ‘hermit’? He is also said to be a man of few words — never mind that he has written what is probably the longest single-volume novel. A Suitable Boy, after all, was only a little under 1,400 pages. He is also a no-nonsense man who does not brook incompetence and shoddiness. Hey, isn’t he a punctual man, who hates to keep others waiting? I look at my watch. There’s still four minutes left for our luncheon appointment. In walks Vikram Seth. In his light-blue shirt, dark blue jacket and a matching blue tie, he could have come from a boardroom meeting. He has, in fact, been driven down from his home in Noida.
He is not in a particularly amiable mood, at least partly due to the driver. He expresses his displeasure to a representative of his publishers before settling down for the conversation.
I remember how I felt a couple of years ago when I stepped on stage to speak to noted Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif as part of the opening programme for The Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai and my eyes fell on Vikram Seth, sitting in the first row! I remind him of that and Vikram shows his jovial side. “I made you edgy? Good, being edgy is a great way to interview anybody.” In that case, I am fairly well equipped today, I say to myself.
Vikram has been in the news lately for his views on Section 377 following the Supreme Court verdict that makes consensual relations between adults of the same gender a crime. “Choose your parents with care,” Vikram is reported to have said, half in jest. “Ah! That was a piece of advice I had to give. I am not so good at being avuncular. My parents were loving, generous and, now I know, courageous. They are called Prem and Leela; even their names are all about love and teaching to love. But, coming to the judgement, I feel all those who say that homosexual relations go against the law of nature and against our own tradition ignore the Kama Sutra, the Khajuraho and Konark temples, the memoirs of Babur, the works of Mir Taqi Mir.”
A few sentences on Section 377 and society’s perception of alternate sexuality, and Vikram puts a full stop to the subject. Semi-colon, actually, as it turns out.
For the moment, though, he would rather talk of A Suitable Girl, which made news when he was reportedly asked to return the astronomical advance for $1.7 million for not complying with the deadline.
However, Penguin’s loss is Aleph’s gain. In some ways, this marks a homecoming for Vikram, as David Davidar, then with Penguin India, edited the much-loved A Suitable Boy. “Yes, it is like coming home with David. I have a better equation with him than with any other editor. I gave him a hard time when the book was going to press. It is not that we did not have differences of opinion but they were always sorted out. We were very concerned that the first Indian edition should be as handsome as any other. And I guess, it was; though I must admit I used to have doubts about how the book would do internationally. ‘Here is such a long book set in the 1950s. Who will read it unless pregnant or ill?’ I thought. Why would a bookstore manager shove it there on the shelf when he could fit three books in its place? And to top it all, the book had no glossary. Words like chapati and paan were not explained. Wouldn’ t foreigners be put off? One of my uncles, an Anglophile whom I made a little fun of, was quite upset, but as an author you cannot pull your punches.”
That was a little ripple against the stream. So, Vikram should be all gung-ho talking about A Suitable Girl. Again there is a surprise in store, this time not a pleasant one. The plans with Penguin London and the attendant news of the author getting an astronomical signing amount fell flat as the deal was cancelled without so much as a ‘by your leave’ from the author. He is clearly distressed when he talks of Penguin U.K. “When I look back at Penguin U.K., I feel they behaved disgracefully. The Penguin India people behaved extremely well; like true gentlemen, if I could include Chikki (Sarkar) in that term. The Delhi office was not even consulted by London before they called off the deal.”
He reveals that Penguin U.K. — having agreed not to limit his freedom of speech (except understandably, with regard to the commercial terms of the settlement) — asked him to sign a document. “It’s exactly what we agreed,” they said. “We trust that it won’t be contentious.” For some reason, he decided to glance over it again. He found that, in this final draft, Penguin U.K. had inserted a gagging clause. Had he signed the document, he would have never been able to talk about how Penguin U.K. behaved, or been able to tell other writers about its treatment of its writers — or attitude towards literature — or its unsavoury methods of negotiation, or the draconian light in which it now proposed to deal with books delivered late.
Yet the Indian media went to town with the news that Vikram Seth had been asked to return the signature advance. Didn’t he get flustered by all the talk surrounding money for a work of literature? “For the media, anything out of the ordinary makes news. I can’t really blame the media. It is unfortunate that only the figure got highlighted, not the substance of the book. I shouldn’t even say whether the figure quoted was right or wrong. But the media is, by compulsion, headline hunting,” says Vikram.
This calm appraisal, this no-holds-barred talk is in contrast to my perception of his being unreservedly shy. “I am shy, though I realise in certain circumstances you’ve got to be candid. I was much more shy earlier, I could not even look into the eyes of the person I was talking to; I would fidget and feel uneasy… But then I met this woman in New York who was in her 80s. She was so much at ease with herself. She told me that earlier she too used to think about what people would think of her. Now what mattered was what she thought of them. Her casual words, which she could not recall in our subsequent meeting, changed my life. But honestly, every writer has to have reserve as well as emotion. You could call that trait shyness or a retreat into oneself, but whatever it is, it is a necessary concomitant to a writer’s imagination. Someone once called me a gregarious hermit!”
That New York meeting helped, as did lessons in Hindustani classical music under the late Pandit Amarnath from whom he learnt khayal for 10 years before getting down to learning western classical music too. “I used to do riyaz for hours. But then I had to go to the university, learn languages. One day, my guru questioned my sadhna...” The same sadhna came in handy when he became a novelist. It is the something he will have to draw upon to put together A Suitable Girl. “Look, I know you want to know about it, but I cannot talk much about the plot. It is like cooking something in a pressure cooker. I cannot open the lid to peek inside. It would only spoil the dish.” Nudge him a little and he relents. “It is set in contemporary times, there will be politics, religion … all that needs to be said will be there,n o matter how uncomfortable it may make people...”
He learnt Urdu for A Suitable Boy, is he doing something similar for A Suitable Girl? “I learnt Urdu because I wanted to have a feel for my characters, many of whom were Muslim. Earlier, I could not read Ghalib and Mir without translations. Then I learnt the language. Now I can do khatati (calligraphy) in Urdu. But am I doing something similar for Girl? Well, time will tell. All I can say is that the Girl will definitely be ready by 2016. I am a slow writer.” Meanwhile, somebody calls to ask, “Aap aa rahe ho?” Vikram immediately corrects her, “It should be either Aap aa rahein hain or Tum aa rahe ho!” The nuances are all in place.
Back to Section 377. “You are entertaining a criminal,” he says. I laugh feebly. “No, I am serious. The Section makes me a criminal.” But, for a change, there have been protests from different sections of society; though heterosexual people are not speaking up — the Act makes oral sex between opposite genders a crime too. “It is hypocrisy. Every time you acquiesce in injustice, you help perpetuate it. It hits us only when it is in our social or family circle. In the U.S. too, the Republicans spoke up only when it hit them.” His words remind me of Martin Neimöller’s, “First, they came for the Communists/And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist”. “The analogy holds only to a limited extent,” he adds.
Isn’t it easier for a homosexual to come out to today? “It is both easier and more difficult than before. Where are the role models for them? In some ways, it is easier because there are a handful of privileged people speaking out. Difficult because, again, so many persons in privileged positions in the world of business and politics keep quiet. It is not easy for parents to handle this either... But to all those who feel it is against the law of nature, one could perhaps point out that reading and writing are also not natural activities. Elephants don’t write and I believe that very few of them can read either.” For a few minutes, he is somewhat agitated, even angry. Next moment, he is back to being a charmer, as much a master of the spoken word as the written. Soon I find myself on the porch of Le Meridien as he waits for the driver to show up. “You are so different from my perception,” I tell him. “Such a lovely conversationalist.”
“I am shy, believe me but I cannot always be quiet with my friends or sit with a long face saying, ‘I am a writer, I am a writer’. Of course, at times I do. But it is always good to be cheerful. As a writer I do draw boundaries,” he says. His car arrives, and Vikram Seth is on his way. I step out of my little cocoon too. The fog has well and truly lifted.
The author at home
“I don’t read much. I love spending time with my family and friends, which leaves little time for anything else,” he says. “I am used to being bullied at home. My sister is a photographer and she keeps taking my pictures. She tells me, ‘stand straight, look this side, turn that way...’ I keep taking her instructions.”
He happily confesses to acute limitations when it comes to domestic chores. “I am no help at home. I cannot cook, I cannot mend a plug. I don't drive,” he says, then adds cheerfully, almost as a sop, “I can make my bed.” But then he can write!