Vikram Seth, the celebrated author, was in a reminiscent mood at the launch of his four libretti, The Rivered Earth at the Penguin Spring Fever recently. Reciting some of his poems in the book, set to marvellous music by the composer Alec Roth, to a packed and rapt audience, he recalled his writing career. He had been on course to complete his PhD in Economics at Stanford and had even finished his fieldwork in China. Taking a break and sauntering through a bookshop in San Francisco, he came across Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin’s literary style completely consumed him.
He abandoned his plans for the PhD and resolved to do a novel in verse. Thus was The Golden Gate born and it took him 13 months to complete it. Seth mentioned that he had no idea how it would be received; after all, a novel in verse was something new and he was just another new figure on the literary scene. As everyone knows, The Golden Gate was published to critical acclaim by Random House in the US and Canada and by Faber in Britain.
At the launch of Two Lives in Delhi some years ago, while I stepped up to meet him, he nudged Shantum, his brother, and said, “You know, they were the first to publish me in India.” I was happy he still remembered after all these years. I thought that at some future date, I must clarify the circumstances of our first publishing Seth in India. The ‘they’ in question was, of course, the Oxford University Press (OUP) and I thought it fitting to write this during OUP’s centenary year. I also mentioned the circumstances of OUP’s publishing The Golden Gate to Seth on the sidelines of the launch of The Rivered Earth.
Late in the year 1985, a few of us had gathered in a colleague’s room to have lunch. In those days in the OUP, it was customary for lunch to be laid out in the pantry and all of us had to line up and help ourselves. Rukun Advani, my editorial colleague, Bhaumik from production and I were sitting in another colleague, RK Jain’s room. Ravi Dayal, our general manager and one of the finest publishers we had the privilege of working with, sauntered in, plate in hand. He kept standing as there was no place for him to sit. Suddenly, he said, “Chaps, I have just received two advance copies of this new book The Golden Gate from Faber. I think they intend to publish this in January 1986, Random House in the US and Faber in Britain. It’s a novel in verse by some Indian guy, Vikram Seth!” Ravi then began to recite some lines from the book (he had only received the copies in the morning). We were representing Faber in India and Ravi wanted to know whether we thought there was a market for this book in India.
We were intrigued and I asked Ravi to recite some lines from the book. Ravi went to get the book from his room, and still standing, read some stanzas. The effect was electrifying. We straightaway decided to import copies from Faber for release in 1986. We started modestly but the copies sold and it was reviewed very well in the press. Khushwant Singh hailed Seth as ‘a new star in the literary firmament’ in The Illustrated Weekly of India.
Knowing that we could only sell limited copies at the special Indian price, we asked Faber for permission to reprint. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, as I look back at my copy of the OUP India edition of The Golden Gate, I am proud to see the print year as 1986, the same year it was published in the US and Britain. The price was just Rs 55.
Seth was very happy to see his book published and distributed in India. For the record, we published Seth’s book of poems The Humble Administrator’s Garden till Penguin burst on the Indian literary scene. In spite of a beseeching letter from Rukun, Seth shifted allegiance to Penguin, and OUP’s association with him became history.
Sridhar Balan worked in the OUP from 1985 till the end of 2002
The views expressed by the author are personal