If Jaipur was all about the writer who never came, Kolkata has been all about Vikram Seth. The short author of fat books (“Yes, fat ‘uns, not fat-was,” he quipped) took to the stage twice on the first day of the Kolkata Literary Meet on Thursday. Inaugurating the six-day gathering of writers — a smattering compared to the truckloads in Jaipur — Seth was there along with Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay whom Seth thanked “for prodding the audience to give him a decent applause”.
In his inaugural speech, the Calcutta-born Seth told the audience that he was actually given the name ‘Amit’ by his mother after the “rather wimpish character in Tagore’s novel, ‘Shesher Kobita’ (The Final Poem)”. Did I detect fellow author Amit Chaudhuri in the front row wince just a wee bit? It turns out that his father’s side of the family would have nothing of ‘Amit’ and went for the more virile ‘Vikram’. “I still have the birth certificate with ‘Amit’ crossed out and ‘Vikram’ written above it,” said Seth.
Say it slow for the journo
Seth made a powerful speech that lambasted the Indian State for ensuring that “a writer” at “another literary festival like this” stayed away. In a later session, a television journalist from a national channel asked him why he hadn’t mentioned ‘Rushdie’ even once. Seth, at his sardonic best, replied that in the morning when he had mentioned “a writer” at “another literary festival”, it was quite obvious to anybody — my telepathic abilities allowed me to hear him think “to anybody with a brain” — that he was talking about “Rushdie and the shameful way” he was treated by the government. “I did not mention him or the incident by name simply because I wanted to underline the principle behind the disgraceful behaviour,” he said. Then very slowly, as if talking to a slow child, Seth said, “Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie. The Satanic Verses. The Satanic Verses. The Satanic Verses. There I said it.” If words could make journalists wither.
Republic Day being a ‘dry day’ posed much problems for many of the authors on Thursday, Vikram Seth included. But after his inaugural speech and before he was to return for a session with writer Ruchir Joshi to discuss his new book, The Rivered Earth, Seth managed to vanish for a while during a session on Tagore. Once on stage again, I noticed a subtle change in the man. There was a kind of frenetic energy — that was certainly put to good use during the rollicking one-and-a-half hour long session — in Seth that was earlier tucked away. He read out, performed, cracked jokes and even sang a tuneful tune in what can only be called (sorry, Oprah) ‘The Vikram Seth Show’.
On one occasion, Seth insisted that he was a lazy writer, taking much time to write his books. Joshi pointed out that the Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam started writing a book as soon as he finished the last one. He had no social or love life. Seth asked Joshi whether Aslam had a “girlfriend or boyfriend”, to which Joshi replied that he went once in a while to London for that purpose. Heaving a sigh of relief, Seth said, “Ah, so that’s when he goes to gather life.”
On another occasion when Joshi asked him how he wrote his manuscripts — “With pen or by keying in?” — Seth told him that almost all his poetry was written by hand, while his prose was mostly on a laptop. He added that he did most of his writing propped up in bed. Joshi pointed out that like the American (gay) writer Truman Capote, Seth also wrote in bed. The funny man shot back, “Yes, but not together at the same time.”