‘Obsession kept me going’: Writer Vikram Seth on 25 years of A Suitable Boy
It’s been 25 years since Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was published. A sprawling novel (1,349 pages in hardback) set after Independence in the fictitious state of Purva Pradesh (roughly, eastern Uttar Pradesh), the book has remained unmatched in its ambition, sweep and elegance. At its heart is the story of a young girl, Lata, and her three suitors. Over the last few years, Seth has been working on the sequel, A Suitable Girl, in which Lata, now an old woman, is looking for a suitable match for her grandson. HT managed to track Seth down in his home in England, where he has been writing the novel, to give a long, exclusive interview (on FaceTime - the wonders of modern technology) to David Davidar in Delhi. Davidar, the co-founder of Aleph Book Company, has been Seth’s editor for nearly 30 years. Excerpts from the interview:
When you wrote A Suitable Boy, did you ever think that it would become one of the most famous books of the last 25 years? Of the lakhs of books that have been published during this period in India alone, it is one of the very, very few to have made an indelible mark on the minds of readers. How does that make you feel?
Well, I certainly didn’t expect it. I thought – let me put it a little immodestly – I thought it was a good book, worth having written and spent a number of years on, but I certainly did not expect this reaction. After all, I had been, in a very minor way, a publisher at Stanford University Press and had put my toe into the rather dangerous publishing waters where the danger is not so much the sharks as the fact that most books, whether good or bad, disappear without a splash. I mean, it seems to me almost random whether a book is recognised or celebrated, whether you’re lucky or unlucky. In my case, I had no way of imagining that a book set in a comparative backwater, as most people thought of Indian history in the 1950s, without a glossary to explain itself, a novel that was far too long, expensive to publish, far too expensive to translate, far too expensive to review (you only get a certain amount to review it and you’ve got to read a thousand plus pages) would do as well as this book did. Anyway, it made me feel very good that it was recognised, but it was a bit of shock.
Why did you even begin to write such a book if you had some idea of the odds that were stacked against it? An old-fashioned quadruple-decker, so to speak, featuring multiple generations of four families, set in 1950s India, running to nearly a million words? What kept you going?
Well, what started me was ignorance, and what kept me going was obsession. It’s not a million words, it’s more like 600,000 words but anyway, I did not know it would be anything like that long. I thought it was basically just Lata’s story, three suitors, rather like the bearers of the gold, silver and lead caskets in The Merchant of Venice. Out of this I felt something would emerge and it would be a quiet and intimate story. I had no idea it was going to grow to be this monster. I couldn’t have. And – to change metaphors – once I was riding the tiger there was no getting off: I needed to know how it would finish if I was not going to end in the tiger’s mouth myself. So my feeling is that had I known, I’m not sure I would have had the courage or rashness to begin. But many of the best things happen that way. Like my hitch-hiking journey across Tibet in From Heaven Lake. I didn’t know that the Friendship Bridge between Tibet and Nepal had been washed away by floods. Had I known I might not have begun. Similarly with The Golden Gate. I’m standing in a bookstore and again I’m obsessed … and I’m thinking, well, there’s no way I can’t write a novel set in California and I didn’t know that on the anvil of that would be sacrificed my Economics PhD. Ignorance is a great way of beginning a large project and obsession – I am not a very disciplined person – is what carried me through.
I’m not sure I agree with the statement that you’re not a very disciplined person. In order to write and to be as productive as you’ve been, you have to have a certain kind of discipline.
Ask my demographics and economics tutors.
Well, in the larger scheme of things…
There are what you would call opportunity costs. So obviously I could either do this or do that and the opportunities forgone were presumably… But it wasn’t a cold calculation, it was just what I had to do. As far as being productive is concerned, yes, if you count the number of words and so on, I suppose so, but I’ve only written three novels in my whole life so far.
Well, there are many writers who’re happy to have got by with one of some worth. And when you look at your three novels, the fact that at least two of the three are being read in very large numbers to this day is very, very rare. In terms of the economics, the value of the output is quite tremendous.
David, are you my publisher by any chance?
Yes (laughs). Let’s talk a bit about how the writing process changes as you grow older. The book you’re writing now, A Suitable Girl, is in the process of being completed in your sixties, whereas A Suitable Boy was composed in your thirties and forties. Is the way you write now different from when you were starting out? Obsession is a trait that you will have till the day you die but when you are writing now, how is it different from when you were writing when you began? And there are other factors too. I know your family plays a central role in your life, especially your mum and dad. Your dad is now of a certain age, your mum passed away recently… How do these things affect the way you write and think about writing?
I’ll have to think on my feet on that. It’s just the process of living, I think. It is true someone said once that you can’t write warts and all about someone perhaps if they’re alive. I know that when my great uncle Shanti was alive I tried several times to write this book Two Lives about his life and the life of my German Jewish great-aunt and I didn’t succeed until after he had died. The other thing is there are certain things you might write about when your parents are alive that you are slightly concerned they might be upset about. But, as a writer, it is your duty to put that sort of thing aside. All of us are going to die sooner or later and there’s no reason to be untrue to the Muse or untrue to your inspiration by being concerned overmuch about what someone might think about you. The most important guard against this is – can you look at yourself in the mirror? For me, fame is not that important. Beyond a certain level – though I do drive a hard bargain – money is not that important. But what is important is control over my time and the love of my family and a very few friends. And the fact that I can look at myself with some kind of respect and not feel ashamed at looking at myself in the mirror when I shave in the morning. Or if I were a woman, just making up my face. This is at the heart of it and then perhaps if you can do some good in the world, great, and if you cannot, at least don’t do too much harm. So those are the general principles.
Now I’m an extremely lucky person in that I actually know what I want to do in life and what I love doing. It came upon me rather late, in my thirties, when I’d already spent quite a lot of time trying to be an economist, but at least I got it. And the richness of those years when I was not following what turned out to be my vocation, the richness of content that those years gave me, entered the exercise of my vocation. That is why for example A Suitable Boy, instead of being just a love story, became a story about economics, politics, a larger vista, Indian life, the fact that our lives are determined by macro as well as micro forces. And talking of macro, it is always a great comfort to me in these matters that it’s not just my parents or my family that will die but I too. It’s a huge comfort because when you’re dead there’s no fear, there’s no shame, there’s nothing. And the second thing is that we’re so tiny. I mean, like someone once mentioned to me that we have a hundred billion stars per galaxy and a hundred billion galaxies in our known universe. Now, I mean, seriously, to start fretting about this, that and the other is just not worth it. It’s a huge comfort to know (a) how trivial we are and (b) how important our lives are to ourselves.
That leads me on to something which I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on. What’s the point of art, in this case, writerly art? Is it sufficient unto itself or is there a point to writing?
Well, one thought that rises in my mind is that writers are just people, ordinary citizens. It’s not as if they have to have an opinion on everything. Not at all. It’s not as if they’re there to fill column inches every time something happens in the world, they may have their thoughts, their thoughts may be complex or they may not have thoughts on a particular subject. But as to the purposes of writing, I think when I write a poem, I’m not thinking: this is my purpose in writing. If I wrote a short poem, say, ‘All You Who Sleep Tonight’, it may have an effect on people. It moves me when I hear that that poem was posted on the wall of a hospital somewhere or it was read out by someone to someone at a time of grief or trouble, but that was not my point as such in writing it. It just emerged. But I will tell you something. You know, this actually has been encapsulated better by a friend, a mentor and an inspirer of mine, Timothy Steele, than by myself. When I wrote The Golden Gate, he encouraged and helped me, he was like the co-bard in this endeavour and certainly the co-muse and I dedicated The Golden Gate to him, but he dedicated his next book to me in the same Onegin stanza that I’d used in The Golden Gate. In my dedication to him, which was in sonnet form, I was basically just thanking him – but Tim’s response to my dedication is a complete encapsulation of why we write, what is the point of writing.
Here’s the poem:
We enter life and thus inherit
The kingdom of the human voice.
The Word is Word because we share it.
Wonder encourages our choice
To sort out life’s conflicting data,
To come to terms with its traumata,
To shape ourselves to nothing less
Than reasoned self-forgetfulness.
For years we’ve traded rhyme and measure,
And if our poems are books today,
It is in hopes that others may
Take from them solace, sense, or pleasure,
Though years pass with their wonted speed
And though the times we shared recede.
Let’s take that line ‘Where others … take … solace, sense, or pleasure,’ and apply it to A Suitable Boy. Off the top of your mind, what has been the most rewarding response you’ve had to the book from anybody?
Two or three different thoughts come to my mind. One is when a grandmother, mother and a daughter stood in line at a bookstore and said we’ve all read this book and we’ve all played hooky from whatever we should have been doing at the time.
How wonderful. Where was this?
It was in Calcutta. And I said to the daughter, when did your mother read this book and she said well, when she was pregnant, and I said, then your head must have been flat when you were born, are you minded to sue me and she said no, not yet. So I’m waiting for the fourth generation, two flat heads and then perhaps they’ll take it upon themselves to do so. That was one. The second was an American woman who wrote to me saying, Dear Mr Seth, this is a letter in the form of a story, not quite as long and complex as your story but I feel impelled to tell it. She sent it via my publishers. She said the story was about her father who was a great lover of English literature and a professor. In his last days in hospital, he found it very difficult to read anything except his favourite classics but then she introduced my book to him and they would read it to each other. It’s associated with the last year of his life in her mind and at his funeral they read that thing that I translated – Uth jaag musafir bhor bhayi…from Gandhi’s Ashram ‘Rachnavali’. Rise traveller, the sky is light – why do you sleep, it is not night. And she said it was like a prayer. And the third thing that occurs to me is rather funny. A friend of mine was in a room and I wanted to do something, so I called him and said, ‘Hey, are you busy or something?’ and then I went into the room and found him sitting on a beanbag and he stared at me rather crossly and shooed me out of the room. Just as I was going out I was thinking, but that’s my book you’re reading! I remember feeling rather annoyed – here I am the writer wanting a bit of his time and there he is reading my bloody book.
However, I should also mention I have had a lot of people tell me how dreadfully boring and long-winded they found my book to be and how at the end of the book they wanted to fling it across the room etc etc.
When you write do you find that you’re trying to make sense of the world to yourself? Is that one of the reasons you write?
I must be at some level, I suppose, but I don’t try to analyse myself too much. When I’m writing, a poem, for example, maybe so, I’m trying to make sense of my emotions – but when you’re writing a novel you actually are trying to get into the heads of different characters who are each trying to make sense of the world in their own very different, sometimes conflicting ways; or perhaps they don’t give a damn about the world, they’re more concerned about whether smoked hilsa is made with gur and puffed rice or not.
Tell me, Vikram, who is in your corner when you write? What keeps pushing you forward besides just the act of writing and inspiration… imagine you’re a boxer, who’s in your corner?
A very, very interesting question. Let me think for a few seconds. I have an ideal intelligent reader, but the reader changes from book to book. One of the criteria of the character or personality of this reader is that they should know the life and times and world of which I’m writing. So, for example, when writing A Suitable Boy I wasn’t thinking of a Westerner, I was thinking of someone who had lived in India in the 1950s or early ’60s or even late ’40s and who understood the world I was writing about, to whom I didn’t have to explain what paan was or who Purshottamdas Tandon was, whatever. I mean, I just took it for granted. So, no glossary, nothing. That’s the intelligent, informed reader. Similarly, with An Equal Music, someone who knew Western music. I wasn’t going to explain for the sake of an Indian reader what the basic concepts of Western music were any more than I was going to explain to the Western reader or European reader what the background of Indian politics was. Nor in the case of The Golden Gate was I going to explain for the East Coast reader what the West Coast was like or change the American spelling for the sake of a British public. In fact, some of the rhymes in that book are American rhymes, I rhyme ‘z’ with philosophy… so the ideal reader for me is someone who knows the world I am writing about – whose heart may resonate with the true notes, but who will notice when there is a false note.
What else do you watch out for when you’re writing?
You have to have an inbuilt bullshit detector…
Hemingway called it that.
Hemingway called it that and he is absolutely right. The other thing I keep in mind is from Auden where he implies, don’t try to be ‘with-it, with-it, with it, till you’re dead’. There’s no point in going by fashion, there’s no point in going by the praise of other people. All you have is your face in the mirror, your words on the page and, really, do you want this to go out under your name or do you, in a world which still publishes books based on the pulp of trees, do you want to be chopping trees down for the sake of this particular paragraph?
That is a very pure way of being a writer. I don’t think there are too many writers who think that way any more, but at the same time I know you’re also a very street-smart, worldly-wise person… How do these two people walk in tandem?
The first thing I should say…the first one is about a pure way of looking at things. To some extent I can afford this purity because I write in English where there is a large readership, because I don’t have a family to support, because the economics of it conduces somewhat to it. But far greater writers than myself like Chekhov had to write quite a lot – some of his stories are absolutely marvellous but some of them are just potboilers. Even Shakespeare was concerned about how many people he could pack into the Globe…so the idea of purity is always mixed up with the idea of practicality. Can you put bums on seats? Even Verdi was concerned about that. So much for purity, it’s a mixed thing. The second thing is really a question of how you can be street-smart at the same time as keeping your truth to the Word. The Word is Word because we share it, the Word is also the Word because we do not pollute it and I think that I’m willing to monetise the periphery as long as I can keep the core pure. I would not change a semi-colon in a thousand-page book unless I believed that there was a point to it.
Absolutely. I must say I recognise that from the experience of editing you... But I must also say that editing you has always been a very pleasurable experience because if you saw the point of an editorial suggestion, you were quick to take it up… That could only come because you were very clear about what you wanted to say, and how you wanted to say it…There’s something that I was curious about, which is between a sonnet and A Suitable Boy there are a few hundred thousand words. How do the two of them spring from the same creative brain because that’s fairly rare?
Yes…but there have been others…
Pasternak for example.
Pasternak, exactly. Or in the French tradition, Hugo. In the English tradition you can find someone like DH Lawrence. Or take Thomas Hardy, who is a superb poet. I mean, one of the greatest poets in English, but also a wonderful, wonderful novelist. (Not a good playwright, though! He failed in that, but what’s the harm in failing?) I think you can walk into very different rooms and feel your way about until you come to the light switch. Take Pushkin or Tagore or Goethe who are completely protean, they write in so many different forms. On the other hand, take somebody like Jane Austen who only wrote in one – but superbly. I think writers come in all shapes and sizes and writers themselves are either hedgehogs or foxes.
Yes. Which one are you?
Clearly a fox.
Is that why you try and write a different book every time?
Occasionally, I’m a fox who grows a few spines. In the sense that if you’re writing a very long novel then you have to be a hedgehog, and then your later avatars can make you into a fox or hedgehog or a hedgehog-y fox or a foxy hedgehog. I fear this analogy has run its course.
Okay, a few last questions, Vikram. The first has nothing to do with A Suitable Boy but has to do with Section 377. You felt strongly enough about it to come out… What do you feel about the Supreme Court judgment decriminalising Section 377?
It’s an amazing judgment or rather a set of four judgments. In a curious way, this long battle, which began about 25 years ago, and then with the Naz Foundation thing a little later than that, has gone through various phases of being. It went back and forth between the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court and was sent back to the Delhi High Court to be judged on the merits. There was the humane and well-reasoned 2009 Delhi High Court judgment of Shah and Muralidharan being overturned by the rather absurd Supreme Court judgment of Singhvi and Mukhopadhyay delivered on what I call 11-12-13, a date that will live on in minor infamy. The Supreme Court tried to right this by referring it to a larger bench, originally through the idea of a curative petition and now via this Constitutional bench. The five people who brought up the petition deserve a huge amount of credit, as do all the people who have fought for this result through the many years and reverses, the lawyers, the activists, all the persistent and courageous people who have had a hand in this.
But a great deal of credit goes to the five people on the Bench. Justice Chandrachud’s judgment, I would say, is the most signal judgment of them. And I say that though the Chief Justice’s judgment (which was assented to by Justice Khanwilkar) and the judgment of Justice Nariman, and that of Justice Malhotra are all remarkable in their own right, and bring up different and germane aspects of the case.
But the most important point – other than the actual decriminalisation (or should I say re-decriminalisation?) is this – the government wanted to restrict the decision of the court to the very narrow question of the decriminalisation or otherwise of homosexuality, whether 377 was a sound law or not and needed to be read down: the judges should restrict themselves to that point and not go beyond that. On that particular point the government took no stance, and left it to ‘the wisdom of the court’.
Justice Chandrachud did not need to do so, but he made it clear that the matter goes far beyond the question of decriminalisation.
He stated that it would behoove them as a court to remember that flattery is the graveyard of the gullible. The court should not be led astray by blandishments about their wisdom but, rather, decide on sound Indian Constitutional principles how far this judgment should or should not go. He straightforwardly states that discrimination in any form is not acceptable. So I think today we should celebrate the judgment and also restate our admiration for the activists, the jurists, and so on who made it possible. We should also be grateful in a way, in a strange way, that out of the trauma and reverse of 2013 came something that, with regard to sexual minorities at least, casts a hopeful searchlight into the future.
If I recall, more than one judgment talked about the inclusiveness of the Indian Constitution under Ambedkarite principles. Inclusiveness, the idea of fraternity, to my mind, must also include our respect for other religions, castes, linguistic groups, the tribal people of India and so on.
You have been very outspoken about the treatment meted out to tribals, especially in central India.
I’ve spent time in Chhattisgarh, I’ve spent time elsewhere, too; the tribal people of India are, to state the obvious, every bit as much citizens of this country as you and I, David. And their lives are being ruined. If there are even 7–8 per cent of the people that are tribal, that’s about a 100 million people – 10 crore Indians. They are being made pawns in a game of land grab – for greed; and pawns in a game of numbers grab – for power. In the latter case, the idea is to increase the size of your voting block, or the size of your religious flock. Now Christian missionaries, Hindu missionaries, everyone, is undermining their way of life, their beliefs, down to their funeral practices in an attempt at either Sanskritisation or gospelisation. But even worse than that is the land grab: their land is being robbed, their environment polluted, and their sacred places are being desecrated, out of sheer greed. It’s as if coal or bauxite were to be discovered under the Jama Masjid or Kashi Vishwanath or the Golden Temple, and we should feel free to rip them up…
Their villages have been burnt, they have been herded out of their settlements into distant camps, they have often been imprisoned under the accusation of being Maoists, and held in jail for years without trial. And now, those people who try to help them are being accused of being violent Maoists and seditionists, on the flimsiest of evidence. Take, for example, someone like Sudha Bharadwaj. She is a noble person who has given up her life to help the disadvantaged, and ridiculous and very likely fabricated evidence is being used against her. We really cannot have that in our country. We cannot wait for every case to go up to the Supreme Court before justice is granted to protect the livelihood, sometimes even the lives, of our country’s tribal citizens and those who try to help them.
Last question. You showed me, some time ago, a scheme to write a series of books of fiction, that included A Suitable Boy and A Suitable Girl that would be collectively called A Bridge of Leaves. I think you told me you imagined this as a branch of a great pipal tree stretching out over the Ganga. Is that still on your mind?
Yes, indeed, it’s not only on my mind, it’s on my nib! I don’t really want to talk too much about it because it’s work in progress, but this is how it came about. There was a very long temporal gap between A Suitable Boy and A Suitable Girl, first because I’m 30 years older now and, second, because the period in which the 20-year-old Lata was living then – actually it’s not just the story of Lata, it’s the story of Lata and of Maan – and the period that Lata is living in now at the age of 80, are 60 years apart. I found that, in order to write Girl, I needed some stepping stones for myself so that I could understand what had happened to the various characters in the intervening period.
So I started in my own mind constructing a sort of novella or short novel set in the ’60s round the time of the Indo-Pak war, another in the ’70s around the time of the very Emergency, how Maan is on the run, is captured and what happens when the Supreme Court judgment comes down quashing the High Court judgments which had shown so much courage in the matter of human freedom. So that’s the ’70s. The ’80s was around the time of the assassination of Mrs Gandhi: a Sikh officer is going by train from Calcutta to Delhi. It takes place over the course of a day. The ’90s is a much more expansive novella covering not just one day but ten years, about Lata and Haresh as grandparents with their various responsible and irresponsible children and their various responsible and irresponsible, lovable and unlovable grandchildren; and then finally a novella set in the first decade of this century, 2000-2009, immediately before A Suitable Girl: it’s a love story which I won’t go into, a very concentrated love story. Thinking about these five novellas helped me to understand the children, the grandchildren, the ferment, the turmoil, how India has changed over the various years… And finally I set two books of short stories, one at the very beginning (before Boy) called Independence (which draws in from the past) and one at the very end (after Girl) called Oblivion (which leads into the future). But I see Oblivion not necessarily in a disconsolate way but also in the way that some of us envision it: a blessed and longed-for nirvana.