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Know yourself, be yourself to write well, says Vikram Seth at Panjab University

Seth’s advice to aspiring writers: Don’t bother about trends, literature will take care of itself in the future as well.

punjab Updated: Jan 10, 2018 12:28 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
write well,Vikram Seth,Panjab University
Vikram Seth during a talk in Panjab University, Chandigarh, on Monday. (Sikander Singh/HT)

Be yourself. Know yourself. Write what you feel absolutely compelled to write. Don’t examine too closely what comes to you naturally.

If you were to distill author-poet-translator Vikram Seth’s thoughts on being a writer in 50-odd words, these sentences would pretty much sum it up.

In Chandigarh for the second Prof Urmi Kessar Memorial Oration, Seth, wearing a lime green sweater with a hole at the elbow, was at his charming best, as he parried the interlocutor Dr Pushpinder Syal and the audience, which had come in the hope of finding the secret to becoming a successful writer.

On ties with Chandigarh

But first, he held forth on his three ties with the City Beautiful. The first, he recounted, proved to be “ashubh” when he got down with jaundice soon after pedalling down from Dehradun to the city at the age of 13. The second was his mother Justice Leela Seth, who chaired the three-person committee tasked with choosing the present PU vice-chancellor Arun Grover. “Your V-C was chosen by my mother, so partly by me,” he flashed an impish grin.

“Don’t do anything for an hour every day. Switch off your phone, your mind, your family. Know yourself.” — Vikram Seth, author

Chandigarh, he said, is also home to his house master Gurdial Singh. “He is my guru, his house is like a shrine for me,” said Seth, striking a chord with the gathering of gurus as he praised his geography teacher for his integrity, and his explanation of the Tropic of Cancer in Urdu.

On poetry and prose

When gently steered to his poetry and poetic translations by Syal, Seth said he was satisfied if his translations could capture even 10% of the original. Rhyme, he said, came to him naturally. “Writing poetry without rhyme and meter is like playing tennis without a net,” he said.

When Syal suggested that his poetry had an elegiac tone, he said, “When you write a poem, the idea is not to console yourself…You tend to write poetry when you are alone, when you are sad, melancholy.” His Beastly Tales, he said, were in a lighter vein though four out of 10 poems deal with death or violence. “As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘life doesn’t cease to be a comedy if people die and nor does it cease to be a tragedy if people laugh’.”

(Left) PU vice-chancellor Arun Kumar Grover (front row, 4th from the left) during a talk by author Vikram Seth at Prof Urmi Kessar Memorial Oration in PU on Monday. (Sikander Singh/HT)

On the state of literature at present, and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro‘s view that good writing and good reading breaks down barriers, Seth said his view of literature wasn’t as didactic or “teachy-preachy”.

Seth, who read out his English translations of three Chinese poets, admitted that writing in regional languages was not doing as well as in English. “Writers in other languages not only have a hard time in getting heard but they also find it difficult to stay afloat.”

Ever sensitive to the occasion, a family’s tribute to a wife, a mother, Prof Urmi Kessar, Seth spoke at length about his mother Leela Seth, the first woman chief justice of a state, who decided to pen her autobiography at the age of 78. “It was a bit irritating to be bounced off the bestseller list by your mother,” he smiled fondly.

Later when a member of the audience pointed out how behind every successful man was a surprised woman, he recounted how his mother feared for his future when he decided to quit economics at Oxford to start writing. “She used to tell my younger brother to look out for me. And then, my book got this huge advance.”

On writing

On writer’s block, he said, “Get out of it by writing something completely different.” “I also suffer from writer’s cramp and fear of the audience,” he confessed, telling the gathering how he’dfortified himself with a drink before the oration.

On being original, he declared, “Nothing is original under the sun, except your way of saying it.”

Telling the aspiring writers to not bother too much about trends, he said literature will take care of itself in the future as well. His only advice was Zen like: “Don’t do anything for an hour every day. Switch off your phone, your mind, your family. Know yourself.”

That is the key.

First Published: Jan 09, 2018 13:26 IST