Seth, Vikram

Biography

Image by Chris Boland/CC licensed

A small, wiry soap opera enthusiast with well-defined features and a ready smile, Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta in 1952 (also the home of Indian literary giant Rabindranath Tagore). Throughout Seth’s childhood, his father Prem Seth was a shoe company executive and his mother Laila Seth served as a judge. Vikram Seth is the oldest of three — his brother conducts Buddhist meditational tours and his youngest sister serves as an Austrian diplomat (Robinson, Rachlin).

After completing his primary education, Seth left India to study at Oxford, earning a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics (a PPE degree). He further enrolled at Standord University, intending to earn a PhD in Economics, but never completed his study. While at Stanford, Seth was also a also a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing from 1977-1978. During a period from 1980-1982, he studied classical Chinese poetry and different languages at Nanjing University in China. Seth mentions that he “never had any passion for economics, not what I felt for writing poetry” (Robinson). But Seth does comment upon his failure to complete a PhD: “I feel a bit of regret that I didn’t finish my Ph.D. I’m interested in it, but it’s not a passion, the way writing is” (Rachlin).

Seth’s books of poetry include Mappings (1980), From Heaven Lake (1983), which discusses a hitchhiking trip through Nepal into India that Seth took while studying in China, The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985), All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990), Beastly Tales (1991), Three Chinese Poets (1992), The Frog and the Nightingale (1994). These works broach a variety of subjects indicative of Seth’s education and experiences, evidenced in a passage from All You Who Sleep Tonight entitled “Sit” (Seth, 20):

Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile.
You’re twenty-six, and still have some life ahead.
No need for wit; just talk vacuities, and I’ll
Reciprocate in kind, or laugh at you instead. The world is too opaque, distressing and profound.
This twenty minutes’ rendezvous will make my day:
To sit here in the sun, with grackles all around,
Staring with beady eyes, and you two feet away.

In 1986, Vikram Seth wrote The Golden Gate, his first novel, called “Byronesque” by some critics (Perry). The Golden Gate, which is a novel composed entirely of rhyming tentrameter sonnets — 690 of them to be precise — is a satirical romance describing the stories of young professionals in San Francisco throughout their quests and questions to find, then deal with, love in their own lives as well as each others’. After this initial work, Seth slowly produced A Suitable Boy, the 1,349 page colossus whose publication in 1993 propelled Seth into the public spotlight. After this novel’s success, Seth followed it up with An Equal Music (1999) and a forthcoming sequel titled A Suitable Girl.

In addition to Vikram Seth’s literary and poetic achievements, he was commissioned by the English National Opera to write a libretto based on the Greek legend of Arion and the Dolphin. The opera was performed for the first time in June 1994. Orion Children’s Books subsequently published a picture book based on the opera in which Vikram Seth’s words are illustrated by the internationally acclaimed artist Jane Ray. The book has since been made into a twenty-five minute animated special entitled “Arion and the Dolphin” which has shown in Australia, Canada, Iceland, Malta, New Zealand, and throughout the United Kingdom.

On “A Suitable Boy”

“I have little doubt that. … Vikram Seth is already the best writer of his generation,” and “Three and a half pounds of perfection” (in reference to A Suitable Boy), Eugene Robinson and Jonathan Yardley said respectively. Both writers are literary critics for The Washington Post. This feeling is mirrored by many of the least yielding critics, who have compared Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy to works by literary figures such as George Eliot, Goethe, Leo Tolstoy. Other critics, such as Richard Jenkyns of The New Republic, have remarked that the piece is a “decent, unremarkable, second-rate novel.” Seth has been placed among a slurry of post-independence writers examining postcolonial themes who have burst into the international literary arena.

After The Golden Gate had been published, Seth decided to write a short piece about India’s early years, but labored over A Suitable Boy for almost a decade. After writing the first five hundred pages, Seth lost his momentum, feeling that the novel wasn’t detailed accurately, and conducted research in India for more than a year, also spending time living in a village and with his family in order to find a way of weaving his intricate story together.

A Suitable Boy is written with a subtle, unobtrusive style which Vikram Seth attributes to his own taste and beliefs. “The kinds of books I like reading are books where the authorial voice doesn’t intrude too much — 19th-century novels, and some 20th-century novels as well,” Seth said. “They don’t try to pull you up with the brilliance of their sentences as much as pull you into a world.” Seth further remarked that “with such a large cast of characters, a strong voice would have been too much. Easy writing makes damn hard reading, and I think the opposite is true as well. The book is not more difficult to read than it has to be” (Robinson). True to his word, the novel begins with a statement from Voltaire, “The secret of being a bore is to say everything” (Seth 1).

This novel is set in the political hotbed of India during the post-independence, post-partition decade of the 1950s. This story examines the inner workings and travails of four families, the Kapoors, Mehras, Chatterjis (Hindus) and the Khans (Muslims). Two primary characters in this story are Mrs. Rupa Mehra and Lata, her marriagable but rebellious youngest daughter. Seth is most proud of his vibrant Mrs. Mehra, who is based in part on Seth’s grandmother, also named Rupa Mehra, and whom Seth calls “the muse of the project” (Bemrose). Rupa Mehra is a widow whose mission throughout the novel is to take care of her family, and in particular, the search for a husband of suitable, Hindu character for Lata. However, at the same time, Lata is torn by her mother’s wishes and her own love for a Muslim boy.

In the background rests the underlying Hindu/Muslim conflict which saturated the period following the independence of both India and Pakistan, and which continues to batter the South Asian subcontinent today. In the novel, conflict occurs between Hindus and Muslims in the fictional city of Brahmpur, where the story is primarily set. Seth sees A Suitable Boy as a plea for religious tolerance, among other things. He says, “It is an insult to Hinduism that these people have hijacked what it means to be Hindu,” he said. “It’s tolerance, understanding — not just trying to bash your neighbor over the head because he is Muslim. These things need to be said” (Robinson).

Reportedly, Seth was given a $375,000 advance for “A Suitable Boy” from his British publisher, Phoenix House, and $600,000 by HarperCollins in New York (Robinson). The novel was originally more than 2,000 pages in length. After receiving lesser offers from his publishers, Seth revised the work, and finally sired a literary Goliath that is 3.5 lbs, 1,349 pages(Yardley). To Seth’s surprise, bids the second time around were much larger than the less-than-$10,000 income he had previously managed with, and the novel was published in April of 1993.

From that point forward, Vikram Seth has become a rising star. The novel won The Connect Award in 1993 and launched Seth into a slew of interviews, talk shows, and book signings on his book tour. He mentioned, “By the end of this, by the time this is over, I’ll be a most unsuitable boy” (Robinson). However, many readers and critics alike were dismayed when A Suitable Boy was left out of the race for the Booker Prize in 1993. Seth’s work was not among the six novels nominated for the prize, which was ultimately awarded to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha on October 26, 1993.

Works Cited

  • Anonymous. “The Booker Prize: Devalued.” Economist 329:7834 (1993)
  • Bemrose, John. “Full-Lotus Fiction.” Maclean’s 106:22 (1993):46-48.
  • Jenkyns, Richard. “A Suitable Boy (book review).” The New Republic 208 (1993): 41.
  • Perry, John Oliver. “World Literature Review: Indian.” World Literature Today 65:3 (1991): 549-551.
  • Quinn, Judy. “A Reunion for Seth and Shinker.” Publisher’s Weekly 244:51 (1997): 20.
  • Rachlin, Jill. “Talking with…Vikram Seth.” People Weekly 39:20(1993): 65.
  • Seth, Vikram. A Suitable Boy. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 1993.
  • —. All You Who Sleep Tonight. New York: Knopf Publishers, Inc. 1990.

Related Sites

Vikram Seth Writes Suitable Boy Sequel by Allison Flood
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jul/03/vikram-seth-suitable-boy-sequel

Author: Amit V. Raghavan, Spring 1999
Last edited: May 2012

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