ON THE COUCH ... Vikram SETH
A Suitable Writer
DEEPIKA SHETTY speaks to VIKRAM SETH, the irrepressible literary polymath
Photographs by Tan May Lee
DO YOU HAVE a copy of A Suitable Boy (1993) on your bookshelf? Yes? Affirmative? All right, go ahead, dust it well, hold it in your hands, revisit the pages, think a little bit. Could such a writer ever be daunted by a blank sheet of paper? Unlikely? Are you sure about that?
Yet, Vikram Seth talks about that. He talks the way he writes: you feel the ground move beneath your feet, and in a voice that lingers, he urges you gently to move on, to think beyond the sheet. There is no advice, no credit; he believes he deserves no greatness. If you are looking for modesty in a writer, the Calcutta-born novelist would be the best person to start with.
Poet, novelist, travel writer, librettist, children’s writer, translator, memoirist; he has published five volumes of poetry, an award-wining travel book, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), three novels, his magnum opus, A Suitable Boy, An Equal Music (1999) and The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986), and the memoir Two Lives (2005).
You went to live with your Uncle and Aunt when you were 17. What really fuelled your interest to write about them?
Initially I didn’t think about it. I went to live with them when I was rather young. I took them for granted. I knew my uncle had his right arm blown off during the war, nonetheless he’d gone on to become a dentist. My aunt was taller than him; she was German, she’d lost her family in the war. I never asked a lot of questions when I lived with them. They took good care of me while I lived there. Then I moved away, studied and lived elsewhere. In the 1980s, my aunt died and my uncle was extremely lonely. When I started, I imagined it would be more of an archival document for the family; it turned out quite differently.
Two Lives effectively captures the spirit of those trying times. The reader is drawn into it almost emotionally. As an author, how tough was it for you to embark on that journey, given that the subject was so close to your heart?
It was overwhelming. Many of the letters that Auntie Henny received after the war were from her friends and also her letters; reading them was quite harrowing. One knew what had happened to her mother and her sister but reading about it, about the concentration camps they were taken to, was a very tough journey to take.
If you didn’t find those letters, do you think the book would have happened?
I wonder sometimes. Certainly, Shanti Uncle’s life story by itself was very interesting. He was very emotional and courageous in his own way. But discovering the letters, which as fate would have it, had survived—discovering them made Two Lives a book that I couldn’t not write. It shed so much light on my aunt’s character: her forgiving nature, her willingness to adapt to everything around her, her ability to stay loyal to her friends.
We see a lot of writers probing into the past and writing about their families and traditions. What do you think draws you to the past?
There are no easy answers to that. The past is interesting in its own right. We find out where we came from. We learn about thoughts, events that have shaped our world. It also explains our recent past. It explains everything about the people we love. I suppose another thing to learn from the past is how it shapes human characters. The times we live through determine a lot of that. While we don’t know what’s going to happen to us, looking back at the past helps us understand human life, the resolve of human beings and how they respond to events shaping us. On a broader level, the historical events of the past—what happened in Nazi Germany, what happened during the Indian Freedom struggle—help us better understand our times.
War, history, collision—you’ve addressed all of that in your book. How has it impacted you?
I suppose we are all accidents of history. When you look at who populates which part of the globe, what language they speak, what their thoughts are, what their religion is, you realise, it all has something to do with their past, the power of history. As for the blows or currents of modern history, I’d say perhaps in this generation we’ve been luckier than others in certain countries. Not many of us have had to live through the traumatic times Aunty Henny had to or to experience what Shanti Uncle did. A military shell fired by the German Army took off his right arm in the war zone.
You’ve said in the book that “you’re not sure if anyone can understand their life fully.” While writing your monumental love story, A Suitable Boy, you spent the better part of your life in your childhood bedroom in India. Now, with Two Lives, have you been able to comprehend your life better?
There’s something to be said for analysing things up to a point because the thing about life is to understand it somewhat but also to live it fully. Sometimes attempting to understand it too much gets in the way of the joys and pains of living.
You’ve excelled in whatever form of writing you’ve done. Poetry, the novel, travel writing, etc.
I don’t think I deserve any particular credit for it, if indeed one deserves any credit for it at all. It is the stories, the ideas that come to me, come with their own method of telling. Whether it’s prose or verse, fact or fiction, short or long, whether it’s first person or third person, all these things are to some extent ingrained in the nature of the story itself. All I have to do is to get on to the tiger and sort of hold on, while at the same time trying to understand the rules of the game. It is a bit of a rocky ride, to continue with that metaphor, but it’s truly worth doing. You can’t just tell the muse, come back later with a better idea, something more in the genre that I’ve already dealt with.
Is writing something you do for yourself or is there a deeper connection with your reader, one that comes packed with a message?
Maybe not necessarily a very overt message but I think my personality as a writer and what I feel about various subjects—personal or political—do come across in my books. As to whether I write for myself or for a particular ‘ideal reader,’ that’s a tricky question. I try to get the picture of the character or their thoughts across not through stained glass rather through plain glass. That implies, of course, that it’s not just me speaking, rather there is an attempt to communicate with the audience. But what sort of an audience, you may ask? That’s difficult to say. What I do know, if, for instance, a particular book that I’ve written about a particular subject or a particular cast of characters doesn’t ring through to the sort of people whose life I’m trying to describe then it doesn’t matter whether it’s accepted, given excellent reviews or sells a million copies because I think at the end of the day a book has to have the power to speak to its readers.
What type of writing did you grow up on?
Almost everything. Newspapers, comic books, fiction, biographies, anything I could lay my hands on. Writers are very often quite omnivorous and not quite as selective in their reading as is imagined. On the whole, I like books which are very clear. They may be very complex, but I enjoy lucidity in books. I’ve even liked books that I’ve sometimes not quite understood. In fact, I was reading a detective story the other day, an anthology the next day. Normally, I like reading poetry in rhyme and meter but this anthology wasn’t like that, I enjoyed it nonetheless. I think writing and reading are both very private activities. One is continually surprised by what one enjoys or what moves someone or what makes one think.
Have you been surprised by some of the reactions to your work given that one of the things we hear a lot is that people don’t have time to read, people don’t read enough or people just don’t want to read?
I was quite surprised by the reaction to A Suitable Boy. I was quite certain it would sink like a stone because people don’t seem to have time to read. They seem to get impatient with very short television programmes. You’d think they have tiny attention spans. But, I was quite surprised, startled rather that people read the book and sometimes very young people read the book. I think in many, many competing calls for our attention—whether it’s music, television or entertainment of one kind or another—it may be the case that books are not quite as omnipresent as they were in people’s consciousness earlier but apart from books there is a plethora of journals, newspapers, magazines to read. I think there is a lot of hope and that’s demonstrated in the people’s wish to read solid and serious literature.
Many writers shy away from the business of dispensing advice, but what’s helped you in your career as a writer?
I sort of stumbled into writing. Certainly I always wrote poetry but I always wrote fiction largely because my first novel was a novel in verse, so it grew out of poetry. I think one must take advice very tentatively. The thing that really helped me was to not refuse to write what I was inspired to write. I never felt I couldn’t do it because it was a different genre or that I might not be able to sell it or very often because people sought to dissuade me from writing it. I think one has to be true to the ideas one gets, the characters one creates, true to one’s thoughts, true to how one feels, otherwise the writing will be dull or dry. There’s nothing more daunting than a blank sheet of paper, but one has to begin somewhere.
DEEPIKA SHETTY, a former television news producer, also produced Channel News Asia’s book show, Off the Shelf, for three years. A regular moderator at international literary festivals, she tracks books and Bollywood on her blog at readatpeace.blogspot.com. She now works with The Straits Times of Singapore.
Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of Quill magazine