Vikram Seth is five-feet-two-inches of all brain. Within minutes of meeting him, he seems gigantic. His educated Indian accent floats words around the high-ceilinged room like strands of music but it can’t conceal the whirring, clicking, spinning gears in his mind. His conversation, like his eyes, jumps from French phrases to Chinese, to Hindi. He writes my name in Urdu, discusses British politics and sculpture. He’s written a book about hitchhiking through Tibet, From Heaven Lake ; done a Ph.D in economics at Stanford while writing a novel (in verse) about San Francisco, The Golden Gate ; and translated Yang dynasty poetry into English while studying the Chinese economy. His latest book, All You Who Sleep Tonight (Knopf, 1990) is a collection of poetry. He is currently working on a massive novel about post-Partition India.
Ameena Meer You have a huge variety of writing, from travel books to the novel, to collections of poetry.
Vikram Seth The idea is not to bore myself. After I’d written From Heaven Lake, about hitchhiking across Tibet, my publishers wanted me to write another travel book, the Trans-Siberian railway or some other journey. It didn’t strike me as very interesting to retrace, not geographically, but figuratively, my own steps. The next book that I brought out was a book of poems and this was rejected by that publisher, although they did have a poetry list. And after the book of poems, I wrote The Golden Gate, which was rejected both by the travel book publisher and the publisher who’d brought out the book of poems. So, it’s not particularly smart, publishing-wise, to spread your net as wide as all that. But your main responsibility as a writer is to make sure your work is interesting and substantial. Variety is my way of doing it.
AM How did it happen that you wrote The Golden Gate in verse?
VS Pure fluke, actually. I had been in California for several years and I’d hoped to be able to write a few short stories set there before I left. But nothing seemed to have come out or worked properly. Then I was feeding the Chinese village data for my economics thesis into a computer and it was very tedious and took me eight months. From time to time, I’d escape from that and wander into the Stanford bookstore. On one such occasion, I found in the poetry section, two translations of Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin’s great novel in verse. Two translations but each of them maintained the same stanzaic form that Pushkin had used. Not because I was interested in Pushkin or Eugene Onegin, but purely because I thought, this is interesting technically that both of them should have been translated so faithfully, at least as far as the form goes. I began to compare the two translations, to get access to the original stanzas behind them, as I don’t know Russian. After a while, that exercise failed, because I found myself reading one of them for pure pleasure. I must have read it five times that month. It was addictive. And suddenly, I realized that this was the form I was looking for to tell my tales of California. The little short stories I had in my mind subsided and this more organically oriented novel came into being. I loved the form, the ability that Pushkin had to run through a wide range of emotions, from absolute flippancy to real sorrow and passages that would make you think, during and after reading it.
AM The novel didn’t seem like an outsider’s—a foreigner’s—viewpoint.
VS I’ve read analyses of the book in which they say the idea of a marriage to please your parents is basically Indian and that the cosmic consciousness in the story—taking care of animals from the iguana on down, and the awareness of the nuclear bomb and the threat to the earth—is Indian as well. I think it’s a Californian book. I lived there for nine years. Some of the most interesting insights I got into living were there. So I wouldn’t mind if someone thought I was deracinated by writing that book.
AM Do you feel your work is marginalized? Analyzed as Indian by Americans . . .
VS Trends will come and trends will go. In the end what will survive are good books. If there’s anything good in the book, it’ll survive. If not . . . whether I myself am marginalized in that no one knows if I am an Indian writer or a Californian writer, I mean, it’s like commas. If you start caring about that in the beginning, you won’t tell the story that your characters or your inspiration determines.
For instance, now I’m writing a novel about India. I hope people will say, this is a novel that is clearly written by an Indian. That the closer you get to the place where the novel is set, the more people feel, “Ah, this really is our story.” Not that this is an exoticized version for foreigners. One of the things that pleased me about The Golden Gate was that the closer you got to San Francisco, the more people felt a kind of affection for the novel. That’s the greatest reward. Because criticism, public criticism is fickle. What lasts eventually is readership. Readers who aren’t tied to any particular theory or critical cult or anything.
AM Who do you admire?
VS R.K. Narayan. He’ll be a lasting writer. I would place him above all of us, really. He’s created a world. He writes very unaffectedly. Very plainly. You don’t feel that style is king in his writing. Again, talking about literary fashions, he’s never cared about it.
AM I notice, in your poetry and your prose, a distance, a restrained tone towards the subject.
VS Restrained’s fair enough. As for distance . . . people say that it’s a good thing to be distanced. I don’t quite agree. If you mean detached enough so as not to blurt out your feelings on the page in an uncontrolled way, then I think it’s good to be distanced. But if distance means uninvolved, I would hope that’s not the impression my poems give. In fact, sometimes I’m so involved that I need to try to phrase things in such a way that they communicate something to someone else as well as being just a letting-off of steam. To that extent, the fact that I use form, rhyme, and meter, that I try to keep a quieter voice than I’m sometimes inclined to, is the result of an attempt to shape, not to keep myself apart from what I’m writing.
AM “Soon” in All You Who Sleep Tonight is very powerful, the tenacity of life growing stronger as the body grows weaker. It’s about someone dying of AIDS?
VS Yes, of course. It was quite painful. I worried that people I care about would become alarmed when they read it. Did you notice that it was all written in one-syllable words?
AM No, I didn’t.
VS Well, it was all in one-syllable words, as AIDS is.
AM Your translations of the Chinese poems in this book made me think of Ezra Pound’s “We played together when the hair was cut straight across my forehead . . .”
VS I’ve something of a peeve with Pound. He played fast and easy with the original text. That is Ezra Pound’s translation of two poems by Li Bei, he conflated them. He couldn’t read Chinese, so by chance, these two poems were placed next to each other and he put them together. “And I will come and see you as far Cho Fu Sa . . .” My idea about translations is that you don’t use the poem as a trampoline off which to bounce to write another poem. There’s an excuse for that. You can say that there’s a good poem which would not have otherwise existed. I feel that you treat the original poem as a score. You play it or sing it as feelingly as possible, but you try to remain as close not just to the spirit, but, if possible, to the actual words of it.
AM I noticed the same kind of distance in your translations.
VS That is the Chinese tone, I think. The Chinese have traditionally not given a lot of stress to romantic love. To some extent to married love, but mainly to friendship. The classical T’ang Chinese poets, especially Du Fu and Wang Wei have that idea of distance in love.
AM How did you learn Chinese?
VS I read some translations of Wang Wei’s poems into English and I was very affected by them. At that stage I was in an economics program at Oxford, P.P.—and then I went to Stanford for an M.A.—but in economics and aiming towards a Ph.D. I wanted to learn Chinese because if it affected me so strongly in translation, then there was obviously something wonderful to be had if I could read it in the original. So I combined my economics dissertation with a Chinese theme. I got to study Chinese quite intensively, about three years’ worth of it and then I went to China for two years. I was in Nanking, but I traveled a lot. Getting to do research in China in those years, 1980 to 1982, was quite difficult. I had to keep knocking on bureaucratic doors and knocking on lots of doors and then suddenly seeing one open. But during that interim period, waiting to do that research, I traveled.
AM The inevitable comparison, two developing countries with impossibly large populations, how did you find it compared to India?
VS Alas, well, for seven years I did not go back. And then when I did go back, it was less than a week before the Tiananmen killings. I was staying with friends in Hong Kong and a friend of mine, an English woman, from my China student days, the two of us just decided to go into China. Not to where all the trouble was, as it happens, because there were more demonstrations in Hong Kong than there were in Canton. But Canton was the closest and we just wanted to revive a little bit of the feeling of being back in China.
AM Did you have friends in China?
VS Yes, and some of them were involved in the riots. But fortunately, even with everyone talking about the new openness, old habits die hard and I’d communicated with them in the usual way, only sending letters through friends, rather than mailing them, etc.
AM One of the things one kept hearing in India was how much progress China was making, how modern it was, how prosperous, how it was overtaking India. When I was in Canton, I was struck by the poverty, by the people sleeping in plastic bags under bridges, the progress seemed very superficial, it felt worse than Bombay or Calcutta, even.
VS Yes. Many of the structural features of Chinese society and politics militate against initiative, the way it’s curbed, controlled. The lack of a free press so that the officials don’t really know what’s going wrong because there’s no feedback. And economically, it’s fairly rigid. It’s gone in for heavy industry of the strongly polluting kind and which doesn’t very easily translate into the consumer items that are closely related to the quality of life. So there’s a lot to be said for the way India’s developed. In a higgledy-piggledy, somewhat unbalanced way. But at least it’s kept politics alive and a very active press, especially after the Emergency. And the economy goes every which way but at least slowly spirals, in a skewed way, upwards as well as downwards.
AM Are you doing any economics now?
VS Not really, the novel that I’m writing is set in 1952, so I find that my economics training helps me a great deal to understand those times, but I’m not earning my living through doing economics.
AM Your new novel is set in India after the Partition?
VS Between 1950 and ’52, but it’s definitely after Partition, the British have left. There are no major foreign characters in it. Most people think of that time as being a kind of historical backwater, but it’s actually a very interesting period indeed. It is when the first Indian elections took place. And it was also when the Zamindari Abolition Acts were being passed. So all that era of landlordism and their of patronage of musicians and poets and courtesans and other artists, was dying. There were different groups of people who were coming up, while others were going down. The story that I planned to write has several strands in it—one might be called “A Suitable Boy,” or “A Suitable Husband,” looking for someone suitable for the younger daughter of a family. Then there’s the politics I mentioned and there’s a young man who falls in love—or is obsessed by—a courtesan. I shouldn’t really call her a courtesan. She’s a very fine singer. And there’s a lot of university politics as well. So it’s a very tangled novel—like a soap—a serious soap.
AM It reminds me of Attia Hosein’s Sunlight On A Broken Column.
VS Most of Attia Hosein’s book takes place before Partition. But there’s also a courtesan, a very old woman who’s treated with great respect by the family, as well she should be. In the old days, in places like Lucknow, they sent their young sons to get training in etiquette and so on, from the courtesans. They were often the most cultured people in that society.
AM Are you writing here?
VS No. With a novel of this sort, when you write it, there’s always some fact scratching at the back of your head saying, now wait a second, just look at the Indian Law reports of 1952, or just reach for The Times of India Yearbook. Or just make sure that All-India Radio did have three broadcasts each day.
I’m also interviewing people who were alive at that time. Swarajis, old freedom fighters, and people of old families in Lucknow and someone who can tell me about horse racing in those days. Someone else who knows what had happened to the army. Another kind of research is just visiting places. For instance, my Urdu teacher lives in a small village in Uttar Pradesh where there’s no electricity, very close to the Nepal border. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. Or lived with the Jatavs in Agra. Or I went to the Kumbh Mela. All this I might have enjoyed doing anyway, but it could be called research. The feel of it will come though in the novel, it already has.
AM Partition was an interesting time for my family because it split—my mother’s father became one of the first Indian ambassadors and my father’s father got involved in Pakistani politics and forming the Pakistani government. That tear still hasn’t healed.
VS Yes, there was partition within families themselves. And if, after 40 years it’s like that, those first few years must have been really terrible. There were also the riots. And quite considerable Muslim discrimination. So that many Muslim families—well into the ’60s and even later—just trickled into Pakistan, because they couldn’t get jobs of any kind. Like the family in the film by Satijat Ray, Garam Hawa, (Hot Breeze).
So the novel promises to be rather fat. I’ve written maybe 500 pages so far, which will boil down to about 250 in print. I reckon it’s a third to a quarter of the way through. It might, depending on the shape of the novel, split into two or three.
AM And after the big novel?
VS There’s a play, not a very good one I’m afraid, that I have in a back drawer. I’d like to write some children’s books or poems. Maybe some short stories. Different, different things. Different, different things is a very Indian thing.
—Ameena Meer is a writer living and working in New York City.