Monthly Archives: August 2004

Vikram Seth – A genius of many talents

I find Indian writing to be really fascinating because I feel my education has taken me away from my Indian roots. Thomas Macaulay had once said this about the Indian educational system – “A thoroughly English educational system which would create a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in morals and in intellect and through such a class the British would perpetuate their rule.” Reading Indian writing in English makes me feel more connected with India and its stories and people. I haven’t read any literature in any Indian language and I feel Indian English writing is the closest I can get to “Indian” literature.

While many know Vikram Seth for his epic novel “A Suitable Boy”, few know him for his poetry. In fact, well before “A Suitable Boy” was published, Seth had written “The Golden Gate”, a novel written entirely in verse. His other works of poetry include “Mappings”, “The Humble Administrator’s Garden”, “All you who sleep tonight”, “Beastly Tales from Here and There” and “Three Chinese Poets”.

Seth’s unique talent lies in the sensitivity he brings to his writings. Be it the longing pain felt by the heartbroken Michael in “An Equal Music” or the realistic characterizations in “A Suitable Boy”, Seth’s understanding of human nature is unsurpassed. As a storyteller, Seth brings a unique freshness and unpretentiousness (?) to his narratives. For those who are yet to taste the genius of possibly the greatest writer in English of this generation, here is a small sample.

All You Who Sleep Tonight

All you who sleep tonight

Far from the ones you love,

No hand to left or right

And emptiness above –

Know that you aren’t alone

The whole world shares your tears,

Some for two nights or one,

And some for all their years.


To make love to a stranger is the best.

There is no riddle and there is no test –

To lie and love, not aching to make sense

Of this night in the mesh of reference.

To touch, unclaimed by fear of imminent day,

And understand, as only strangers may.

To feel the beat of foreign heart to heart

Preferring neither to prolong nor part.

To rest within the unknown arms and know

That this is all there is; that this is so.

‘The Golden Gate’ is another really interesting work by Seth. Written before his epic ‘A Suitable Boy’, this is a novel written entirely in verse. Inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Eugene Onegin’, ‘The Golden Gate’ tells the story of John, a twenty-something in California who is in search of love. More than a story it is a statement of the times in which the novel was written. Seth’s verses are unflaggingly refreshing from the dedication page to the last page. Its one of those books that despairs you as the pages on the right diminish and you reach closer to the end. However, you feel safe in the knowledge that there is always the 1500 page epic – ‘A Suitable Boy’ to read and re-read just to see those places and meet those interesting people that Seth has created for us.

Here is a little review of ‘The Golden Gate’ I found somewhere. I hope anyone who reads it will grab a copy and preserve it for years to come!

A snapshot of twenty something John’s search for love in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, this book is an account with a difference, as it is delivered in sparkling verse throughout. John enlists the help of his old friend Janet to place an advert in the lonely hearts columns, thereby meeting Liz, a successful lawyer. They weave their way through the other characters (John’s old friend Phil, Liz’s brother Ed and the rest of her family, amongst others), but it seems that perhaps John’s personality will never allow him to be happy. If this account of the book seems a little two-dimensional, then this is because the twists and turns the story takes should, of course, not be told to the first time reader. Suffice to say that you will laugh out loud, and you will also, unless you have a heart of stone, cry quietly. The style of writing is dazzling (remember, it’s in verse throughout – even the dedication and chapter headings!), and it’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the very few books to yield more, much more, at every reading. My battered copy, now eleven years old, has survived thunderstorms, coffee and page-loss intact, but it still remains at the top of the literary tree. Buy it for an adventurous friend, and show them what Vikram Seth achieved before ‘A Suitable Boy’.

During my summer internship at Mumbai, I was able to lay my hands on “Three Chinese Poets”. Seth has attempted to bring out the works of three significant Chinese poets – Wang Wei, Li Bai (or Li Po), and Du Fu (or Tu Fu)–three eighth-century poets whose works have often been translated in recent years. One review of the book puts it rather well – “Responding differently to their common times, Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu crystallize the immense variety of China and the Chinese poetic tradition and, across a distance of twelve hundred years, move the reader as it is rare for even poetry to do.”

Personally, I just loved ‘An Equal Music’. Not many books have dealt with the pain that heartbreak brings, with the kind of sensitivity that Seth brings in almost effortlessly. More than just a simple love story, An Equal Music is also a story about musician’s relationship with his music. An Equal Music is certainly a good place to start with for people who haven’t yet discovered Vikram Seth.

A reviewer wrote this about ‘An Equal Music’ –

Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl. Now Julia, married and the mother of a small child, unexpectedly reenters his life and the romance flares up once more.

Against the magical backdrop of Venice and Vienna, the two lovers confront the truth about themselves and their love, about the music that both unites and divides them, and about a devastating secret that Julia must finally reveal. With poetic, evocative writing and a brilliant portrait of the international music scene, An Equal Music confirms Vikram Seth as one of the world’s finest and most enticing writers

Seth is undoubtedly one of the finest writers of his generation. I’m sure that in the years to come Seth will continue to dazzle us with his literary genius. Perhaps, his works will one day become prescribed text books in University courses. I for one won’t be surprised!



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