few decades ago English-language writing from the Indian subcontinent
was primarily the province of Western journalists and travel writers.
Of course there were many fine Indian writers -- R. K. Narayan,
Nirad Chadhuri, and Khushwant Singh, among others -- but they
remained largely undiscovered. It took a couple of pioneers, in
the form of Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie, to open the floodgates
to the Western reading public. In 1981, Rushdie published Midnight's
Children, an almost unbearably imaginative, and critically acclaimed,
epic of modern India; in 1986, Seth wrote The Golden Gate, an
improbably successful novel-in-verse, inspired by Pushkin's Eugene
Onegin and set in California. Those books showed the Western publishing
world that Indian writing could sell. Equally important, they
gave confidence to the Indian writers who are making waves today.
Earlier this year, Seth and Rushdie each published a new book.
Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet is in many ways a reiteration
of his oeuvre: riotously imaginative, characterized by a wordsmith's
touch for metaphor and the double entendre, and obsessed with
the city of Bombay. Seth's, on the other hand, is unlike anything
he has written before. An Equal Music is a delicate and poetic
story about love and music; highly internalized, this first-person
narrative -- told from the perspective of the novel's central
character, Michael Holme -- represents a clear break from the
epic sweep of the author's last book, A Suitable Boy (1993). In
many ways, though, the very originality of An Equal Music is a
reiteration of Seth's earlier work: from the beginning, Seth has
defied easy categorization. Since publishing his novel-in-verse,
Seth has written a libretto, a travel book, several volumes of
poetry, translations of Chinese poetry, and the Tolstoyan A Suitable
Boy (at 1300-plus pages, one of the longest novels ever written
in English). In addition to varying dramatically in form, the
books have been marked by diversity of location. Unlike so many
authors of Indian origin, Seth refuses to succumb to the narcissism
of place: his books have been set not only in India, but in California,
China, and -- in this latest book -- London, Vienna, and Venice.
Currently Seth lives and writes in London. He spoke recently to
Akash Kapur while on book tour in Minnesota. Kapur, a contributing
editor at Transition Magazine and a regular contributor to Atlantic
Unbound, was in Pondicherry, India.
There's a melancholic
strain running through An Equal Music that I haven't seen in your
work before. I was wondering, if it's not too personal a question,
where that strain came from.
You are right. You can sense that
strain from the beginning of the book. It came in the first instance
from the character Michael; I visualized Michael looking at the
water of the Serpentine, and I could tell that his thoughts were
quite dark. I didn't know what to do with this at first; it was
simply an aspect of his personality. Once I realized that I was
writing about him in the first person, and had decided to take
on his persona, I just had to follow it through.
Of course, to
some extent you've got to draw on your own experiences for all
your fictional characters, and I suppose I drew upon my own experiences
of having been in emotional states like Michael's -- even if not
exactly to the same degree. Writing about different characters
is simply a question of drawing upon different sources in one's
You were trained
as an economist. How did you come to writing?
I guess good luck.
I'd always written poetry, but poetry -- or, at any rate, writing
individual poems -- isn't very time-consuming. You can manage
to do that while doing something else full-time. But anything
that's a full-length book requires time. I wrote a book about
hitchhiking across Tibet during my second year in China, From
Heaven Lake. But as far as my writing fiction is concerned, it
came about in a peculiar way, partly as a result of filing economic
data on villages into a computer at Stanford. One morning I just
couldn't stand it anymore, and I walked into the Stanford bookstore
and picked a few books of poetry off the shelf. One of them happened
to be a very good translation of Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene
Onegin, and I was so astonished by it, and so affected by it,
that I decided that rather than continue working on my dissertation
I would take time off to write a novel using the same stanza form,
but set in California. I didn't realize then that I would never
finish my dissertation; I thought it was a temporary time out.
So you never
seriously considered being a full-time writer before that?
Not really, no.
I didn't think there were enough nonfiction works in me, and I
had never seriously thought of writing novels. I didn't really
think I had the taste or the stamina for it. The fact that my
first novel was a novel in verse gave me a stepping stone into
I think you've
said before that you thought of yourself primarily as a poet.
Is that still the case?
Well, I'm forced
to confess that in terms of the actual number of words I've written,
I've probably written more prose than poetry. But in terms of
the books, seven out of my ten books are entirely in verse. And
although the remaining three -- A Suitable Boy, From Heaven Lake,
and this most recent one, An Equal Music -- are in prose, I've
infiltrated quite a lot of verse into them. Of course, I have
to consider that I've written a lot of prose, but I do in my heart
think of myself as being originally, and still primarily, a poet.
probably knows you better as a novelist, though. Does that bother
No, not really.
People very often have a picture of themselves that's about five
years out of date -- and not just in terms of their impression
of their profession, but also in how they see themselves physically,
how they view themselves mentally, and so on. The public might
be right in how it sees me. On the other hand, it doesn't matter
whether they're right or wrong.
So the public's
conception of you doesn't shape your own self-conception?
No, it doesn't.
If it did, then I'd already have written a sequel to A Suitable
Boy, because apparently, based on what my publishers want and
the impression I get from the public in my mailbox, a sequel would
be the best thing possible. I do hope that the books are not obscure,
and that they can be read by a general reader. But dear though
the reader might be, I'd be silly to cater to what the reader
have the energy to write another Suitable Boy? You might never
recover from that!
That's a good
question. I don't know. I hope I would if I was inspired to do
so. This time, of course, I wouldn't be going in with my eyes
closed. When I began writing A Suitable Boy, I thought, Well,
this could take two or three years and be maybe two- or three-hundred
pages long. I never knew what I was letting myself in for. This
time, of course, I would know, and I'm not so sure I would be
to know who your influences are. Are they as varied as your different
forms of writing?
to answer that question. My influences are very general. My reading
is also very scattershot. I suppose I have been most inspired
by someone whom I haven't read a single word of in the original
-- Pushkin -- because he wrote in all sorts of different forms.
He didn't succumb to the temptation to repeat himself simply to
please a public or a publisher, and at the same time he didn't
mind repeating the same form if he was inspired to. He wrote so
wonderfully that even in translation, or at least in certain translations,
his vision comes across. I really admire him. And I suppose he
gives me the courage to experiment with form. Of course other
writers -- like Tagore, for instance, or Goethe -- have written
in very different forms. But Pushkin is very close to my heart
because I like his mixture of levity and deep seriousness. He
refused to be pompous, and to become a venerable man of letters.
think it takes courage to experiment with form? A criticism that
has been made of your work is
that you haven't found your voice, that you haven't quite settled
Yes, sure. But
what would critics say -- not to take the comparison too literally
-- about people like Goethe or Pushkin or Tagore? "Well,
he hasn't found his voice, and he should either write poetry or
he should write a play"? No, the fact is that at different
stages of your life, and under the influence of different inspirations,
you write different things. The point is not necessarily to find
your voice, which grinds out the same sort of thing again and
again, but to find a vehicle for people who are far more important
than the author: the characters.
On to a more
general topic, which is the subject of Indian writing. The large
advance and publicity you received for A Suitable Boy is sometimes
credited with having begun the current boom in Indian writing.
Do you have any thoughts on why Indian literature is so popular
in the West right now?
I think normal
human interest makes people look for and explore worlds outside
their own, whether in literature or in person. Also, I think Indians
are writing with a lot of confidence. English is no longer a colonial
language. You and I do not think it at all odd that we're having
this conversation in English. But I don't think, in terms of quality,
that good Indian writing is necessarily a recent phenomenon. There
have been others, like R. K. Narayan or Nirad Chadhuri, who have
been writing wonderfully in English for a long time. In fact,
I can guarantee that their books are likely to last, whereas it
isn't very obvious what one can say about us lot. They are from
a completely different generation. The fact that the West's attention
wasn't really on them at the time says more about the West than
about the caliber of what was coming out of India.
Indian writers are pretty cosmopolitan. You, for example, have
set your books in California, India, China, and now Europe, and
you've lived in all those places. Given that many of your colleagues
have been similarly peripatetic, how much sense does it actually
make to speak of an "Indian" literature?
I don't know.
I think there is something in common -- a sort of affinity, a
sort of common experience. There's the fact, for example, that
in India you have Islamic culture, Hindu culture, and what is
called Judeo-Christian culture, all mixed up. And, of course,
not all of us have had the same degree of mobility. On the one
hand, you have people like Arundhati Roy, who hasn't traveled
quite as much as some others have; even Narayan never liked traveling
abroad all that much. On the other hand, there are characters
like Salman Rushdie who have lived abroad since the age of fourteen.
And I suppose some people might even include authors like V. S.
Naipaul under the general umbrella of Indian writers, so you also
have people who have only visited India.
I think that this
is a problem more for critics or academics, or perhaps even librarians.
You know: "Which shelf should The Golden Gate be put on?"
That book didn't have any Indian characters in it, but it did
have a Japanese-American, so I was often taken to task and asked,
"If you can have Janet Hayakawa, why not an Indian-American
character?" The answer is that I simply didn't visualize
her as being Indian-American. Of course, I got the opposite flak
for A Suitable Boy. People asked, "Why are there no foreign
characters? At least for your Western readers, you should have
injected a few white faces here and there." The whole thing
is pointless. Although my books are set in different countries,
I don't feel that it makes me one of those stereotypical cosmopolitans
who have a sort of mixed cultural experience in every book and
feel they have to lay their ethnicity on thick. I think that the
characters are so much more important than the writer. To be brought
up short by the ethnicity of a particular writer throughout each
book -- that's not my style.
suggested that Indian writing in English is the strongest body
of writing ever to have come out of the subcontinent.
nonsense. What is one to say about Ghalib or Mir or Surdas or
Kalidas? Or Bengali or Tamil literature? What is one to say about
the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? It must have been an unguarded
moment when Rushdie said that.
He also argued,
more forcefully, that Indian writing in English is the best Indian
writing since independence.
What is there
to say? I disagree, because I think that there are plenty of fine
writers in other languages. The only non-English-language writer
included in Rushdie's anthology is Saadat Hasen Manto. He is a
very fine short-story writer, but I certainly don't think he's
the only one. To be fair to Rushdie, I think he says that part
of the problem might be the quality of translations. I must say
that that's the only way I can try to understand the point of
his remark. You know the trouble with statements like these is
that Westerners do believe them. They take them at face value.
If Rushdie (or if I, or some of the other better-known Indian
authors) make remarks like that, then people in the West really
do believe that India has produced nothing except in the past
fifty years -- and that mainly in English. It's just not tenable.
There's no particular animus between Salman and myself, but we
clearly disagree on this point. I feel it's so obvious, really,
that to put my name to it is a bit absurd. It's like saying, "No,
no, no, the world is actually round."
Chinese poetry. Have you ever considered translating any of the
vernacular works being produced in India?
When writing original
stuff you don't really think too much of translating. I have translated
some poems by Nirala and some by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but nothing
much more recent than that. And that was really more for my pleasure
than for anything else. Even my book of Chinese translations was
not something I would have normally done. I was just suddenly
compelled to do it for one or two months late in 1989, and I can't
explain why. It isn't something I see myself as being: a translator.
Although, I must say, some of the greatest inspiration I have
ever received has been through translation. Certainly, I would
have never been a novelist if it hadn't been for Charles Johnston's
wonderful translation of Eugene Onegin. But then Pushkin wouldn't
have written Eugene Onegin if he hadn't read a bad French translation
of Byron's Don Juan. And so on and so forth.
I wonder if
the success of Indian writing in English doesn't stem in large
part from its cosmopolitanism. Is there something too localized
about Indian vernacular writings; something that might pose cultural
rather than linguistic difficulties for translation?
That I don't agree
with. Take a book like A Suitable Boy. There's so much in it that
doesn't make sense to a Western reader: huge discussions of Indian
politics, of the Zamindari Abolition Act, and all sorts of other
things that are unexplained. And yet the book was read abroad
with some pleasure and comprehension. I read books set in China
or Japan, and I think that as long as the writer is not trying
deliberately to be obscure, most readers extend a certain tolerance
to other literature. I don't think that this sort of thing poses
an insoluble problem.
You said somewhere
that while writing An Equal Music you resisted reading all Indian
writers except for Narayan.
I should have
said I couldn't resist Narayan. That's my excuse. I didn't read
Indian writers for two reasons. First, because I knew that if
the book ever got published I'd be asked about whom I'd read,
and I didn't really want that. But more importantly, I didn't
want to read other Indian authors because if they'd written something
very well, then I might feel a bit daunted, or I might feel too
influenced. On the other hand, if they wrote something very badly,
then I might have been tempted to write about the same thing.
Actually, I just wanted to be pushed one way or another by my
characters and not by the literary milieu.
What are you
working on next? Are you experimenting with any new forms?
I don't really
want to make a big thing about this experimenting with different
forms and finding a voice and so on. If I'm compelled to do something,
I don't shy away from it simply because I haven't tackled it before.
But if, for instance, I was inspired tomorrow to write An Unsuitable
Boy, I would do it. I don't mind repeating myself. When I was
on a book tour six or seven years ago, I was asked what I was
going to write next, and I said, "A play." Clearly,
that wasn't borne out. So I don't know what I'm going to write
next. Sometimes I think it'll be a double biography of an aunt
and an uncle of mine. Other times I think maybe a children's book,
or another novel. Or maybe just poetry, which is in a sense, as
we touched on earlier, the thing that's closest to my heart.
This interview was first published as "The Seth Variations"
in the Atlantic, June 1999.]