Vikram Seth (b.1952), arguably the most gifted of his generation of Indians writing in English, nurtured no early ambition to become a writer. He loathed his boarding school because he was “extremely introverted…incapable of looking people in the eye”. But he was academically outstanding and won a scholarship to a British public school, and later to Oxford where, left to his own devices, he began to write poetry. “I was incredibly unskillful,” he said of his of his first attempts. In 1975 he moved Stanford University and spent the next “eleven years not getting an economics PhD.”
In 1980-82 while researching his unwritten doctorate in Chinese demography at Nanjing University he undertook a journey that unexpectedly led him home to Delhi across the overland route. From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), an original and diverting travelogue, won a prize, got him noticed and was a promising start.
It was California, however, that liberated his personality and unleashed his creative powers. Chancing upon an old copy of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin inspired him to write The Golden Gate (1986), set among East Coast yuppies, and composed of nearly 600 sonnets in iambic tetrameter. It brought him instant fame; Americans, it was reported, threw flowers at him at poetry readings.
Vikram Seth’s story is legion from then on: of how he retreated for six years to his parents’ home in Delhi to write his epic-length novel A Suitable Boy (1993), of his shrewd negotiations to sell it for £250,000 (“a very large novel written by a very small Indian,” he quipped) and how his next novel, An Equal Music (1999), about a group of western classical musicians was inspired by, and dedicated to, his French violinist friend Philippe Honore. Seth has also produced several collections of poetry, including translations from Chinese and Urdu; the best known are All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990) and Beastly Tales (1991). His last book, Two Lives (2005), was a biography of his great uncle and his German wife. In 2009 he announced that his next work would be A Suitable Girl, a sequel in which Lata, the would-be bride of A Suitable Boy, goes in search of a match for her grandson.
A linguist (he is fluent in Mandarin, German and French) and music lover (he plays the Indian flute, the cello and sings Schubert), Vikram Seth is a man of changeable moods: he can be reflective, even remote, or warm and quizzically loquacious. There is no accounting for where the creative impulse will take him next. The last time I saw him at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair in 2009 he was armed with paint box and sketchbook, and off to paint in the desert.
This interview, recorded after the Indian release of Two Lives, nearly didn’t happen. I had carefully planned it as a walkabout on a winter afternoon along the outer wall of Humanyun’s Tomb, but just before we were due to start, the camera’s batteries failed. Replacements were sent for but daylight began to fade, and he grew restive. Luckily, a mutual friend, passing by on a stroll distracted him for a few minutes, and his mood improved. We got going in the nick of time and he was soon his insightful, witty and engaging self.
More than one of your books are inspired, or based on, family life. Your early travel book From Heaven Lake culminates in returning to the family fold in Delhi after your journey across China. Your fictional opus A Suitable Boy is inspired by incidents and characters of family history. But Two Lives is pure family history…
Yes it is. It is based on the story of my great uncle who was Indian and my great aunt who was German. I stayed with them as a young student when I was about 17 years old when I was sent to England. They were, in effect, my local parents there. Of course I knew my uncle but my aunt looked very strange. He was quite short and didn’t have a right arm and he practiced as a dentist with his left arm. My great aunt was taller than him, very German, very particular, meticulous and rather brusque. He, on the other hand, was very welcoming and warm. They were both born in 1908 and they lived very long lives. My aunt died at the age of 80 and, in the last decade of his life, my uncle was very lonely. He didn’t really know what to do with himself. And I, for my part, having written A Suitable Boy, was at a bit of a loose end. My mother suggested, “Why don’t you interview Shanti Uncle? Why don’t you talk to him about his life? He has lived in very interesting times and he has had a rather heroic life.”
Although a biography, Two Lives is also a fragment of autobiography, with you, arriving at Shanti and Henny’s doorstep in London. What was it like to recapture your life at that moment, about to enter an English school and later compete for Oxford ?
I was painfully shy in those days. The idea of staying with people whom I didn’t really know very well, didn’t please me. And they were unknown quantities, in more ways than one. For instance, Aunty Henny and Uncle Shanti would start talking in German suddenly at the breakfast table when they wanted to say something in private or if they were bickering. It wasn’t as if they would go into another room, they would just talk in German. So I didn’t really understand what they were on about. It was only after I discovered, owing to an obscure regulation in the university statutes that I had to learn a European language in order to go to university in England, that I decided I had better learn German, since they also spoke it.
A close bond developed between you and your German aunt, almost as close as with your uncle? You almost became the child they never had?
I think that is true. For instance, my aunt was very particular in referring to me as her husband’s nephew. But once I started speaking German, then she quite often introduced me as “my nephew”. And for my uncle, who used to call me “my nephew” I became, “mein kleiner Sohn” which means “my little son”.
You knew very little of their early lives because Aunt Henny was secretive about her tragic past…
Not only was she secretive with strangers, or with people like me, but even with regard to Uncle, who had lived with her family when he wanted to take a room in Germany, where he was studying dentistry, she wouldn’t talk to him about the past. I should backtrack a little: Shanti was sent by his family to Germany in the early 1930s when he was a young man of about 23 to study dentistry. His family had an accountant, a lawyer, a judge and an engineer, so why not a dentist? He didn’t know a word of German. He had to take courses in perhaps the most advanced dental institute in the world. One thing he decided to do was not to stay with any family that didn’t speak in German so that he could get a bit of practice. Aunty Henny’s family took him in. He had to convince them to charge a slightly higher rent than they would have done because this was the first time they were letting a room out in their rather palatial flat in a fashionable part of Berlin. Eventually he became accepted as a part of the family. But Henny’s first reaction, when she heard from her mother and her sister that they were taking in an Indian lodger was, “Nehmen Sie den schwarzen Mann nicht” which means “Don’t take the black man”.
Both were caught in the whirlwind of history. She has to flee from the horrors of Nazi Germany and he goes to the battlefront. They meet in Berlin, are separated by World War II, and meet again in England later. Both have lost their homelands. Are some lives stranger than fiction?
Yes. In the case of Henny, it was the loss of her family and the loss of her homeland. In the case of Shanti, he was sent abroad and eventually chose not to return. He didn’t get a job in Germany because of the various laws in effect there under the Third Reich. He re-qualified in Edinburgh and started practicing in someone else’s surgery in London. Then war broke out, he signed up, and was taken to various places in Africa and the Palestinian front. His right arm was blown off by a piece of German shrapnel during the famous battle of Monte Cassino in the Italian campaign.
In the course of telling their individual stories, the microcosms of their life led me to meditate on the macrocosms of history. After all, both their lives began in 1908 and were almost co-terminus with the 20th century. Whether it was the Indian freedom struggle, or the Italian campaign of World War II, Nazi- Germany or Israel and Palestine. These matters come in ineluctably into the story.
You call Two Lives “history writ little” as opposed to history writ large. What is it about ordinary lives that make them dramatic, almost heroic?
It isn’t necessarily that heroism is foisted upon them. It could just as well have been the opposite. In case of these two people, I feel that, yes, a great deal of endurance and heroism became their portion in life. Obviously it isn’t something they would have necessarily chosen. But it was their reaction to circumstances that made their story dramatic.
There is heroism, too, in the fact of a dentist practicing with one arm?
I was very intrigued by my uncle’s story and ability to pursue a profession with just his left arm. It was an act of courage to re-establish his confidence. I was treated by him and he was a wonderful dentist. Competent, kind, thorough, and explaining everything that needed to be done. He believed in preserving teeth at all cost. He didn’t believe in the British idea of “if in doubt, take it out.”
Two Lives is also a portrait of a 38-year-old marriage. It’s a subject you’ve dwelt on at length in your fiction. What is it about the alchemy of marriage that interests you?
If I could put my finger on it, there would be almost no need to write a book of this complexity and length. The fact is that it is very difficult to say, there is no such thing as an ideal happy marriage. Happy marriages in themselves are every bit as various, just as unhappy marriages are.
In this particular case, their marriage was a mixture of reticence, of having great confidence in each other without necessarily sharing great confidences. For instance, Shanti knew Henny’s family and grieved for them. But when he tried to talk to Henny about the great disaster that happened, the fact that they had been killed in Nazi concentration camps in Herzfeld and Theresienstadt she told him, “Shanti, I don’t want to enter the graveyard.” Whether this was to spare him the hurt, or whether to close off a certain area of her life, so that he wouldn’t bring up the subject, is difficult to say.
There is a key difference between writing fiction and biography. In fiction, you can reconstruct and imagine life even if it inspired by real incidents or people as in A Suitable Boy but in biography you can’t…
The facts are the facts. It is certainly true that you can select certain facts, you can give a certain kind of interpretation, you have to analyze them and so on, but you can’t set up three or four different scenarios, as in fiction, and then say, I wonder which is going to be the most exciting or the most interesting or the most true to character, and follow that particular construct. In biography you need to take these hard nuggets and make what sense of them you can.
For Two Lives I had to find the material wherever I could. There were these very moving letters sent to Aunt Henny by her friends when she is trying to find out what has happened to her mother and her sister. Also Aunty Henny, being so German, sometimes kept carbon copies of her own letters. So these were primary source material. But then I tried to find out exactly on which train her mother and sister were sent out of Berlin to the concentration camps, quite late in 1943. And that took me—when I happened to be in Israel because of a translation of a book of mine—to the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. There I saw the actual Geheime Staatspolizei, the secret state police documents, with the lists of all these people and the incredible comment that their property had not been destroyed and would be sent to the financial administration to be dealt with.
But in the end, a book is a book, whether biographical or a novel. However, when research comes into it, it’s not a dissertation. You’re not supposed to yawn when you read it, you are supposed to be gripped. I felt that some of the aspects that I learned from fiction have carried over into non-fiction as well, in that, character is very important and the grip of the story is crucial, and the world in which these characters move have to be made as tangible—smellable, feelable and tastable—as possible.
In fictional narrative, there can be a single or multiple narrators. But in biography—which in this case is also a piece of autobiography—how did you arrive at the decision of where to put yourself in or keep yourself out?
This is, of course, the problem of writing the kind of book I have written. There was no definite rule—how much do I introduce myself into the book or how much do I withdraw to keep a correct authorial distance? This is one of my chief fascinations in writing this book. And I don’t know if I have got the balance right, even for myself, let alone anyone else.
You live in Britain but come to India more than once a year. That combination of distance and proximity must make you observe changes in India. Which are the ones that strike you the most?
The considerable change is politically and economically. On the whole, I feel pleased with the change. What particularly pleases me is the fact that two generations have been brought up with a form of reasonably functioning democracy. It’s a huge achievement. Secondly, the worst of poverty could, to a certain extent, be said to be being reduced. There are also two particular areas of anxiety—the fact that rural India should not be left behind, and second, India shouldn’t lose its sense of tolerance, its sense of being a country for all its people and not just people of one particular religion. These are two things I am most concerned about. Yet there is a great sense of calm confidence—at least that’s what I noticed.
But, for me, the main draw is my family. First and last, I am a family person: it isn’t just that I feel that there is a haven in the family; my family, in a sense, has also been my patron. When I had two degrees in economics from rather high-powered universities, my parents still allowed me to live at the top of the house and write this interminable novel, A Suitable Boy. In effect, I sponged off them for years. They acted as my patrons, or patron and matron, you could say.
Does India remain, or will continue to remain, a central motif of your writing?
I would say it does but I can’t predict from one book to another or what I will next be writing about. With A Suitable Boy I was taken to task, usually by foreign publishers, for not having enough foreign characters. But there weren’t any in that particular world as I imagined it. On the other hand, in The Golden Gate or in An Equal Music there are no Indian characters, and again, many people ask why there aren’t any Indian characters. The fact is that you cannot compel your muse in providing you with a certain quota of Indian and foreign characters in any particular book. Nor should one try to.
And how does the muse come and go, especially for a poet?
I have always, at heart, been a poet. In fact, one of the things that has recently given me a great kick is that my Indian publisher has issued all my poetry in such a beautiful edition that, even if it were blank pages, I would probably go out and get them for myself. Poetry is so dear to me that, even in every prose book that I write, I somehow manage to inveigle a poem at the beginning by way of a dedication or something like that.
A verse novel set in California, a big fictional opus set in India, a novel set in London and a biography. Your writing not only moves from continent to continent but across a gamut of genres. What makes you want to try out different forms?
There is no particular desire to experiment. If the inspiration comes to me in a particular form, then it’s a desire not to shy away from that form. Let me phrase that negatively: had the idea of, say, A Suitable Girl come to me or An Unsuitable Boy, I would not have followed my previous genre, the previous category in which I wrote, but since it didn’t, I thought what’s the worst that could happen? I could fall flat on my face but that’s not a bad thing. I’ll then try something else.
And what will you try next?
Ah, now if I knew that, and I was at this particular moment inspired by some other form or some other idea, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. I would be hard at work.