Seth and Suitability


Talking to Vikram Seth, who was in Lahore recently for the city’s literary festival.


I read about a creative writing exercise once, where students had to write the next five chapters of a favourite book of theirs. If they were really immersed in the universe of the book, it would be possible to add to it.

Another lifetime ago, when I thought I would one day write a novel – and therefore, felt I needed to do these exercises – I would have taken a crack at it. But it would have been difficult for me to continue Lord of the Flies, say. Its principal event and its aftermath, so to speak, had happened; what to add to it? It would have been similarly difficult to continue A Hundred Years of Solitude. But one wouldn’t be able to say the same of continuing A Suitable Boy. Sure, a boy, towards the end, has been identified and engaged with, but despite the resolution of the title, the novel seemed to be going on. When it ended, it only seemed that the lens has merely moved away for a bit.

Had I tried the exercise, I would have failed, of course. Not because the story couldn’t be continued but because one wouldn’t be able to come close – even by for-one’s-own-consumption standards – to Vikram Seth’s facility with words or his insight. Producing the seemingly simple prose that we glided through in the book is more difficult than it seemed. The way the laws of physics seem to suspend themselves for certain gifted athletes, Seth also makes writing like that look easy.

Well, easy or not, he has decided not to write the next five chapters or even the next twenty ones. He doesn’t want to pick up where he left at all. A Suitable Girl is going to be a “jump sequel”; not 1952 anymore, but the present day. Lata is about eighty years old now. Her mother, the indomitable Mrs Rupa Mehra, one can only assume, has passed away. We know nothing about the rest of the characters, but we want to find out. So does he, he says.

He doesn’t already know? I mean, he is the writer, after all.

Vikram Seth. --Photo by Syed Murtaza Ali
Vikram Seth. –Photo by Syed Murtaza Ali

“Well, there is a shaping intelligence, obviously. It’s not as if they (the characters) can go in any direction. There is a certain amount of shaping, but it can’t be shaped beyond the point where it is no longer believable.”

Seth places a high premium on believability. It is this standard that can move things beyond a writer’s immediate control, the way the pool of words that a poet might use is sometimes limited for reasons of rhyme and meter.

 “Sometimes you think you’re going in a particular direction or conclusion. But by the time you write the chapter, so much may have happened that that initial conclusion might have become implausible, given the characters.”

Being meticulous about the whole similitude business can also entail a lot of research, which he does, quite diligently.

 “The first thing is believability. Say I’m writing a story set in San Fransisco. If I think it’s false to its origins – ok, maybe it’s praised everywhere in the world – but if it does not ring true to someone who lives there…” he says, gesturing a dismissal.

If one is writing a novel set around a string quartet, he says, “If a musician looks at the book and starts laughing and says ‘My God, he’s playing in the wrong string!’, that’s like doctors watching medical soaps and screaming ‘My God, he should have been dead by now!’”

He did a lot of research on the India of the ‘50s for ASB. How does one do research, really, on the present era?

“Well, living life is kind of a research. Maybe you yourself are going to be one of my characters. Maybe, there is a photographer who says please brush your hair before I take your photograph,” he says, alluding to the rather funny scene with my photographer from about fifteen minutes ago. “You do research only for specialist information. What is happening in politics, say, or Bollywood.”

His manager in Pakistan, a former journalist himself, asks whether he’s ever been on the flipside of an interview, the journalist’s side. “No, I haven’t, thank God,” he says, laughing. “Though actually, I’ve been on the journalists’ side with regards to research. Maybe it wasn’t going to be research that I would print, but research that I would incorporate. So I did ask probing question. For example, I’m going to ask him (gesturing to me) about Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and how he came down here and what his childhood was like. He doesn’t realise that he’s doing only half the interview.”

It is because Seth makes writing seem so easy, many people, specially youngsters, decide they want to start writing after reading his work. Upon realising that it is perhaps tougher than anything they have attempted thus far in life, they go back to writers like him to ask for advice. All those clichés one reads in writers’ interviews about advice for young writers are half parts a lack of imagination on the interviewers’ part and half part market requirement.

So, what is his advice to young writers?

“Well, the first would be, don’t write anything under compulsion. Follow your own enthusiasms. Plenty of people would say that The Golden Gate is a ridiculous enterprise. Three hundred pages of poetry. Who would buy it? Who would read it? Who would publish it? Similarly, with A Suitable Boy, this fat bothha of a book.” He says, “You only have one life. You may as well be true to what you want to do.”

“But this is advice for life in general,” he adds. “not just to writers in particular.”

Splendid, but it won’t do for the writers looking for pointers. And he says he doesn’t stick to a daily regimen either. Perhaps, an oblique entry into the process should be attempted: the clichéd question about inspirations.

“Inspirations,” he repeats. “Well, there are certain writers who inspire me. There are certain situations that inspire me. And then, you can say life itself is pretty interesting.”

 “Let’s take the writers. I can point specifically to a few of them. One is Pushkin. Even though I cannot read a word of Russian, it is because of a fantastic translation of Pushkin, I am sitting in this room with you. Because if it wasn’t for Pushkin, I wouldn’t have written The Golden Gate. I wouldn’t have known I was capable of writing a novel. The other, I could say, would be Wang Wei, the Chinese poet, who inspired me enough to learn the Chinese language and, therefore, changed my life in different ways.”

“The other thing,” he continues, “is what causes you to write a particular book. That could be a bit of conversation, like outside a bus, you hear two women talking and the mother says, ‘You, too, are going to marry someone who I’ve chosen.’ So that could be the seed of an entire banyan tree. Then you might have a visual inspiration. Of someone who might be looking into the water of the serpentine and that leading you to start An Equal Music. The book is about music, but the inspiration is a completely silent picture of someone staring at the surface of the water.”

“And the third thing is not a literary inspiration or something causing you to write but just the feeling that this is something you want to do at a particular point, whether it is to start sculpting something or to write a poem. And that is just fed by life, really. Not by other people’s lives, like the woman talking to another woman on a bus or a man staring at the water but your own life.”

As far as writing is concerned, Seth has quips that it might be too late for this life but for the next, “choose your parents well.”

“In my case, they were very generous when I came back from California. They let me stay in their house and scribble away, not earning anything, not contributing anything to the family coffers. Many parents would say, you’ve got two degrees, one from Oxford, one from Stanford, what are you doing?”

“A spongy marsh of curly deltas…” is how he once described his abandoned economics thesis at Stanford. The actual title was Seven Chinese Villages: An Economic And Demographic Portrait.

The only regret he seems to have about not completing his doctorate is that the cooperation of those poor Chinese villagers who took time out from their labour to let him interview them would have been in vain. His research has since been used (even if without crediting him for it) so he is a little less guilty on that front.

This was an answer to a question that was intended to be about the guilt of a good Hindu boy who left “proper” studies. But the guilt he felt in the situation was about the impoverished farmers’ time. In a way, it is this answer that tells us something more important about the author than any other would have. Seth, by his very nature, is what you would call – and forgive what would seem to be the words of a gushing fan – a good person.

Polished prose, and a deft use of language can take a writer only so far. An eye on the bigger picture of the plot can take you further still, but not really further. Once these two have been acquired, the quantum leap that takes a really good book to one that touches lives the way his have, is the intrinsic nature of the writer himself. How sensitive he or she is. Negative capability cannot be truly exercised without empathy, and empathy cannot come without a regard for others and a sensitivity to their experiences.

How’s that for advice for being a better writer? Be a better person?

Vikram Seth’s upcoming book, A Suitable Girl, comes out “in a year or two.”