Vikram Seth is an Indian poet, novelist, travel writer, librettist, children’s writer, biographer and memoirist.
Born and Early Life
Vikram Seth was born to Leila and Prem Seth in Calcutta (now Kolkata). His family lived in many cities including the Bata Shoe Company town of Batanagar, Danapur near Patna, and in London.
His younger brother, Shantum, leads Buddhist meditational tours. His younger sister, Aradhana, is a film-maker married to an Austrian diplomat, and has worked on Deepa Mehta’s movies Earth and Fire. (Compare the characters Haresh, Lata, Savita and two of the Chatterji siblings in A Suitable Boy: Seth has been candid in acknowledging that many of his fictional characters are drawn from life; he has said that only the dog Cuddles in A Suitable Boy has his real name — “Because he can’t sue”. Justice Leila Seth has said in her memoir On Balance that other characters in A Suitable Boy are composites but Haresh is a portrait of her husband Prem.)
Seth spent part of his youth in London but returned to his homeland in 1957. After receiving primary and commencing secondary education at the Doon School in Dehradun in India, Seth returned to England to Tonbridge School. From there, Seth studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he developed an interest in poetry and learned Chinese. After leaving Oxford, Seth moved to California to work on a graduate degree in economics at Stanford University.
Having lived in London for many years, Seth now maintains residences near Salisbury, England, where he is a participant in local literary and cultural events, having bought and renovated the house of the Anglican poet George Herbert in 1996, and in Delhi, where he lives with his parents and keeps his extensive library and papers.
Seth self-identifies as bisexual. In 2006, he became a leader of the campaign against India’s Section 377, a law against homosexuality.
A polyglot, Seth detailed in an interview (in the year 2005) in the Australian magazine Good Weekend that he has studied several languages, including Welsh, German and, later, French in addition to Mandarin, English (which he describes as “my instrument” in answer to Indians who query his not writing in his native Hindi), Urdu (which he reads and writes in Nasta’liq script), and Hindi, which he reads and writes in the Devanagari script. He plays the Indian flute and the cello and sings German lieder, especially Schubert.
Seth’s former literary agent Giles Gordon recalled being interviewed by Seth for the position:
“Vikram sat at one end of a long table and he began to grill us. It was absolutely incredible. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, which novelists we liked.”
Seth later explained to Gordon that he had passed the interview not because of commercial considerations, but because unlike the others he was the only agent who seemed as interested in his poetry as in his other writing. Seth followed what he has described as “the ludicrous advance for that book” (£250,000 for A Suitable Boy) with £500,000 for An Equal Music and £1.4 million for Two Lives. He prepared an acrostic poem for his address at Gordon’s 2005 memorial service:
“Gone though you have, I heard your voice today.
I tried to make out what the words might mean,
Like something seen half-clearly on a screen:
Each savoured reference, each laughing bark,
Sage comment, bad pun, indiscreet remark.
Gone since you have, grief too in time will go,
Or share space with old joy; it must be so.
Rest then in peace, but spare us some elation.
Death cannot put down every conversation.
Over and out, as you once used to say?
Not on your life. You’re on this line to stay.”
Travel writing: From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet
His travel book From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983) was his first popular success and won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. It offers insight to Seth as a person, who is candid about the reality and effect of living abroad — though not in particular of being in diaspora — a theme which arises in his poetry but nowhere in his fiction:
“Increasingly of late, and particularly when I drink, I find my thoughts drawn into the past rather than impelled into the future. I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of my earlier student days in England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.” (p.35)
Seth has published five volumes of poetry. His first, Mappings (1980), was originally privately published; it attracted little attention and indeed Philip Larkin, to whom he sent it for comment, referred to it scornfully among his intimates, though he offered Seth encouragement.
In 2009 Seth contributed four poems to Oxfam which are used as introductions to each of the four collections of UK stories which form Oxfam’s ‘Ox-Tales’ book project.
Novels in Prose
The “novel in verse”: The Golden Gate (Hybrid)
The first of his novels, “The Golden Gate” (1986) is a novel in verse about the lives of a number of young professionals in San Francisco. The novel is written entirely in Onegin stanzas after the style Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Seth had encountered Charles Johnston’s 1977 translation of it in a Stanford second-hand bookstore and it changed the direction of his career, shifting his focus from academic to literary work. The likelihood of commercial success seemed highly doubtful — and the scepticism of friends as to the novel’s viability is facetiously quoted within the novel; but the verse novel received wide acclaim (Gore Vidal dubbed it “The Great California Novel”) and achieved healthy sales. The novel contains a strong element of affectionate satire, as with his subsequent novel, A Suitable Boy.
“The Golden Gate, an opera in two acts with music by Conrad Cummings and libretto from the novel-in-verse by Vikram Seth adapted by the composer” is currently (2010) in development by LivelyWorks and American Opera Projects and receives a staged workshop production at the Rose Studio at Lincoln Center in New York City in January 2010.
Vikram Seth’s Published Books:
The Golden Gate (1986)
A Suitable Boy (1993)
An Equal Music (1999)
A Suitable Girl (2013)
The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985)
All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990)
Beastly Tales (1991)
Three Chinese Poets (1992)
The Frog and the Nightingale (1994)
Beastly Tales (1991)
Arion and the Dolphin (1994) for the English National Opera
The Traveller  with composer Alec Roth. Premiere, Lichfield Festival July 2008.
From Heaven Lake (1983)
Two Lives (2005)