An Equal Exchange

In a candid conversation with Sabahat Zakariya, Vikram Seth discussed his preferences in sex and spelling

An Equal Exchange
I wasn’t sure I wanted to interview Vikram Seth. I had forged a connection so personal with ‘A Suitable Boy’ during the many months it took me to read it in a postpartum haze that the idea of interviewing its author was to dilute my own visceral engagement with the text. When you have held a heavy book in one hand and chuckled over it as your other hand pats your baby to sleep, or zipped through the story of the author’s life as day turns to night outside and night to day; or stuck his poetry to your fridge, you can be lured into a dangerously false sense of one-sided intimacy. To meet the face behind the stories is to allow yourself to get disabused of the notion that were the author not so exceptionally clever and so exceptionally famous, he would no doubt find the same kindred spirit in you that you do in him. For a bestselling author, unfortunately, the number of people who are secretly convinced of this idea runs into the millions.

With the interviewer
With the interviewer

Whatever my misgivings, passing up the opportunity to meet Vikram Seth was not an option. So there I was, unusually early for a meeting, breathing in the crisp Lahori spring on a Gulberg street I recognized as belonging to the old rich of the city. Waiting for the clock to tick 4 o’clock I thumbed through my copy of Seth’s collected poems, many of which came pouring in a pleasurable gush from the grooves of the brain oft-read poetry tends to burrow itself into. At exactly 4, I told the guards my name who ushered me into a driveway where Vikram Seth, looking dapper in a red sweater and shiny black Oxfords, seemed to be wrestling with a dog nearly his own size. Confessing to my fear of dogs earned me a disdainful look, but I found out I had done slightly better than the interviewer who had come before me who had apparently dug her nails into his arms to try and shield herself from the dog. Determined to undo the damage done by my canine aversion, I cracked a self-deprecating (slightly lewd) joke that went down well, and so began the interview.

Considering the often personal nature of a lot of Seth’s writing (From Heaven’s Lake, Two Lives, The Humble Administrator’s Garden) asking him about the minutae of his life felt a bit redundant, so I let the conversation that lasted for an hour meander in various directions, without much structure, taking cue from Seth himself.

“How do you feel about the idea of the writer as rock star. Do you think the recent surge in literary festivals has put authors who aren’t particulalrly scintillating converstionalists or don’t network well at a disadvantage?”

“Writers are ultimately judged on the quality of their writing. Literary festivals can provide them some exposure to an audience not familiar with their work but writers have been known to carve out their paths in many different ways. Even being a recluse can fuel certain writers’ careers. Take Thomas Pynchon, for instance. Or for that matter, Robert Frost. By all accounts he was a grumpy old man who wouldn’t be pleasant to meet you, yet his literary reputation has far outlived his life.”


How about the accusation that these events are more about the social apparatus surrounding them than the actual reading of books, I say, “That may be so but if attending these events leads some people to actually read any of the writers involved, then a purpose has been achieved.”

tft-6-p-22-iAs the conversation turns to ‘Two Lives’, his book about his Indian uncle and German aunt that is a particular favourite of mine, I ask him which prose genre is his favourite: “I like narrative non-fiction as a reader, though I do like a lot of fiction too. People tend to think that narrative non-fiction is simpler. You start at one point and you end at another but for something like ‘Two Lives’, for instance, there is a lot of complexity. It is actually two and a half lives since I am also a character in the book. A great deal of thought went behind deciding its structure, how to fit all the lives, where to place the letters and the pictures and so on.”

“I love the way it begins, with you standing outside that house in London”, I gush. He smiles graciously, “Chekov had this wonderful saying: Start in medias res. So just that, ‘When I was sixteen I was sent to...’ Just that.”

“No Thomas Hardying around?” I add helpfully.

“Haha. Yes. No Thomas Hardying around. Bus seedhi baat.

“I was 28 when I read ‘Two Lives’, and it was my first real introduction to the Holocaust.” To my surprise he tells me that Aunty Henny and Uncle Shanti’s story was also his first real introduction to the Holocaust. One of the reasons why his German publishers were so keen on publishing the book was that Seth’s perspective was that of an outsider, untainted by received ideas on the pogron.

[quote]"Things don't have to be elevated intrinsically. The elevation comes partly from their utility, their ordinariness, their unnoticeability"[/quote]

Since most of our conversation is interspersed by my references to his poetry I ask him who his favourite poets are. A surprisingly classical list of names emerges, considering Seth has never studied English-Literature at college: Shakespeare, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Frost, Whitman. “Currently I am reading Mir Taqi Mir. I also love Chaucer. He is the first writer of narrative non-fiction”, he adds with a laugh.

Suddenly I am reminded of one of my favourite contemporary poets. “Have you read Billy Collins?”


“The wit and brevity of his poetry reminds me of yours. The way he contemplates everyday things...just looking out the window and what that brings...”

“Things don’t have to be elevated intrinsically. The elevation comes partly from their utility, their ordinariness, their unnoticeability,” says Seth in his eloquent way, after which he suggests Timothy Steele to me, a poet he calls his favourite amongst his contemporaries.


At this point he yawns involuntarily for what is probably the third time in 15 minutes and makes yet another excuse for his sleepiness. “Excuse me. I think it’s probably because I had rice for lunch.” Pause. “Unless it’s the company, of course.” This perfect comic timing is the hallmark of Seth’s best writing and I don’t mind being the brunt of it, not least for the sense comfort it implies.

Seth is currently involved in writing ‘A Suitable Girl’, which picks up, historically speaking, from where ‘A Suitable Boy’ left off. His writing ritual is to wake up early in the morning and write till about 2:30, have lunch, and then resume work again only the next morning. He says he cannot listen to music while writing: “If I don’t like it it bugs me and if I do like it, I certainly can’t write, because I’m completely sunk in the music. It just takes over. That’s why I listen to music only actively. I’m not exploring it”. I realize that when he says music he means classical music alone, whether Eastern or Western. “Two days ago we had a whole evening of talking and listening to Ustad Naseeruddin Sami. Wonderful, wonderful musician. A musician you feel is singing for himself, binaa kisi dikhaavay ke.”

As I read out his poem ‘Dubious’ to him, conversation turns to his vocal advocacy of gay rights in India, and a much acclaimed cover he did for the magazine ‘India Today’:

Some men like Jack and some like Jill

I’m glad I like them both but still

I wonder if this freewheeling

Really is an enlightened thing,

Or is its greater scope a sign

Of deviance from some party line?

In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight

What is my status: Stray? Or Great?

He laughs and seems a little surprised that I am aware of the ‘India Today’ cover story. Was it a concept he found difficult to lend his face to?

“It is something I feel strongly about, though appearing on the cover in that unkempt state did have me fearing what my parents would say. Actually it has an interesting story behind it. The day the shoot was to take place the photographer Rohit Chawla came to my place and rang the bell. It was literally then that I woke up, having had a late night. I hate to be kept waiting and don’t like to make others wait so was quite embarrassed when I opened the door to let him in. Before I could disappear and make myself presentable he told me to wait and took a few pictures of me in exactly the state I was in. And one of those ended up on the cover. It wasn’t a pre-planned idea. It happened quite spontaneously. Later on after I had shaved and showered he also took some other pictures, in fact the one that appeared in Dawn’s LLF supplement was taken the same day.”

[quote]"Not enough people come out about being gay"[/quote]

“People should be allowed their sexuality. Whether they are asexual, bisexual or whatever. Not enough people come out about being gay”, he says emphatically.

Mention of the LLF prods me to ask the inevitable,“Have you seen much of Lahore?”
“Yes. I have been here before and have been around”
“What do you think of it?”

He hums non-commitally, refusing to hand me the kind of feel-good soundbite that Mira Nair so readily dispensed during her trip.

“What areas have you seen?” I persist

“The Colonial buildings on The Mall. Been inside Aitchison...”

“Inside?” I’m intrigued, knowing what a fortress the school is.

“Yes, last time I was here Nadia (Jamil) was going through the process of admitting her son there, so I also went along with the family.” He suddenly recalls something and adds, ‘You know there was a board there that had Tranquillity Avenue spelt wrong,’ he says with a twinkle.

At his house in Wiltshire, England
At his house in Wiltshire, England

“Oh, I’m not surprised at all. I’ve taught there. It isn’t exactly the place you think it is from reputation.”

“Spell tranquillity!”


“Yes, go head. Spell it!”



“That’s not possible! I’ll look it up online.”

Efforts to connect to a wifi are met with locked access so I choose to believe him in the face of so much certainty, but it is only later that I learn it is a case of British/American confusion (though obviously his point that a colonial school like Aitchison is spelling it ‘wrong’, holds.) It is also later at home that I open my book to see what he has inscribed in it:

“For Sabahat,

With thanks for a happily languid interview*

Vikram Seth


25 ii 14

With a dash of tranquillity”