January 9, 2018 11:35:50 am
By Oindrila Mukherjee
Writer Vikram Seth took due credit for the appointment of Panjab University Vice Chancellor Arun Kumar Grover. “This self-effacing, affable man you have as your V-C is all thanks to my mother though I like to take credit for it,” he said. Seth was speaking at the second Professor Urmi Kessar Memorial Lecture at Panjab University. Leila Seth, the first woman judge of a state high court, was part of the committee that selected Grover. However, his bond with his family and his love for Chinese poetry became the flavour of the freewheeling conversation that he had with Professor Pushpinder Syal of the Department of English and Cultural Studies.
In his introduction, Professor B N Goswamy, who talked about Seth’s abilities as a translator, set the mood where Seth travelled seamlessly between his prose and poetry. “Vikram Seth comes to my mind as if in a movie that has a background of cities, mapping his journey through the world of literature, meeting all kinds of people and doing all kinds of extraordinary things,” said Goswamy.
Seth talked about himself and his experiences of writing, reading and translating poetry. His strong inclination towards translation prompted him to read from many such works of his. “A poet walks like a neurotic milipede. Don’t examine too closely what the processes of an artist’s creation are. Otherwise, you end up losing it,” he said. Talking about his seminal piece of writing, A Suitable Boy, Seth said most were intimidated by the size of it even though he got a “ludicrous advance on it when he was writing it”. He added, “Big books are not necessarily the best books. I feel that with literature, it’s better to not take a preachy view.”
However, throughout the oration, his first love remained poetry. Seth said it was impossible to translate a great poet and only 10 per cent of it was possible. Talking about rhyme and meter, he said, “Constraint leads to better and more inventive imagination. In prose, you’re not forced through meter and rhyme into an unwanted and unaccustomed pattern.” Professor Syal asked him about the elegiac, melancholic strains that run through his verse. Seth said, “It works that way; when you’re happy and having a good time that’s not when you’re writing poetry, but only when you’re sad or melancholy which is why it drifts towards sadness.”
Seth talked about how the act of translation was an art and a hugely rewarding and how the original writer must be acknowledged. “The original poet inspired you. In fact, had it not been for the translation of Pushkin’s works, I would not be a writer.” The dilemma in writing in English and native languages in India is that people have a hard time getting their voices heard. The Sahitya Akademi tries its best but there’s a lot of cross-translation. “I won’t say there’s not enough will for translation. In today’s India, rather than opening up to the outside, we’re creating borders within.”
Besides a loo break and reading from The Golden Gate, Seth also read his CBSE favourite poem, The Frog and the Nightingale, stressing on the line that “your song must be your own”, leaving a message amid the cheers and applause from the audience.
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