Writer and poet Vikram Seth talks about his new collection of poems, Summer Requiem, writing A Suitable Girl and how he does not feel any pressure to return his Sahitya Akademi award — but hopes for action
In a BBC radio interview last year, you said that you travel to “collect fodder for future nostalgia”. Is Summer Requiem, your latest collection of poems as well as the titular poem, a result of such an exercise?
True, I did say that. Well, it’s also a journey into the past. Summer Requiem is one of the earliest poems in the book, and also the latest; it’s been written and worked on for a very long time. And almost as a private activity, because I was not sure whether I was really going to put it out into the world. It’s somewhat mysterious even to me — what does it mean, if anything? Or is it just a mood poem, like a nocturne, where you don’t have to see the shape of the bridge, you just have to have a sense of space.
You wrote Beastly Tales from Here and There (1991), when you were working on A Suitable Boy. Is Summer Requiem some sort of distraction as you write its much-awaited sequel, A Suitable Girl?
I haven’t written this as a distraction. But yes, when I was writing A Suitable Boy, I wrote Beastly Tales, and then it was interrupted again, when I translated the three Tang dynasty poets (Three Chinese Poets, 1992), and again, it was interrupted when I was writing Arion and the Dolphin (published in 1994). So those could be seen as interruptions to A Suitable Boy.
This is not an interruption. These are individual, lyric poems written under the pressure of inspiration of a particular event, sad or complex or whatever, and they’re spaced out over a number of years. I guess the putting together of the book, and putting it out into the world, and talking about now as we are… that might be seen as an interruption to my writing A Suitable Girl. But I trust that I’ll be able to get back to it.
This sequel (A Suitable Girl) appears to have turned into some kind of ugly beast with delayed deadlines and the situation with the advance…
The book never turned into an “ugly beast” — the situation was ugly. What I felt very bad about was that the ugliness of the situation, and what I had to do to solve it, took a good eight months out of my writing the book. That was a great pity. There have been periods of block and so on, which I’ve been open about. In fact, I’ve written a book about this event and being a writer, how inspiration comes and goes, what the sources of writers’ income are, these sort of stuff. And in that context, I’ve described the events that happened.
The book is determined by the characters, not by the salvos of the law, or contractual, commercial dealings that come from outside the book.
Tell us about A Suitable Girl. We met Lata when she was 20, and you’re now reintroducing her to readers at 80-81. Are you going to look back at the last 60 years?
I’m actually writing about the period from 2010 onwards. It fits my scheme for that book and for certain other novellas, roughly one per decade, that will bridge these two rather larger books, A Suitable Boy, and A Suitable Girl.
It seems that you have new writing projects in the pipeline.
I hate the idea of a ‘project’. It’s a kind of scheme, let’s say, an idea or a plan. A vague scheme for some novellas to emerge in this space.
In fact, one of them takes place during the Sikh riots, the working title is Assassinations. It’s about a Sikh army officer who is on a train from Calcutta to Delhi at the end of October 1984.
Early reviews of Summer Requiem have been mixed: the British press and bloggers seem to like it very much. On the other hand, Indian readers seem unimpressed, saying the poems have nothing new.
Thank you for drawing my attention to them! Frankly, I haven’t read any of these. But why shouldn’t people be impatient about this guy who’s going on about how sad he is. In certain moods, I’d be impatient with all this sort of navel gazing. Let everyone have their say.
Yes, there’s a lot of heartbreak flowing through these pages. How do you control the verse so that it does not slip into clichés or banalities?
It’s probably easier to write with a broken heart because you don’t have anything else to do. Writing helps. You’re right, that can happen. In my case, I rhymed with “moon” and “June” (laughs). It’s not that I haven’t written about weak and over-sentimental love as well. It’s just that over the years, I’ve thrown those poems out, because they’re not much good. They were maudlin without any insight.
You’ve snuck in a jibe at the government in the poem “No Further War”…
Not against this government. It’s not a jibe, it’s my fear for the world. Because it’s always the case, that every century produces a few lunatics and a few wise leaders but never, except in this century, would it be the case that the crazy ones can actually destroy the world through the advance of weaponry. The fact is, this century contains the weaponry, economic or biological, to finish off our species. “No Further War” is a compression of a three-page poem that I wrote in my first book of poems, Mappings (1980). There’s another poem there that begins with exactly the same line. This has been put in the form of a sonnet, but that was in the form of a meditation. But the argument is the same, I’m talking about the devastation of the earth.
India is increasingly becoming ‘no country for thinking/questioning men and women’. Are you under any pressure to return your Sahitya Akademi award and the Padma Shri? Your comments on television recently — to wait and see how the October 23 meet of the Akademi goes before you take a decision on your own award — have been questioned by many.
I’ve felt no pressure from anyone on this matter. I’m making up my own mind as a free writer and a free citizen as to what to do. As I’ve said before, an award doesn’t make me think more highly of myself or my work. It’s nice to receive it because writers are isolated people and a mark of appreciation is a pleasant thing to receive. For the writers who have given up their awards, I think it was difficult. We don’t go to an office every day, or a department; we’re not part of a hotel chain, we’re very isolated.
There’s pressure on both sides, isn’t there? The “why have you returned the award or why haven’t you, what happened during the Sikh riots, or look at what the government’s doing” etc. My specific literary award was given to me by an institution I have respected for a long time but I am very shocked by their silence and inaction on this matter. Keki Daruwalla has said that when he wrote to somebody at the institution, they didn’t write back to him but they called him and said, “Saab, bahut pressure hai yahan par”. Frankly, I haven’t felt the pressure. It’s an individual decision and let’s hope that come the 23rd, something robust comes out of the Sahitya Akademi.
Almost nine years ago, you co-signed an open letter to the government that rallied against Section 377 of the IPC. Later, you were on the cover of a news magazine as a “criminal”. In the current political climate, would you say that the LGBTQ movement for equal rights has suffered a setback? If so, what do you think is the way forward?
I have no idea. At the time I went on the cover, I didn’t think there was any chance of redress, because it was the Supreme Court, a final judgment. Eighteen months ago, there was this agreement to hear as a curative petition in open court, arguments against this decision. The Supreme Court can constitute a bench of five judges who have not decided the case before.
So given that, I would say that one hopes that the judgment will go according to constitutional norms and an argument of the level that appeared in the division bench judgment by the Supreme Court that said “oh, there are not very many of them so we can trample on their rights” — that kind of argument cannot pass muster. There’s been so much academic, popular and press reactions against this judgment, that even for institutional purposes, I think the Supreme Court, in whichever way they decide, will have better argumentation in the judgment.