Vikram Seth: Wikis


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Vikram Seth
Born 20 June 1952 (1952-06-20) (age 57)
Cochin, Kerala, India
Occupation Poet, novelist, travel writer, librettist, children's writer, biographer and memoirist
Nationality Indian
Genres novels, poetry, libretto, travel writing, children's literature, biography/memoir
Notable work(s) A Suitable Boy, The Golden Gate

Vikram Seth (Hindi: विक्रम सेठ, pronounced [ˈvɪkrəm ˈseːʈʰ]; born June 20, 1952) is an Indian poet, novelist, travel writer, librettist, children's writer, biographer and memoirist.


Early life

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 amal, Patna, near Danapur and London.

His father was an executive with the Bata India Limited shoe company who migrated to post-Partition India from West Punjab in Pakistan. His mother, Leila was the first woman judge on the Delhi High Court as well as the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court, at Simla. She studied law in London, while she was pregnant with Seth's younger brother, and came first in her bar examinations conducted only weeks after she delivered her second child .

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.)

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[1], and in Delhi, where he lives with his parents and keeps his extensive library and papers.



He attended St Michael's High School in Patna, Welham Boys' School and The Doon School in Dehra Dun.

At Doon Founder's Day gathering in 1992, he remarked about his "terrible feeling of loneliness and isolation" while studying at the prestigious institution. He said,

Sometimes, at lights out, I wished I would never wake up to hear the chhota hazri bell. For days after I left I thought of school as a kind of jungle, and looked back on it with a shudder. I was teased and bullied by my classmates and my seniors because of my interest in studies and reading, because of my lack of interest in games, because of my unwillingness to join gangs and groups.[2]

In his speech to the Doon students he also spoke of the advantages the school conferred on him and offered words of encouragement and inspiration. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Margaret Throsby, his slightly younger contemporary at Doon, anthropologist and novelist Amitav Ghosh, expressed surprise at the report of how Seth had characterised his school days: in his own recollection Seth had been deservedly lionized by both students and staff.[3]

Seth completed his A-levels at Tonbridge School, a public school in Kent, England, and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He undertook doctoral studies at Stanford University where he has stated that he spent "eleven years (from 1975 to 1986) not getting an economics PhD." While formally engaged in postgraduate economics courses at Stanford he also undertook poetic studies — he was Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing in 1977-1978[4] — with the poet Timothy Steele. Steele's traditionally structured verse with formal rhyme and metre (together with that of Robert Frost and Philip Larkin) inspired Seth to adopt a similar formal discipline in his own poetry. "I wanted to have some contact with the writing program," Seth recalled in 2003 interview. "So I went to this office and asked if there was anyone who could help with poetry. There were two poets there and the one nearest the door was Timothy Steele, who writes with rhyme and metre. If the other fellow had been closer, I'd probably have turned out a poet of free verse."[5] He also enrolled in Mandarin Chinese courses at Stanford that later helped him gain fluency during his stint in China.

In 1980-82 Seth did extensive field work in China gathering data for his intended doctoral dissertation on Chinese population planning; he was attached to Nanjing University and became fluent in Mandarin within six months, later translating Chinese as well as Hindi poetry into English. He took advantage of his Chinese language fluency to return home to Delhi overland via Xinjiang and Tibet, resulting in From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), a combination travel narrative and personal memoir written at the suggestion of his father.

Personal life


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 Dēvanāgarī script. He plays the Indian flute and the cello and sings German lieder, especially Schubert.

Business acumen

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.[5]

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[6]) with £500,000 for An Equal Music and £1.4 million for Two Lives.[7] 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.[8]

Gay and bisexual themes

In each of Seth’s novels and in much of his poetry, there are central or peripheral gay or bisexual themes and characters; in particular one of the central relationships in The Golden Gate and the association between Maan and Firoz in A Suitable Boy. Seth has been discreet but not secretive about his personal life, occasionally citing his early poem “Dubious” without further comment:

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?[2]

Seth has said that "the 'I' in my poems is almost always me"; Mappings and Seth's other books of poetry also contain love poems addressed to both male and female objects. However, Seth's mother, Justice Leila Seth, wrote in her memoir On Balance,

At the time [of a dispute with Seth over sleeping arrangements for a visiting friend] I didn't realise that Vikram was bisexual. This understanding came to me much later and I found it hard to come to terms with his homosexuality. Premo found it even harder....But we loved him and accepted it without understanding it.[9]

Beyond the dedication in An Equal Music, Seth has expressly acknowledged his ten-year relationship with his former partner, Philippe Honoré.[10] Indian-born San Francisco journalist Sandip Roy reports that Seth discussed the issue of his sexuality candidly in a television program with his sister Aradhana. In a book tour radio interview,[11] Roy probed further: Seth said that this was not something he'd ever hidden, but that he just didn't wish to be defined by it. On the other hand, he said that he was conscious of the fact that being open about his sexuality might help other bisexual or gay people, and that he had given leave to his mother to write about it partially for that reason.[11]

Seth has been increasingly forthright in recent years on the issue of gay rights in his native India. In an interview on CNN-IBN aired 21 January 2006, Seth talked about the law in India relating to homosexuality. He called section 377 of the Indian Penal Code barbaric and archaic. He advocated its removal, saying that the British who introduced this have removed it in their own country. He gave three reasons for it being removed: (1) it is silly (as India is following something outdated); (2) it is cruel (as it causes intolerable pain and self-doubt); and (3) it is harmful (as it promotes underground activities which pose a health problem). He wished that young Indians would not have to worry about their sexuality. He suggested that the government was afraid of losing votes and it was fear that drove its indisposition to amend the current draconian criminal sanctions against homosexuality. Continuing with the theme, Seth said in an interview with Sheela Reddy published in Outlook India on 2 October 2006,

I don't particularly like talking about these matters myself. I am a private person and I don't feel my friends' lives and my own should be part of the public's right to know. But in a case like this where so much is at stake, where the happiness, at a conservative estimate, of 50 million people and their right not to be fearful or lonely and to be with the people whom they love is at issue, and the happiness of their families as well, then it really is incumbent on us to speak out.[10]

Upon the Delhi High Court's 2009 judgement that Section 377 of the IPC violates fundamental human rights, Seth spoke of the effective legalisation of homosexuality in India as "wonderfully good, humane and lucid", adding that "Now a homosexual in India does not have to feel that he or she is an unarrested criminal."[12]



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.[5] Whether or not Seth's poetry is expressly influenced by Larkin, it contains similar elements: a highly colloquial vocabulary and syntax with enjambement and rhyme; closely structured form but without rigidity.

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.[13]

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 award for travel writing. 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)

Hybrid: The "novel in verse": The Golden Gate

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 rhyming tetrameter sonnets after the style of Charles Johnston's 1977 translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (although Eugene Onegin, both in the original Russian and in Johnston's translation, are in the Onegin stanza of iambic tetrameter). Seth had encountered 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.

In the text of The Golden Gate, Seth rhymes his own surname with the word "away", implying that the English pronunciation of his name is similar to "Say". This is not the case, as a reading of the Hindi version of his surname shows.

"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.

Novels in prose

A Suitable Boy

After the success of The Golden Gate, Seth took up residence in his parents' house back in Delhi to work on his second novel, A Suitable Boy (1993). Though initially conceived as a short piece detailing the domestic drama of an Indian mother's search for an appropriate husband for her marriageable Indian daughter against the background of the formative years of India after independence, the novel grew and Seth was to labour over it for almost a decade. The 1474-page novel is a four-family saga set in post-independence, post-Partition India, and alternatively satirically and earnestly examines issues of national politics in the period leading up to the first post-independence national election of 1952, inter-sectarian animosity, the status of lower caste peoples such as the jatav, land reform and the eclipse of the feudal princes and landlords, academic affairs, inter- and intra-family relations and a range of further issues of importance to the characters. The Indian journalist and novelist Khushwant Singh has said of the novel that, "I lived through that period and I couldn't find a flaw. It really is an authentic picture of Nehru's India."[2] The novel was, despite its formidable length, a bestseller, and propelled Seth into the public spotlight.

Seth has confirmed (July 2009) that he is writing a contemporary novel including characters from A Suitable Boy, to be published in 2013.[14] He describes A Suitable Girl as a "jump sequel", with Lata looking for a "suitable girl" for her grandson.

An Equal Music

Seth's third novel, An Equal Music (1999), set in contemporary Europe, focuses on the lives of classical musicians and their music.

Readers and critics without musical knowledge occasionally complained that Michael, the protagonist, was simply not a likeable (or unlikeable) enough character to sustain interest throughout a substantial novel and that the focus on the music for its own sake can be trying for the uninitiated. Musically knowledgeable readers, especially those who perform, were with rare exceptions unstinting in their enthusiasm and praise. Paolo Isotta, one of Italy's most significant music critics, wrote in the influential newspaper Il Corriere della Sera of the Italian translation that no European writer had ever shown such a knowledge of European classical music, nor had any European novel before managed to convey the psychology, the technical abilities, even the human potentialities of those who practise music for a living[15]

Seth credits his then-partner, the French violinist Philippe Honoré, as inspiring him with the idea for An Equal Music in an acrostic sonnet on Honoré's name in the epigraph:

Perhaps this could have stayed unstated.
Had our words turned to other things
In the grey park, the rain abated,
Life would have quickened other strings.
I list your gifts in this creation:
Pen, paper, ink and inspiration,
Peace to the heart with touch or word,
Ease to the soul with note and chord.
How did that walk, those winter hours,
Occasion this? No lightning came;
Nor did I sense, when touched by flame,
Our story lit with borrowed powers -
Rather, by what our spirits burned,
Embered in words, to us returned.[16]

Seth together with Philippe Honoré marketed a double CD of the music mentioned in An Equal Music, performed by Honoré.[17]

Biography/Memoir: Two Lives

His most recent book, Two Lives, is a non-fiction family memoir written at the suggestion of his mother, and published in October 2005. It focuses on the lives of his great-uncle (Shanti Behari Seth) and German-Jewish great aunt (Henny Caro) who met in Berlin in the early 1930s while Shanti was a student there and with whom Seth stayed extensively on going to England at age 17 for school. As with From Heaven Lake, Two Lives contains much autobiography.


Seth's range is demonstrated by the historical accuracy of A Suitable Boy, with the nuanced cultivated-Indian English of the narrative voice and the entirely in-character voices of the principals of the story; the correspondingly accurate depiction of northern California yuppies of the 1980s in The Golden Gate; and his portrait of the world of western classical musicians in An Equal Music. He has continued to produce volumes of poetry at intervals alongside his publications in a range of other forms, including translations from Chinese poets.

A film of A Suitable Boy was slated to go into production in 2007, an earlier attempt at a television serialisation having been abandoned.




Children's book


The Traveller [2008] with composer Alec Roth. Premiere, Lichfield Festival July 2008.


Prizes and awards

  • 1983 - Thomas Cook Travel Book Award From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet
  • 1985 - Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) The Humble Administrator's Garden
  • 1993 - Irish Times International Fiction Prize (shortlist) A Suitable Boy
  • 1994 - Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book) A Suitable Boy
  • 1994 - WH Smith Literary Award A Suitable Boy
  • 2001 - EMMA (BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award) for Best Book/Novel An Equal Music
  • 2005 - Pravasi Bharatiya Samman
  • 2007 - Padma Shri in Literature & Education


  1. ^ "Listening to God's melodies", The Times (London), 29 July 2006,,,923-2288533,00.html, retrieved 2007-09-05  
  2. ^ a b c "Vikram Seth", DoonOnline: Features & Spotlights,, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  3. ^ "Mornings with Margaret Throsby: Amitav Ghosh",, 22 March 2005,, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  4. ^ Dang, Jess (17 May 2000), "Novelist Seth reads from work" ( – Scholar search), The Stanford Daily,, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  5. ^ a b c Gavron, Jeremy (27 March 1999), "A suitable joy", The Guardian,,,306943,00.html, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  6. ^ Vikram Seth writes Suitable Boy sequel in The Guardian 3 July 2009
  7. ^ Bhatia, Shyam (1 September 2003), "Seth to get at least $3 million advance",,, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  8. ^ Seth, Vikram (18 November 2003), "Appreciation: Giles Gordon", The Guardian,,,1087614,00.html, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  9. ^ Seth, Leila. On Balance. New Delhi: Viking, 2003, ISBN 0-670-04988-3, p. 429.
  10. ^ a b Reddy, Sheela (2 October 2006), "It Took Me Long To Come To Terms With Myself. Those Were Painful Years.", Outlook India,, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  11. ^ a b "Sex, Lives, and no Videotape, and Transformative Grief", Up Front Radio, 30 December 2005,, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  12. ^ Harikrishnan, Charmy (3 July 2009). ""It’s wonderfully good, humane, says Vikram Seth"". The Indian Express. Retrieved 2009-11-13.  
  13. ^ Oxfam: Ox-Tales
  14. ^ BBC News website 2 July 2009
  15. ^ Albertazzi, Silvia (2005-01-20), "An equal music, an alien world: postcolonial literature and the representation of European culture", European Review (Cambridge University Press) 13: 103–113, doi:10.1017/S1062798705000104,  .
  16. ^ Amazon: An Equal Music,, retrieved 2007-09-05  .
  17. ^ Amazon: An Equal Music (CD),  .
  • Chaudhuri, Amit (ed.). "Vikram Seth (b. 1952)." The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature. New York: Vintage, 2004:508-537.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Vikram Seth (born 20 June 1952) is an Indian poet and author.


  • 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?
    • Dubious from 'Mappings' (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1980)
    • Repeated by Seth in online interview.

External links

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