Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Suitable Book: Vikram Seth in Conversation with Somnath Batabyal at the Jaipur Literature Festival

(Published in Pravasi Bharatiya, IANS, February 2011)

I-Witness: A Peek into the Future 

For the fans of Vikram Seth, the Jaipur tryst with the author was a special one indeed. The very name of the session stemmed from the title of his extremely popular and successful novel, A Suitable Boy.

Not only did Seth speak of his novel, and its Hindi avatar, Koi Achcha sa Ladka (Seth mentioned he decidedly hadn’t been in favour of Ek Suyogya Var – the title suggested earlier), he also gripped the audience with his thoughts on the much awaited sequel to the original English version, which is going to be called A Suitable Girl – of course.

At no point did Seth seem to shy away from revealing his thoughts about the sequel he is yet to begin.

‘I haven’t started writing it yet,’ he said.

When he should really be focusing on writing the sequel, he said, he has been preoccupied with other things instead: sculpture for one. He went on to describe sculpture and the properties of glass for a few deliberate moments to an amused audience, before cleverly reverting to the discussion at hand.

‘As you can see, I easily get distracted,’ he grinned, while his equally clever and entertaining interviewer, Somnath Batabyal, sat back and smiled with the audience before jumping back again with the next question at the opportune moment.

The audience wanted to know how Seth felt about Lata Mehra – the protagonist of the earlier novel: whether she had made the right choice, and whether she was happy.

‘I wish I knew,’ he replied. ‘I really wish I did, but I don’t. I hope she is.’

Well, there’s a good author all right – letting his characters live their own lives in peace!

So what’s A Suitable Girl going to be about?

Erm … it will be about our dear Lata Mehra’s grandson seeking a girl. One could make out Seth was thinking aloud as he went on with his almost-soliloquy, allowing the audience a peep into his thoughts. For those few moments the thoughts were out there for everybody to enjoy – cinemascope.

‘Lata would now probably be eighty,’ he said. ‘About sixty years would have elapsed since then. And I might set the story in modern times instead of immediately after Partition. The research would also have to be different. I might travel and visit places.’

The parent novel had been set in post-Partition India and, as everybody is probably aware, the research that went into the book was exhaustive!

Talking about the length of the book, he said with another smile, ‘Well … it could be a slim book, or it may turn out to be another monstrous, big book.’

A Suitable Boy had indeed been one such, running into1488 pages in paperback, released in 1993. A manuscript of that length would have been enough to unsettle the best of publishers! Of course, it did go on to become brilliantly successful in spite of its thousand characters and their extended families or friends, simply because Seth knew his craft so well!

He read extracts from his poetry, and the complete poem, ‘The Frog and the Nightingale’ on special request from a university student, who apparently had the poem in the syllabus. 

In the middle of the session Seth switched places with Batabyal upon a whim, because he said he couldn’t see the audience on the other side properly. (Hence the confusing photographs!)

A young woman put a question to him about what to do about a writer’s block when it comes to poetry.

Seth’s reply: ‘The point is to write a poem you can’t not write. There are some things that can’t be written. Life is not all about writing. It is better to store up experiences and return to them when you have found clarity of expression.’

To my own question about whether he believes in creative writing courses, he said, ‘I wouldn’t cut off the hand that has fed me.’ Translated, it means that he believes writing skills can be honed if not quite ‘acquired’, and he did get some guidance for a brief period at Columbia himself, which he found useful.

A Suitable Girl is scheduled for release in 2013, and the world waits for Seth’s magic to strike once again. Lots of mays and mights and ifs and buts at the moment – but it’s sure to be a feast!


  1. the flow of the article is awesome...and the words are well used.

  2. had enjoyed Suitable Boy ...looking forward to the Girl now...thanks for this sneak peek Divya :)

  3. I so envy you! actually spoke to HIM!I just love him you know!Absolute love!Loved A Suitable Boy, loved An Equal Music, maybe even better than A Suitable Boy! Am so looking forward to the sequel. And Beastly Tales is my favourite :)

  4. Sat bang in the front row! In fact, waited all day for it! :P

    Yes, it was worth the wait! And I agree with you. I loved An Equal Music better, and Beastly Tales is an old fav anyway. :)

  5. Divya my dear you are flying high. What a wonderful moment this must have been. I remember being in school and choosing A Suitable Boy for a book prize, I received some funny looks that day, perhaps it didn't sound scholarly enough but I still enjoyed it immensely. Looking forward to the sequel.

  6. Hey G, Lovely to see you here! :) And hope you'll keep peeping in now n then. I look forward to that!

  7. Isabella LawrenceApril 12, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    When reading the works of Mr Seth, do you and your correspondents consider that his use of the English language has anything to say about the status of English in India (one might think of episodes in A Suitable Boy where Lata's brother is working with Englishmen and trying to impress them). I ask as an English woman living in England. Do you think his use of particular forms of language changes with the different characters he portrays as well as the story he is telling? How would you define the differences between Mr Seth's English and that of the average Englishman living in, say, London?

  8. Dear Isabella,
    A lot of it is deliberate. It's not about the status of English in India. You'd find thousands who speak and write impeccable King's/Queen's English. :)
    At the same time, it's true that a lot of Indians or, for that matter, anyone for whom English is not the first language, might use a version of the language that's coloured by their mother tongue/any language they're more familiar with.
    In our case, call it 'Indian English' if you like. After all, many words the Oxford dictionary accepts today are Hindi words, and words from other languages.
    Seth's writing is even more enjoyable because he's portrayed a certain culture we know and recognise well. There's subtlety and humour (certain bits are hilarious!), but can probably be appreciated more by people who're familiar with the milieu.
    The version of English you see is a deliberate device. Sometimes the sentences are a literal translation of Hindi sentences into English -- not very uncommon here. He captures the personalities/scenes very well. :)

  9. Dear Divya, you are absolutely correct when you say that anyone for whom English is not the first language, might use a version of the language that's coloured by their mother tongue/any language they're more familiar with.I have heard a English professor heartily praise a book of translations from Kannada Vachana Literature into English while another, obviously possessing lesser linguistic capabilities, commenting on it adversely.
    Should we categorize the language of the illiterates or less read people as a non-language? does a story in that language not merit consideration?

  10. Dear Vijayraghavan,
    Good to see you here. :) Yes, I do agree with you.
    In fact, in India, more and more literary awards have now started including translations of works from regional languages into English as well.

  11. nice idea..thanks for sharing....