On His B’day: Celebrating Vikram Seth, a Suitable Champion of Love
“Not being able to love the one you love is to have your life wrenched away,” said Vikram Seth on Section 377.
(This story was first published on 20 Jun 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Vikram Seth’s 68th birthday.)
Writers aren’t the same anymore, the way movie stars, TV faces and holiday destinations haven’t been since the 90s. Let’s say the nineties, because for most of us millennials, that would serve as a suitable frame of reference – just the correct kind of nostalgia when you pipe up with “Remember when things were…?” You can credit Twitter for that one – for a Kerry Washington becoming suitably accessible whilst the Jennifer Anistons of the world remained frustratingly inaccessible. Or, how an Amish Tripathi or a Devdutt Pattanaik can be DM-ed, or tagged, or their opinions taken apart/eulogised with the mad hope that it shall reach them. All in all, the writer has taken a (presumably) long and quick Uber ride away from the erstwhile ivory tower and discovered Facebook.
Except a select few. The ones that chose the ‘writerly life’ and kept away since their last earth-shattering book – the kind that moved mountains and kindled imaginations. The ones that resurface only when they have the next earth-shattering, imagination-kindling kind of book to offer. The ones like Vikram Seth.
It is Seth’s 64th birthday today – a birthday that will also ring in the year of the sequel to A Suitable Boy – A Suitable Girl. Twenty-four years since the last one (ASB was published in 1993), let us celebrate the author, the persona and the activist:
Vikram Seth, the Author
There are few who remember that Vikram Seth has written more than ONE book. A Suitable Boy was, in fact, cushioned in between numerous works of poetry and three other successful novels – yet the former managed to become the high-water mark of his life and career. Twenty-four years since Lata Mehra – headstrong, vivacious and poised on the brink of a post-Partition, occasionally simmering India – burst on to the scene, Seth will recreate another India. The new one, a post-liberalised country, replete with plush shopping malls and (perhaps?) the age of Tinder. The conflict, we are told, will remain the same – the conflict of who to marry – but one that will be woven through multiple narratives. How do you write in marriage across the span of a thousand pages, without falling into cliches? A Suitable Girl might answer that, all over again.
Vikram Seth, the Writer-Persona
Seth’s appeal to readers goes far beyond the written word. Dismissive of any checks and curbs, Seth has pushed against the publisher’s deadline of his sequel for the past few years. Yet the dismissal was based not on irreverence, but on an admirable regard for his own personal space. In a powerful interview to The Sunday Times in 2015, Seth went on record to say that his break-up with long-term partner violinist Philippe Honore had affected his writing process. “The split was a loss of love and it really affected me,” said Seth, going on to talk about how it created “periods of darkness in his life”. Not only did Seth debunk the myth that “darkness alone” creates genius, he also managed to place a chunk of his personal life squarely under the public microscope, giving depression the respect it deserved.
Vikram Seth, the Gay Rights Activist
Seth, of course, is no stranger to baring his heart. In 2014, after the SC refused to reconsider its order on gay rights, Seth – an openly gay man – penned this powerful poem:
Through love's great power to be made whole
In mind and body, heart and soul -
Through freedom to find joy, or be
By dint of joy itself set free
In love and in companionhood:
This is the true and natural good.
To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak -
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.
“Not being able to love the one you love is to have your life wrenched away,” claimed a clearly anguished Seth – even as his mother, the late Justice Leila Seth, spoke of how her son had, at one fell swoop, suddenly become a “criminal, an unapprehended felon”. To millions of gay Indians and readers the world over, Vikram Seth has remained an unflinching symbol of hope.
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