In Which Vikram Seth Wonders If He’s Having a Writer’s Block

Khalid Mohamed asks if Vikram Seth has read Karan Johar’s ‘An Unsuitable Boy’.

5 min read
Vikram Seth enjoys his evening drink.

“It’s such a cliché – this Writer’s Block thing,” he says utterly bemused. “Am I going through it? I don’t know, there must be another answer for this question which everyone’s subjecting me to.”

Vikram Seth, the celebrated author of poetry tomes, children’s stories, an opera and of course, the monumental novels The Golden Gate (1986), A Suitable Boy (1993) and An Equal Music (1999), has been hustled into an impromptu conversation at the dining room of a Kasauli hotel with a stretching view of pinewood trees.

I can’t fathom whether the author of the in-the-works A Suitable Girl - the sequel to A Suitable Boy – is in knots over the plot or is he just word weary? He has missed the deadline of delivering the girl twice. From Penguin Publishers the deal had crossed over to the Orion Publishing Group. Penguin had expected him to deliver the first manuscript in June 2013, and Orion by late 2016. The legalese and negotiations by his agent, couldn’t have been pleasant for the writer, who’s been stymied by personal angst.
Vikram Seth at the Kasauli Lit Fest with actor Divya Dutta.
Vikram Seth at the Kasauli Lit Fest with actor Divya Dutta.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Reportedly, Seth has been disturbed ever since his break-up with the French violinist Phillippe Honore. In fact, their parting of ways is echoed, quite heart-wrenchingly in An Equal Music.

In a 1999 profile piece in The Guardian, Seth was quoted as saying, “There have been dark periods, when I’ve been hopelessly in love, when I haven’t been able to see myself out of a situation. Metaphysical struggles if you like. At times I was acutely incapable of doing anything.”

Right at this moment, he seems to be capable of doing anything. The petite-framed author is jumpy, talkative and lavishly praising a handsome waiter’s kindness in refreshing his glass of wine and plate of nachos.

Concurrently, he leaprogs between disparate topics: from the joy of Carnatic music and Chinese poetry to the stultifying atmosphere of Noida where he’s anchored now to the conundrum on why he carries an unsmart cell phone.

“Do you even even know what Noida stands for?” he wonders in amazement, adding, “It’s the acronym for The New Okhla Industrial Development Authority, a fine address for poet, I should think.” Plus, he chortles about the far-out name he uses for his email id, which I dare not reveal. Neither am I likely to email him since he conveys he’s not in the habit of net-communication.

Vikram Seth is excited about the filming of his book <i>A Suitable Boy.</i>
Vikram Seth is excited about the filming of his book A Suitable Boy.
(Photo Courtesy: Khalid Mohamed)

In the midst of the gabfest, Seth lights up like a megawatt bulb, on telling me about BBC TV’s intended eight-part series to be adapted from A Suitable Boy by Andrew Davies (screenwriter of recent takes on Pride and Prejudice, and War and Peace).The search is on for the director. Uh, could it be Mira Nair, who has often travelled the diaspora route? “She’s a friend,” he replies. “But I don’t think so. It’ll have to be someone from any part of the world with a..what should I call it?..fresh approach. And the actors should be Indian, hopefully from the welter of talent here.”

Seth isn’t collaborating on the script but is entitled to approve the final draft, and the casting. I’ve been told by a publisher at Kasauli – there for a weekend literary festival – that an incredible sum of money running into millions of pounds has been paid for the adaptation rights. Dare I confirm that with Seth? Nope, because at the dining table right then, he’s floating in a quickly replenished glass of red wine. Talking money, I suspect, would dampen his spirits.

At the table, when I decline a never-heard-of-before brand of domestic vodka, he suggests solicitously, “I have a bottle of excellent vodka in my room. Should I go and get it for you?”

Seth, at the age of 65, apparently enjoys his evening drinks. And why not? At his session at the fest, he had sipped Merlot on the dais, stopped to gaze at the full moon, and had the assembly sobbing when he recited emotionally-churning verses on the imagined loss of a parent.

The Kasauli conversation has its wacko moments. He writes my name on a paper napkin and autographs it, both in Urdu. “What do you make of that?” he grins. Apologies, I’m ashamed, I can’t. “Janaab, if you could,” he frowns, “You’d see I’ve written the names backwards.” Oh.

Vikram Seth on the cover of <i>India Today </i>in December 2013.
Vikram Seth on the cover of India Today in December 2013.

Bring up the striking India Today cover in December 2013, on which he had posed with a prisoner’s slate, to protest against the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the ban on gay sex, he says, “Oh that’s another story. When the magazine’s team arrived, they said they’d have to shoot immediately. I was unshaven and looking haggard, something my father wouldn’t have approved of. He likes his son to look presentable. Anyway the team couldn’t wait, and so it was one of those quickie photos. Did you like it?”

Yes, it was candid and impactful. Next, I bring up Karan Johar’s autobiography The Unsuitable Boy, the title of which alludes to his book. “Oh, yes, yes, I’ve seen it on the bookstands,” he says straight-faced. “But I haven’t read it. I’ve just stopped reading books.”

Not even Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which took 20 years to complete, the novel in which she thanks the late British writer John Berger who helped her to start and waited for her to finish? “20 years, yes,” he shrugs, “but Arundhati did write other books in between. As for Berger, well..he’s not for me. I haven’t been moved by his work, have you?”

Yes, deeply. But he’s not about to get into a discussion on Berger. Vikram Seth switches off, places his head on the table, and begins to sing a raga, at controlled volume.

Any which way, clearly Vikram Seth is brilliant. A Suitable Boy located in the 1950s was a cover-to-cover glide totalling 1,349 pages. The sequel set in present days, is guesstimated to be 500 pages.

Er, so what’s the hitch? Repeat the query and he shushes me up, “I’m not a car which has hit a roadblock. It’ll happen, it could happen in a torrent suddenly. So, do you want me to get you that vodka or not?”

Yes, Vikram, please.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)

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