(1952- ) novelist, poet
Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta, India, but grew up in Delhi. His father, Prem Seth, is an executive in a business company, and his mother, Lalitha Seth, is a judge. After completing his schooling in India, Seth went to England and America for further studies. At Stanford University in 1975, while studying for his doctorate in economics but frustrated by the tediousness of filling in data for a project, Seth decided to take a temporary leave from economics and thought to try writing a novel instead. He went to a bookstore and was so inspired by a Pushkin novel that he decided to write one himself.
What began as a break became Seth’s lifetime profession—a cross-cultural exploration of the question of identity and human relationships. He has written about North America, Tibet, China, England, and India: In each instance, he does not create, as in the works of Salman rushdie, postmodern cultural hybrids through his characters; rather, Seth’s works can be said to be deliberately straightforward and direct without undermining the lyricism of his language. He does not complicate human nature but frankly and compassionately tries to communicate it. In An Equal Music (1998), which is set in England, the imminent separation of the lovers is an outcome destined by music and is not a result of a larger social or political cause. In this novel, the theme of love is contained within the context of the feelings the couple have for each other. The romantic intimacy between individuals in a drama devoid of politics places this work in a modernist framework.
Seth’s difference from contemporary Indian writers of English can be found in a descriptive style that is as uncomplicated in form as it is in content. This, however, does not mean that he has not written on political issues: The poem “A Doctor’s Journal Entry for August 6, 1945,” from All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990), is a vivid exposition of a doctor’s reaction to the atomic bomb at the moment of its fall into Hiroshima. Caught between saving himself and needing to do his duty to others as a doctor, the narrator realizes that silence and death are his only options.
Seth’s first literary venture was not, as he intended, a novel. Golden Gate (1986) is written completely in rhyme and won him the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1986. Golden Gate follows the formal tradition of older poetry and is a satire of cosmopolitanism in sonnet form. It was inspired by the vibrancy of San Francisco and the lives of the youth who eke out a living there. Seth’s second novel, A Suitable Boy (1993), is set in postindependent India in the 1950s. While a mother performs an exacting search for a perfect husband for her daughter, ethnic violence between Hindus and Muslims divides a nation. A Suitable Boy is the longest novel ever written in English. Because of its length and scope, covering the lives of four extended families, Seth was hailed as a “latter-day Tolstoy” by international critics when it was released.
Seth also studied classical Chinese poetry at Nanjing University (China) and has written about his travels in China and Tibet. Seth’s travelogues uncover traces of India, found even in the remotest mountain in Tibet. After his studies in China, Seth published a collection of Chinese poems that he translated into English.
Seth has proven to be a truly versatile writer. Just as uncomplicated in form as he is in content, he has written in almost every literary genre. He has often said that rather than trying to combine different genres at one time, he prefers to pick a different form for a different theme. He has written six books of poetry, three novels, and a libretto, Arion and the Dolphin (1999), for an opera by British composer Alec Roth. His attention to form has twice placed him in the Guinness Book of Records: for Golden Gate, the first novel in English written entirely in sonnet form, and for A Suitable Boy.
Other Works by Vikram Seth
Arion and Dolphins. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999.
From Heaven Lake. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Works about Vikram Seth
A. L. McLeod, ed. “The Gate and the Banyan: Vikram Seth’s Two Identities,” The Literature of the Indian Diaspora. Delhi, India: Sterling, 2000.
Atkins, Angela. Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum International Inc., 2002. Pandurang, Mala. Vikram Seth: Multiple Locations, Multiple Affiliation. New Delhi: Rawat, 2001.