Vikram Seth is an acclaimed Indian poet, novelist and travel writer. He has published six volumes of poetry and is the author of three novels: The Golden Gate, A Suitable Boy, and An Equal Music. His most recent work The Rivered Earth is a collection of four libretti written to accompany music by composer Alec Roth and performed by violinist Philippe Honore. He has also written an opera libretto, a book of other libretti, and two highly regarded travel books.
-IN CONVERSATION WITH VIKRAM SETH
First of all, a warm welcome to Karachi. How’re you enjoying the city so far?
Karachi is an amazing city and I love it here. I’ve been to Lahore before a couple of times but I was expecting Karachi to be very different, and it is!
I believe you’ve been out and about since you landed here day before yesterday. What all have you seen and done so far?
Yes, I spent most of yesterday exploring Thatta, Bhambor and Makli because I didn’t want to waste my time in a hotel room! They’re all fantastic places. I went and saw a couple of mosques, and also visited a Kali temple nearby, which was really intriguing. After all the sightseeing, we had lunch at a circuit house, so I got to experience the different aspects of the local civics as well. I have to tell you everything here is surprisingly similar to India. I’m not getting much sleep but I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. We even stopped by a dhaba sort of place to have a typical Karachi breakfast yesterday. I also took a walk along the Clifton beach on my first night here and it was lovely.
You have obviously been to lots of prolific literature festivals around the world before, but this is your first time here, so how does it feel to be a part of this particular event?
I think Ameena and her gang has done an incredible job with the Karachi Literature Festival. I was just going through the schedule and I wanted to go to listen to more than a few of them. To organize something on this scale in Karachi, especially when the city is going through difficult times, is really commendable. I’m also very happy to see the emphasis on Urdu writing, which is very important. Of course one can never really predict the future of such events, but I don’t think they would have arranged a third festival if the first two weren’t successful. And this year surely looks like a big success to me, which means the people of Karachi should look out for another great event next year also!
How important a role do you think poetry and literature play—or should play, for that matter—in our lives, especially in times like these when one wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that the arts and literature have literally been forced to take the back seat?
It’s always nice to be an idealist and hope literature and poetry and art does much, but I really don’t know if it does. Take India and Pakistan, for instance. We’ve had some very fine writers on this side of the border and we’ve had some very fine writers on our side, but all their efforts don’t seem to have done much, wouldn’t you say? Slowly, sure, maybe it will happen, but more because of other factors than literature. At least that’s what I think.
But literature has brought you and Shobhaa Dé, Siddharth Deb and Sharmila Bose here today! Surely that’s a positive sign?
That’s true, and I hope you’re right and we’re able to deliver and bring about a positive change some day… You see, I’m not pessimistic, but I’m not very optimistic either. As time passes, I feel the frequency with which Indians and Pakistani’s meet is becoming less and less. We don’t travel to each other’s countries unless we have a very specific reason for doing so, and even then, it’s usually just touch and go in one city. I feel it’s not in everyone’s interest to solve all the problems. If it were, we’d be way past them by now.
Your book A Suitable Boy is testament to the fact that you’re one of the masters of contemporary fiction, but you also do a lot of travel writing and poetry. What genre do you personally enjoy most?
Well, enjoyment is a tricky word to use. Most of the times when you’re writing you’re not really enjoying yourself, but you continue to do it because it’s your job. I enjoy whatever comes to me. I’d obviously write a travel book when I’m traveling. People often ask me why I’m not writing another fiction; that my fans and publishers are waiting for it, and I just tell them to go away and stop bothering me!
So you believe in writing for yourself?
Pretty much, yes. Of course once I’ve written a book, I fight like anything to get a good advance, but as to whether I’ll write another book like The Golden Gate or A Suitable Boy, well… that’s got nothing to do with commercialism.
When can we expect to get our hands on the much talked about sequel to A Suitable Boy? Will it really be called A Suitable Girl?
I’ll tell you this much: something is definitely in the works, but I don’t even know if it’s going to be called A Suitable Girl or An Unsuitable Boy or what. It could be anything. I have a deadline of about fifteen-seventeen months from now, so let’s see how things turn out. I really hope my publisher will be a little tolerant with me!
So no spoilers for us?
No spoilers at all! In fact, no spoilers for me either. I really don’t know what I’m going to write next.
Tell me a bit about The Revered Earth and your collaboration with Philippe Honoré (violinist) and Alec Roth (compser).
Well, The Revered Earth is a very thin book and apropos to what you were saying earlier, I’m pretty sure it won’t be very popular with the fans. I mean, who the heck would want to read so much poetry, calligraphy and music? For me, the great reward of working with a wonderful violinist and composer is this: that my words, such as they are, will be heard clearly, and that they’ll be cloaked in beautiful music. And this gives me more pleasure than I could ever have imagined.
Any final words on the KLF experience and meeting the many burgeoning Pakistani authors of fiction, non-fiction and poetry?
I think it’s a great thing for Pakistan. I’m so happy to see so many new writers here who’re doing fiction and short-fiction. I’m not very well acquainted with poetry but I believe there are some very prolific poets here today as well. Pakistani writers are very diverse and it only speaks well of the people of Pakistan.