Vikram Seth was born in 1952 in Calcutta, Bengal, India, to shoe company executive Prem Seth and judge Laila Seth. He has a younger brother who does buddhist meditation tours, and a younger sister who is an Austrian diplomat. As a child he was trained in Indian classical music, and listening to music is still his main way of relaxing, although in the last few years that has swung to western classical music.
Vikram Seth has a degree in philosophy, economics and politics from Oxford University. He also started a PhD in Economics at Stanford University, but got led astray by beginning to write poetry. This passion of his led him to study Chinese poetry and languages at Nanjing University in China.
What made me love Vikram Seth's writing was reading The Golden Gate, which is his first novel. It's a fantastic story about the lives of a few young people in San Francisco. What makes it even more fantastic is that it is written completely in verse. 690 rhyming tetrameter sonnets to be exact. It really blew my mind that you could write a book in verse, that still is almost impossible to put down.
The next book I read was his first fictional prose, A Suitable Boy. It has sold more than a million copies, which is quite extrordinary, considering it is about a family in India, and over 1300 pages. 1349 to be exact, and with that the longest single volume novel published in English so far. But it doesn't feel long. Instead you are taken to the dusty streets of a fictional city, where we follow four families through their everyday trials and tribulations, and of course to find a suitable boy for the young girl Lata. However, you are also taken on a very educating trip through the political landscape of 1950s India with hindus fighting muslims, etc., and the characters in the book don't leave you easily. Although it's quite some time since I read it, I still sometimes think about the characters.
The third novel, An Equal Music, is set in London, and has a violin player in a string quartet, Michael, as the main character, and the whole book rotates around him and his lost love for a pianist. It's once again fantastic characters and location description that really takes you there. I can still hear the gravel from the paths in Hyde Park...
Extract from An Equal Music chapter 1.1
The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.
There is no one about. The birds are still. The traffic slashes through Hyde Park. It comes to my ears as white noise.
I test the bench but do not sit down. As yesterday, as the day before, I stand until I have lost my thoughts. I look at the water of the Serpentine.
Yesterday as I walked back across the park I paused at a fork in the footpath. I had the sense that someone had paused behind me. I walked on. The sound of footsteps followed along the gravel. They were unhurried; they appeared to keep pace with me. Then they suddenly made up their mind, speeded up, and overtook me. They belonged to a man in a thick black overcoat, quite tall – about my height – a young man from his gait and attitude, though I did not see his face. His sense of hurry was now evident. After a while, unwilling so soon to cross the blinding Bayswater Road, I paused again, this time by the bridle path. Now I heard the faint sound of hooves. This time, however, they were not embodied. I looked to left, to right. There was nothing.
To hear Vikram Seth read from it himself, go to http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0599/seth/reading.html
For me, it's Vikram Seth's very human and alive characters and the environments he paints that makes him an outstanding author. It's full of sadness, tragedy and romance, but it is still so real (or maybe that's why). He also leaves a lot to your imagination by sometimes only hinting at what is really going on. With regards to his poetry I haven't read that much by him, but what I have read shows that he can combine his rich tradition with the modern, as you can see in the following example.
Sit from All You Who Sleep Tonight
Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile.
You're twenty-six, and still have some life ahead.
No need for wit; just talk vacuities, and I'll
Reciprocate in kind, or laugh at you instead.
The world is too opaque, distressing and profound.
This twenty minutes' rendezvous will make my day:
To sit here in the sun, with grackles all around,
Staring with beady eyes, and you two feet away.
So go to your local library, or to your favourite bookshop. Buy and read. Because you're worh it. And so is Vikram Seth...
As part of my research I found that Amazon.com sells one of his books for $627.00. That's the most expensive item I have seen on their site.
All quotes are copyright Vikram Seth, published here for illustrative purposes only.