Vikram Seth touches a nerve inside me that I did not know existed. The diminutive poet, who also moonlights as a novelist (and has to his credit a massive tome among other works), loves me in a way that no one ever has.
Seth sees beauty in minutiae and offers a perspective that few do, which makes for a combination that is as breathtaking as it is incurable. He is one of the finest – if not the finest – writers in English that this country has given birth to, and it has been a sheer privilege to be able to read him and have him delve deep inside my intellect.
I first came across Seth when I was a freckled ten-year-old in school. Our English curriculum had a version of the fable The Frog and the Nightingale from his collection Beastly Tales from Here and There, and we had to write its summary for our half-yearly term examination.
I was enraptured by his use of rhyme and metre; his erudite articulation made me feel as if I was sitting in Bingle Bog myself. I did not know then that this fascination would grow into a deep obsession, or that I would one day end up owning every book he wrote, and demurely display them beside mine at my library at home.
This was not expressed out of impudence or any such Victorian decree; I know well enough that I am not in the same league as Seth as a writer. If he finds out, he might well be tempted to quip that we don’t even play the same sport. But I am transported to a world colonised by unbiased beauty and blameless pleasures when I see Mappings stand next to my first collection of poems This Means War, and I have a feeling that he would allow me this slim opulence.
Few poets of this country can claim to have allowed themselves greater luxuries in life and love (or to have loved and lost – is there any difference?) than Seth, and he of all people, deserves not to be called puritanical. He is Shellean by temperament, and Wildean by outlook; I have a feeling that he senses himself to be born in the wrong century.
Seth describes love in a way that few can discern what he means, let alone gauge the direction where he is coming from. I knew, and yet did not know that one could love a friend as much as one could a partner, and it was Seth who opened my eyes to this. I knew, and yet did not know that Gulmohar blossoms in spring, and it was Seth who made me stop and smell them. I knew, and yet did not know the pain that parting brings, and it was Seth who balmed my soothing nerves. In a way, Seth has been like a parent to me, opening doors that seemed closed, and shattering ceilings when all that appeared was the forbidding grey sky.
And yet I feel that the world that Seth resides in is one of make-believe. My young heart refuses to entertain the idea that there can be a universe, running parallel to ours, where there is no discomfort or distress. The world that Seth inhabits is one where spring flourishes perennially. There is no malice in the afternoon sunlight, no bitterness in the cold winter zephyr and no pang of starvation in the world of plenty that he writes about, and perhaps, lives in.
At the same time, to say that everything that Seth portrays is hunky-dory would be impertinent. Anyone who has read his poetry can attest to this fact. No one can be so cold-hearted as to not be moved by the pain of desire and longing that All You Who Sleep Tonight conveys. Whenever I feel that my senses have grown numbed by virulent attacks from the world outside of me, I climb up to the top shelf of my library and revisit his poems Protocols, The Room and the Street and Interpretation from the aforesaid collection, partly to check if my heart is still beating. I do not return disappointed.
The innocent ache of unrequited love – of which Seth paints quite the picture – hits home ostensibly in his offering Mappings and The Humble Administrator’s Garden. His poem ‘Moonlight’ from the latter collection is a piece of art for the ages – one that can afford to stand on level footing with a Kahlo or a Constable.
It seems to play noiseless sonatas of its own; I shake my head in incredulity at its ability to move me to tears every time I reach the last line. Seth appeals to the utopian in me, oppugning my quest for more earthly pleasures. It appears to me that he almost enjoys this back-and-forth of loving someone, and then not getting loved in return.
His latest work, another collection of poems titled Summer Requiem is one that is immersed laboriously with the refrains of heartbreak and failure. It came on the back of his separation from his long-term partner Philippe Honore (yes, the violinist) and is mournful but not grievous. It does not cry out for attention.
The title poem requires an understanding more profound than one that most refined sensibilities possess; it is bound to reverberate over those of our most bitter friends: time and space. ‘Caged’ is noir-like in appearance, and I am left astounded by how the world has failed to enjoy the genius it denotes.
Hence, it would be unfair to say that everything in Seth’s life, or the world his writings populate, is bright and sunny. This realisation, however unvarnished, makes me feel as if I do not know the man. It is easy to put him under the tags of black and white; it is these greys that make my understanding of him much more challenging. As a consequence, I do not know what kind of affinity I share with him.
If one part of me seeks love and tries to make it through artistic pursuit, the other retches in distaste and sheds muted tears for former loves and ‘bleached cairns and memorials that only I have erected over time’. Seth makes me undergo the whole gamut of emotions that a human mind is equipped to deal with, and that is perhaps the highest praise that any writer, or person can get.
A lot is known about Seth the poet and novelist (the lesser I go in deep about A Suitable Boy, and its subsequent adaptation for television by Mira Nair here the better) but it is as a travel writer that he stands out in my eyes. From Heaven Lake, his account of the journey he undertook hitching rides from his university in Nanjing, China to Delhi, is often overlooked when his finest compositions are cited.
The book won the Thomas Cook award when it was released, and is peppered liberally with retellings of the people he met on the way and – as is expected – unerring odes to nature. His entry into Tibet is most interesting and the way he traverses by foot to Nepal feels like an affront to people like me who revel in business class. Seeking Kathmandu is a shade apart in this regard.
Seth’s powers of observation in the book are legendary. He is as much at ease among people as he is amongst flora; that is not something that can be said for all writers. Seth is the true successor to Keats and Wordsworth when it comes to romanticising Nature and taking its misgivings with a pinch of salt.
My relationship with Seth is defined solely by his poetry – of this, there is no complication. I cannot imagine myself existing in a world where his poems do not; I cannot seek an understanding of what it would feel like to not have his arm around my shoulder when the world seems too deep a sea to swim in with sharks prowling at every corner.
Seth gets me like no one else does; his interpretations of my fixations and yearnings are unmatched. I reach out to him when I feel overwhelmed by life’s ebbing currents around me, and I can sense him respond with a gentle pat on my shoulder or a warm hug or two. Those days, I struggle to shake off the distinction of finally being admitted into his exalted company.
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