Why we need to read Vikram Seth

The author and poet is, above all, a humanist who places individual agency above established systems of collective behaviour.

 |  5-minute read |   18-10-2015
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Most serious novelists, when engulfed by a mammoth project, need to find ways to amuse themselves. Generally, this need results in them writing something on the side: consider it an authorial cardio routine or Dhoni, Kohli and company playing football before a big game. We have known for a while now that Vikram Seth is writing A Suitable Girl, a jump sequel to his beloved behemoth A Suitable Boy. But before we get our hands on the much-anticipated novel, Seth has surprised us with Summer Requiem (Aleph, Rs 399), a new collection of poems. At 60-odd pages, out of which around ten consist of songs commissioned in 2007, there isn't a whole lot of new material here, to be honest. But for a filler project, it's a case of quality making up for quantity.

Seth's novels are marked by a sense of scale and ambition that owes something to the great Victorians as well as Tolstoy. But neither scale nor ambition hinders the approachability of his prose: another quality he shares with someone like Charles Dickens, who, after all, was one of the bestselling writers of his time. His verse shares this quality. Seth's felicity with rhyme and his eagerness to tell a story rather than meander along in flawless meter make his poems a delight to read. In Summer Requiem, he begins with the six-page titular poem, a beautifully observed meditation by a protagonist who seems to be lamenting the end of an era as much as his own physical deterioration.

  • "This garden was built for peace. But every day
  • Somewhere a lawnmower is grumbling busily,
  • Building chance events into a philosophy,
  • 'Gather and scatter, gather and scatter."

Another poem, A Cryptic Reply, is classic Seth: the lightest of touches, rhyming couplets and playful allusions. Consider the following lines:

  • "To ponder wholeness or to shape debris
  • Requires some sense of incoherency.
  • Since, with the tears, you sense a touch of peace,
  • Why hope that this or that or both should cease?"

Towards the end of the poem, Seth delivers a staccato critique (and grudging respect) of two extremely well-known Dickens novels; and he does it in style, one has to admit.

  • "Tale of two cities, three to be exact:
  • High on elation, short - I guess - on fact.
  • Great expectations - cue to shake my head -
  • Still, nothing I could wish I had not read."

Quite a few of the poems here revel in the joys of the solitary wanderer. For example, in Evening Scene from my Table, the narrator observes:

  • "My friends have left, and I can see
  • No one, and no one will appear.
  • This must be happiness, to be
  • Sitting alone with birds and beer."

But every once in a while, Seth brings his softer side out and writes about the upheavals - and rewards - of revealing one's vulnerability to another person. There are limits to this process, though, as the poem Caged tells us.

"What grew with time took time to disappear/But now we see that there is little here. /We are ourselves; how much can we amend/Of our hard beings to appease a friend?"

Interestingly, there are at least two places where Seth acknowledges that this slim volume is very much an appetizer for his next novel: the first is a poem about Venice, the place where he came to read Pushkin and write his first book, The Golden Gate, a novel in Eugene Onegin-styled rhyming couplets. The second is more explicit: a four-line poem called Prayer for my Novel:

  • "Whatever force outside me moves my hand
  • And gives me strength to dream and understand,
  • Let me, by grace enlivened and by skill,
  • Enliven those who lived, and those who will."

Seth is, above all, a humanist: most of his broad strokes are rooted in a philosophy that places individual agency above established systems of collective behaviour like religious, governmental or "unofficial" societal norms; the last of these is a particularly potent force in India, as we know. He thus reserves his most acidic lines for the custodians of the country, political or social. These are found in the penultimate poem, a future classic called No Further War.

  • "The government of nations is assigned
  • Sager, journeymen and lunatic by rota;
  • A couple of toxic madmen sting mankind
  • Each century; we won't escape the quota."

And just in case you need any further reasons to pick up the book, here's a villanelle (to find out what a villanelle is, read Sridala Swami's excellent primer for DailyO) by Vikram Seth, called Can't: it's a poem that will bring back memories of the most difficult Monday mornings of your life.

Can't

  • I find I simply can't get out of bed.
  • I shiver and procrastinate and stare.
  • I'll press the reset button in my head.
  •  
  • I hate my work but I am in the red.
  • I'd quit it all if I could live on air.
  • I find I simply can't get out of bed.
  •  
  • My joints have rusted and my brain is lead.
  • I drank too much last night, but I swear
  • I'll press the reset button in my head.
  •  
  • My love has gone. What do I have instead? -
  • Hot-water bottle, God and teddy bear.
  • I find I simply can't get out of bed.
  •  
  • The dreams I dreamt have filled my soul with dread.
  • The world is mad, there's darkness everywhere.
  • I'll press the reset button in my head.
  •  
  • Who'll kiss my tears away or earn my bread?
  • Who'll reach the clothes hung on that distant chair?
  • I must, I simply must get out of bed
  • And press the reset button in my head.

(This poem is from Summer Requiem by Vikram Seth and has been reprinted with permission from Aleph Book Company.)

Writer

Aditya Mani Jha Aditya Mani Jha @aditya_mani_jha

Writer works at Penguin Random House India. The views expressed here are his own.

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