He looks elsewhere. The entire time. Disheveled hair and that peculiar permanent abandoned look. He is on the edge of the cliff while getting photographed. He whispers, "Should I move two inches more?" He sounds serious. He also looks into the valley ruled and ruined by mist. There is silence. And then, nothing.
An unstructured response is expected when he is asked why he prefers poetry to prose. The Suitable Girl will see the world this year. Of course, he will not reveal what the book is about. "We don't open the pressure cooker in between to see if the dal has been made." Author Vikram Seth, recipient of the Padma Shri honour has decided not to smile today.
But he remembers we were talking about prose and poetry. "Verse is always instinctive, that is why most challenging. I cannot play with it later. Magic happens only once. Prose allows that freedom, that flexibility. The challenge of poetry makes it great, forever."
And he has jumped several years from where the prequel (A Suitable Boy) ended. He says that's because time has moved forward. And he didn't want to be paused in the 1950s. That staying at one place can be boring. "So many new characters have also been born around me. Lots has happened in the world. Much has changed."
But there is no fear when it comes to the response of A Suitable Girl. He says all that can happen is failure. Nothing else. "To write effectively, doesn't one need to pick up the pen fearlessly? Failure is the last thing that will bother me."
No, he doesn't really want to talk about his "writing process", something that Asian writers with MFA degrees from US universities can go about on and on. "I cannot dissect the living. I don't examine too much. The more you do, the less natural things become. Some things should be left in the dark."
Speaking to India Today during the ongoing Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in Kasauli, Seth when pointed out the different locations he has written his books at (An Equal Music in Europe, The Golden Gate in California and A Suitable Boy in India) insists that the elements of the place do touch the people and what transpires between them in his works. "It would be impossible to ignore the air."
And the characters that come to him? Where do they emerge? Some place inside or otherwise? "It has to be from somewhere in the middle. Don't all live there?"
Talk about the controversial Section 377, against which he has often raised his voice, this Sahitya Akademi award winning writer, who feels that India has regressed under the BJP rule feels that most politicians are cowards - be it Congress or BJP insists, "I feel only the courts can help in this situation. The netas cannot be trusted."
At a time when even literature festivals don't shy away from categorising literature - Dalit literature - being the flavor of the season, Seth wonders where he stands. "I don't even know if I am an Indian or a Commonwealth writer. How my name is pronounced… Am I a poet or writer? A biographer or fiction writer?
There is so little sense in bracketing literature. "Must it not flow beyond borders - existing and imaginary?"
He must have lunch now. He must leave. But not before a long hard stare into the valley. There is no mist now.