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|May 30, 2000|
For better and verse
Firdaus Ali in Toronto
Good things come in small packages, sometimes asleep. Like we found Vikram Seth, celebrity author who was in Toronto to celebrate the success of his last novel, An Equal Music, a love story woven around a musical backdrop.
A live quartet plays in the background at Indigo Books in Toronto's downtown, where Seth is scheduled to read some segments of his latest venture to aficionados. Crowds throng for a dekko at the little man with large verses.
Seth, obviously, is oblivious to the large crowds. Lost in musical ecstasy, his eyes remain closed while his fingers subconsciously trace magical beats. "I love sleeping and nurture a fierce passion for music," reveals Seth, whose An Equal Music speaks of Venice, Vienna, music, romance and more.
It is a first-person narrative, which interweaves music, love and life using Seth's imaginative, delicate vocabulary. The novel is a marriage of music and words. Like all his earlier works, this one too is a love story. "Somehow all my works revolve around the great epitome called love. Love is the one thing that never runs smooth and my stories talk about love while dealing with the dilemmas, struggles and passion that surround it," he avers.
Five foot three inches tall, with large black eyes and a ready smile, he exudes a boyish charm that belies his age and literary brilliance. His soft Indian accent speaks volumes of his origin.
Seth's first novel, The Golden Gate, was a story told entirely in verse about the yuppies of San Francisco. Even as he was writing it, editors and friends scoffed at the idea, but Seth managed to incorporate their comments into the text. "Driveling in rhyme's all very well/The question is does spittle sell?" The answer came in the form of rich reviews and high sales.
His second novel, A Suitable Boy, is described by Seth himself as "a very large novel written by a very small Indian". The novel sold more than a million copies worldwide, making him a literary celebrity of sorts, mapping Indian authors on the global chart. "I don't think I can be credited with the feat. There were many writers like [Salman] Rushdie before me, who can be credited with doing just that," says Seth modestly.
While many have compared the literary genius of Rushdie and Seth, the two are as different as day and night. If Rushdie's works are maniacally inventive magic realism, Seth's can be summarised as words written with clarity, leisure and the forgotten confidence of a Victorian novel. Writing love stories with little or no sex, he upstages all norms of popular fiction writing -- giving it the much-needed puritan quality.
Even while the ace writer vehemently denies credit for making the world sit up and take serious note of writers from India, he has often been condemned for studying the publishing game too closely and being more of a shrewd businessman than a writer.
"This is not true. If I had taken any consideration of the publishing world and played the game by the rules, I would not have written the kind of books I have," argues Seth, whose wonder works, sometimes irresistible, at others tense, and at yet others deeply moving, have made him a one-of-a-kind writer. A Suitable Boy was bought by Orion for a staggering 250,000 pounds. The novel was large even in size, comprising 1,349 pages. Set in India, it gained international attention owing to its sheer size, being the longest single-volume work in English.
"It surprised me that the novel found a publisher at all. Such large volumes weren't acceptable to publishers, considering the cost of printing and publishing and the space it occupies in bookstore shelves. There weren't any foreign characters or any glossary to the novel. Considering all this, I guess I was plain lucky," he smiles.
That he is. Born in Calcutta and trained as an economist at prestigious universities like Oxford, Stanford and Nanjing, Seth has lived in different parts of the world, including England, California, China and India.
He did not do what the prestigious institutions expected of him, yet managed to make a name. "Thank god for that. I can't imagine myself as an economist today," Seth says of himself.
An Equal Music is set in Europe. "I have to live in the place for a while to write and unfold its culture, traditions and ethos while telling my story," says Seth. The idea of writing a book which has music as its genesis came to Seth on a winter's day two years ago when he saw a man standing at the edge of a pond in Hyde Park, looking at the water. The image stirred him and formed the opening scene of this novel.
His penchant for music began while learning khayal, a traditional form of classical music, in India. "It was recently that I was introduced to Western classical music and also sing lieder," says Seth who has also written a libretto and had his poetry set to music and performed by England's National Opera.
But like all authors, Seth finds himself in bits and pieces spread across the vast worlds of his books. "Every author's work is somewhat autobiographical. You'll find me everywhere," he smiles. Those who've read A Suitable Boy found him mocking himself in the guise of Amit Chatterji, a loose self-portrait, for sitting about all day and staring out the window. One who shuns female advances and remains terribly faithful to Jane Austen.
With An Equal Music reaching the high-sale mark-up and being lapped up by Seth fans in a frenzy, the author can best be described as a literary untouchable. He has no particular book subject set for the future yet. "It could well be a play, a children's book, a biography... anything. Why, even a sequel to A Suitable Boy, although it won't be so long this time," says Seth, with that faraway look in his eyes, one that you've grown quite accustomed to by now!
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (McArthur & Company, hardcover; 381 pages; $29.95 Canada. Published in US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands)
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