The gay child needs more love: Leila Seth on Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth and his mother Leila Seth open up in a chat about Indian writing in English, Chetan Bhagat, Twitter, being gay and of course, a suitable boy.
Vikram Seth has something to clarify. There's a limerick going around the Internet that's supposedly by him mocking BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson for his Christmas special that made fun of Indian culture. Seth says he didn't write the limerick. "I was appalled both by the lack of skill and the sentiments in it," he told the audience at the Kolkata Literary Meet. "Whoever it is, I don't like you. I never wrote that crude limerick."
Seth was on stage with his mother Leila, a former High Court chief justice and an author of a memoir and a children's book about the preamble to the Indian constitution. Excerpts from their conversation with Sandip Roy.
On writing in English in India:
SR: In an essay in The New York Times, Manu Joseph writes: "The interest of British and American publishers in India, and the success of a handful of Indian writers abroad, has had the most corrupting influence on Indian writing in English." He is saying often mediocre books get acclaim because they are what the West understands.
VS: I don't think I was corrupted by it because each of my books was somewhat incomprehensible to the audience that praised the previous one. I don’t write my books specifically to be comprehensible to some audience, Western or Indian or anyone. I am not sure how many Western people, let alone in India, understood all the musical intricacies of An Equal Music.
SR: You said in Outlook: “I do hope the distinction between the literary and the commercial is one that will be increasingly blurred.” You were talking about Dickens and Austen but now in the age of Chetan Bhagat and Amish, do you think it is blurred enough?
VS: I think what I meant is there is a kind of impatience with a certain kind of book – a book that tries to be more than it actually is, the kind of literary novel which seems to have contempt for the ordinary reader. Sometimes I don’t particularly care to read a very improving or profound book.
LS: I enjoyed Chetan Bhagat’s Two States. I was in Jaipur years ago when Chetan was reading and I thought I should go. I wanted to find out what is it all these people were reading. I was impressed. He said I am not a literary writer. He said it so openly. I have read all his books excerpt the last one.
VS: There must have been something there. He is an example of someone whose audience is almost entirely here. He is read by lakhs of readers. People spend 140-150 rupees to buy his book. Good luck to him.
SR: Chetan Bhagat is now on Twitter tussling with Rushdie. Would you go on Twitter?
VS: Has he released a book about Twitter? I like living as private a life as I can. Tweeting or chirruping to lots and lots of people seems the opposite of that. I was just in the Sunderbans and that's the kind of twitter I like – bird life. On the other hand, I won't be able to avoid. If I am supposed to set the new book – Unsuitable Boy or Suitable Girl or whatever it is called – in the modern world, I have to understand what Twitter is like.
On being gay:
SR: Leila Seth, you wrote you had a hard time coming to terms with his being gay. How did you come to terms with it?
LS: It was a criminal offence then. I worried for him. I thought he is a young man and somebody could misuse it. It is something one is not normally used to. I remember reading a book called The Well of Loneliness about two lesbians and I remember it moved me. Love is such a beautiful thing and they could not share it with anybody. I think that came back to me. I read it at 17 and I thought how lonely a person must be if you can't share his love with other people.
SR: Any suitable boy yet, Vikram?
VS: Umm umm no. There are no suitable boys or girls around. It's just they have not swum into my ken. Or I have not been courageous enough or charming enough to find out.
LS: There was someone in your life. Both a suitable girl at one time and a suitable boy at another stage. Relationships can last for years. But since there is no marriage, there is no divorce.
VS: I liked that you talked about not only this but other painful subjects, the loss of a child. This is what has given the book truth and light and the wonderful word – sincerity. So many Indian autobiographies are a)unreadable b)self-justifications and c)very garrulous. You did ask us whether we could talk about these subjects. I said absolutely. It was a struggle for you to come to terms with it. We come from a liberal branch of society. I thought it might help other parents.
LS: People have told me they were not able to accept this about their children. And almost gave up on their child. Reading it has made them realise to care for the child more. The child is not in the normal routine life. He is the lonely child. He needs more love, more affection.
On India today:
SR: Narayana Murthy says the young now idolise the corrupt. You have written a book aimed at children about the Constitution. What do you think?
LS: It's about what you learn as a child. We had Gandhi and Nehru to look up to. But today in school they don’t even teach moral science. There is no value system. If you can't teach religion, let's teach children about the Constitution. The most important things – justice, equality, liberty, secularism – these are concepts if you teach your child when six 0r seven, they keep for the rest of their lives. Children have to realise you have to share with others. It's not just enough to make money.
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The Artist as a Young Man
LS: We were not well off and didn't have a lot of money. But the money spent on books was always well spent. One day, I discovered when he was about 10 that suddenly books in my part of the house were disappearing. One of the first books he took was a book of poems. And I found marked in it 001. And I asked what does that mean. It had become part of his library and he had marked it as 001. But he was supposed to be an economist.
SR: How did you react when he came home to write instead of finishing his Ph.D?
LS: I was horrified. I thought he’d starve. He wanted to write poetry, not even a novel. We told him go get this job at World Bank, work for five years and then get a pension. Then you can write to your heart's content.
VS: I think you said then you can indulge your hobby.
LS: Vikram said all my creativity will be finished. I will be bound by chains of gold. I won't want to give up the job. I want to write. I will sit in the garage if I have to. I will starve if I have to starve. I said okay, what choice do I have. I thought maybe my second son, Shantum, who was always talking big about opening businesses, would support him. Now Shantum is a Buddhist teacher and Vikram has done well with his books.
SR: But you had to deal with what people said.
LS: People would say are your children settled, by which they meant job and marriage. None of my children were settled. Aradhana was 28, working in films and with all these boyfriends popping up like mushrooms. Shantum was sitting in the house, throwing seeds in the backyard and making a mud house. And there was Vikram, sitting and writing.
Obviously my colleagues thought this was a strange family and asked the driver 'bacchhey kya kartey hain' (what do the children do). So he said, 'ek to jo ladki hain woh der mein aati hai aur telephone pe rahti hain' (the girl comes home late and is always on the phone), 'ek ladka mitti ke ghar main baithkey kuchh karta hain' (One son has made a mud hut and does something in it), 'aur doosra ladka upad baithkey likhta hain (the other one sits upstairs and writes); 'koi kucch nahin karta. Khali saab aur memsaab kaam kartey hain (none do anything. Only the parents work).
And I thought what had I done? Had I brought them up the wrong way. And I thought no, if I had to bring them up again, I'd do exactly the same.
SR: I thought you cannot come home again. Is that not true?
VS: I think you can. The trouble is not only you can go home, you can go home too well. When you are in your thirties and sponging off your parents, your habits revert a bit. You are a complete adult with your friends but with your parents, your old habits of unnecessary rebellion or dependence get revived in the strangest ways. In a purely literal sense, I think you can never go home again for Europeans or Americans, but in India, not only can you, but it’s not entirely unexpected.
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