It was the 4th of November 2011 and I was hopping onto a south-bound Mumbai Local clutching all 1,349 pages of my copy of A suitable boy. Somewhere else in Bombay, the writer of the tome in my hands, was making his way to the same destination- the National Centre for Performing Arts( NCPA) where he was going to talk about his latest release – The Rivered Earth. I highly doubt that he was as excited as I was. If you’re a Vikram Seth fan, occasions such as these, where you can breathe the same air as a legend, are excuse enough to behave like a fevered bunny on good quality cocaine.
How much do I love Vikram Seth? Let me count the ways.
He’s a genius, for one. It’s not everyone who can learn German from scratch in six months flat. I moved to India at the malleable age of eight. I’m twenty four now and friends still laugh openly (and rather cruelly) at my Hindi and Gujarati. He’s well-read and knowledgeable. Which other Economics Major speaks with such ease and familiarity of the poet George Herbert? He’s also a man of wide interests, Schubertian Music, of all things, being one of them.
Braininess aside, he’s ridiculously brisk and lovely in demeanour and bearing. When he strode out from the wings at the NCPA that day, he looked more enthusiastic maths professor less writer and I mean that in a good way, which says a lot, considering I hate math. Through his address, he made himself more endearing with every word. He wagged his finger at the audience; he read out loud in a terrific booming voice, he sprang up from his seat more than once to point things out on the projector, his bald head shone with intelligence. He used delightfully English-sounding phrases like “you lot,” and “oh dear” and my desi soul, reared on a steadfast diet of Enid Blyton revelled in it.
Next, (here, I reference A Suitable Boy) he can flesh out characters from four family trees plus some, cover three Indian cities and countless towns, weave a narrative that is as easy as the circumstances it describes are not and still write a novel that doesn’t lose pace for a single second. It’s testimony to the genius of the book that I cry bitterly all through Mrs Mahesh Kapoors funeral just after I’ve laughed out loud at the antics of the Chatterjee clan. His other work has moved me too. When pangs of homesickness came to my hostel bed at the age of 19, I’d call on from memory, All you who sleep tonight to stop me from missing my mother.
But the reason du jour? As a writer, he doesn’t take the easy way out. It took me a summer holiday to finish A suitable boy which is a ridiculously short time compared to the seven years it took to get written. And why?
“I wanted, of course to tell a good story, but I also wanted to get things right. No matter how well a novel is received by readers and critics in general, if it does not ring true with those people who knew from the inside the world it describes, it is in the final analysis, an artistic failure.”- Vikram Seth, Two Lives.
And so it was that everything in A suitable boy was researched to death, from whether St. Stephens, Delhi had female students in the 1940s to how the credit market for a small shoemaker in Agra would work. All this for fiction.
I stood in line to get my book signed at the NCPA that day and I watched as Seth handled everything like a boss. With the energy of a very young man, he smiled at cameras, talked to the press, made small jokes and signed books all in a blur. My A suitable boy now has an inscription on the front page. “To Sheena, Vikram Seth.” And he meant every word.