Vikram Seth read a fair portion of his 1991 book of stories in verse, called Beastly Tales from here and there. The occasion was the release of a sumptuously illustrated version at the India Habitat Centre Amphitheatre in New Delhi.
Vikram Seth reading, takes flight
Not only did he read, but he answered questions from the audience, interspersed with his reading of five of the tales. He gave advice when asked about writing, recounted his journey in the literary world starting as a humble economics student in Stanford, and talked about his interest in several forms of art from calligraphy to painting and music.
Vikram Seth Absolut vodka Blue paintings with Urdu script 'In Blue and Gold, I watch the evening sky Darken, till neither remains nor I'
The audience stayed late into the night, for Vikram Seth was like a musician who is set on fire by the audience response. He congratulated the illustrator, Prabha Mallya, and had the audience give her several rounds of applause.
Prabha Mallya, illustrator of Beastly Tales, with Vikram Seth
And then he stayed back, liberally engaging in conversation those who queued with books to be autographed. He wrote personalised messages, and didn’t hesitate to share his vast stock of knowledge and instant wit with those who waited patiently. It was two hours before KumKum came to the head of the queue with two copies to be signed for her grandchildren. He apologized graciously for the readers’ inconvenience, but was indefatigable himself. And smiling.
Vikram Seth signing and smiling indefatigably
For a full account click below.
VS has been writing poems most of his life. He became a published poet when P. Lal undertook to bring out his Mappings collection of poems in 1980, a good six years before he published his first novel.
Vikram Seth's mother, Leila Seth
One very hot summer in New Delhi in the early nineties when he was wrestling with A Suitable Boy, he found relief in writing these tales in verse. His family was living at the time (mother Leila Seth being a judge) in Government accommodation on Rajaji Marg, a house built by Laurie Baker, not Lutyens. A friend at the British High Commission offered his place to write at 2, King George’s Road in a much cooler building. As he sat in a corner and cooled his brain, suddenly this idea of re-writing a Jataka tale (The Crocodile and the Monkey) came to him. One became two, and multiplied to ten. Two of them were retellings of stories from India, two from China, two from Ukraine, two from Greece, and the last two “were invented out of whole cloth,” The Frog and the Nightingale, and The Elephant and The Tragopan.
They are children’s tales in that they will delight children, but in many of them a vein of light satire runs through to illuminate the contemporary scene. Therefore, mature adults too will find the playfulness and allusiveness of the verse stories something to read and savour. Lines like these (from The Frog and the Nightingale)
… the sumac tree
At whose foot the frog each night
Minstrelled on till morning light
show that VS does not write down to children. He does not admit to other poets inhabiting his memory as he writes, except Alexander Pushkin who started him on his writing career when he read Eugene Onegin in Charles Johnston’s translation that faithfully transposes the Onegin sonnet stanza. We may quote from the introductory stanza of that work these lines to represent the prevailing mood of these animal verses of VS, tales which have
from threads both sad and humoristic,
themes popular or idealistic,
products of carefree hours, of fun,
Pushkin aside, when VS writes in the same story
Dumbstruck sat the gaping frog
And the whole admiring bog
he surely drew on Emily Dickinson’s poem I’m nobody. Who are you? where these well-known lines occur:
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
It is quite possible that Emily Dickinson’s stanza about the frog lay dormant in the mind of VS, ready to snare the phrase ‘admiring bog.’ But VS claims he is not directly influenced by any poet, barring Pushkin, whose influence has been so durable that he writes an Onegin-style sonnet as the foreword for every novel. Other authors he greatly admires are Heine, Leopardi, Du Fu, Wang Wei (poet, painter, sculptor and calligrapher as well). Among Indian writers, he called out Nirala (Suryakant Tripathi), Faiz whom he has translated, and Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Mention was also made of the cult novel Chowringhee by Sankar, a Bengali author. “I read Chowringhee many years ago in a Hindi translation and lost myself in it for days. It was a wonderful experience—both gripping and moving,” VS said somewhere.
Vikram Seth interacts with a reader
“I take inspiration from wherever I get it, but you’ve got to fuse it with something of your own,” said the polymathic VS.
The new illustrator of Beastly Tales (there has been a previous illustrated edition), Prabha Mallya, was introduced by VS. She said she took the animals to be people with human frailties and feelings, just as VS depicted them and that was a source of inspiration for how she drew them. She took the key moments in the stories and tried to show how the character of the animals was revealed. She hoped the readers would enjoy the illustrations and they would spark something additionally.
Prabha Mallya, the illustrator, who drew by hand and cleaned it up in Photoshop
Chiki Sarkar, the Penguin India publisher, arrived in shorts and disappeared into the background after proclaiming the supreme qualities of VS, adding (sic): “I don’t think Vikram’s genius rivals that of anyone else.” Poor Vikram!
Chiki Sarkar in rugby shorts: the Penguin India publisher introduced Vikram Seth
VS recounted the oft-told story of how he became a novelist by accident after reading Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin to recover from an all-night session with computer models of demographics when he studied at Stanford University in the eighties. He spent a year telling the story of motley California people: techies, viniculturists, activists, lovers straight, bi-and gay, and anti-nuclear protesters, remaining amazingly true to the eighties scene in the Bay Area. It has wonderful nature description too. His purpose was not to become a writer at that stage; it was to write a specific poem he became obsessed about after finding the ideal template in the Eugene Onegin translation. The result was The Golden Gate, TGG.
Vikram Seth with his audience at Habitat Amphitheatre
From there VS left on a tour of China, purportedly to collect data for his thesis, and returned to India by way of Sinkiang and Tibet. Those travels gave rise to his account From Heaven Lake. When he returned with his rucksack, tanned chocolate brown , and appeared at his parents’ home their servant could not recognize him: “Liaquat, hamein pahchante ho nahin?” he had to ask. When he first wrote the account of his travels at the instance of his father, he gave it to a friend to read, who’d travelled with him. Her critical comment was that she could not make out the smell, the sound, or sense the light and other things. She couldn’t smell the rug or feel the bumpy road they travelled. It was too flat. That was the impetus for VS to learn the power of descriptive narration. His friend said the book could not just be edited into shape by tinkering to provide the missing elements; the whole book had to be re-written. He lost a friend, thereby, but gained a travel book that was published.
Vikram Seth with his audience at Habitat Amphitheatre
VS stated that when he was called to give a learned bashan at a Mexico environmental conference, he trotted out The Elephant and The Tragopan. With the neta class represented by characters like
… the great Bigshot Number One
Shri Padma Bhushan Gobardhun
and the description of the water shortage the animals struggle with when human intervention goes wrong, the story had all the incisive and insightful views VS might have covered in a more academic talk. Certainly next year as the elections come round we’ll see more of this kind of shenanigans, “which brings me to A Suitable Girl, but that’s a forbidden subject.”
VS paid compliments to the illustrator, Prabha, for her wonderful compositions which he thought were even eerie. “She seems to have understood my animals better than me. I hope she doesn’t take to writing because I’ll be out of a job.” No fear of that …
VS mentioned that he has taken up illustration too. We know about his calligraphy and his wood sculpture from previous references. When he was asked by the publisher of The Rivered Earth to contribute some of his calligraphy he didn’t hesitate about Devnagiri and Urdu, but when it came to Chinese (a section deals with the poems of Du Fu, translated by him), he inquired of his master, Zhao Yizhou, whether the disciple’s calligraphy would embarrass the master. VS was reassured, but Zhao Yizhou said he should not sign his calligraphy as the custom was not to do that until one had disciples of one’s own. You can read more about the paintings and calligraphy of VS at
Were it not for his being gripped by ASG at the moment, he would be doing portraiture and landscapes, said our irrepressible author. In future he might illustrate this book, but could he do it with the percipience and insight of Prabha Mallya? One day he should have a colophon, like the takhallus in a ghazal.
About the length of his verse stories, VS conceded that the attention span of kids is limited, but if the stories have a soporific effect when read to them in bed, that too might be a desirable end at bedtime. He added, “I rather think I wouldn’t have read a long book if I hadn’t written one!”
Prabha Mallya, the illustrator, draws in the book for KumKum
VS read from Mohini Gupta’s Hindi translation of The Frog and the Nightingale and noted the different rhythmic form that gave it life. “You can see the quality of it,” said VS. It was part of the CBSE syllabus five or six years ago. The author then read the whole poem, lingering over the humorous passages, and acting out the two voices, the deceitful frog and the flattered nightingale. At the end VS remarked, “I don’t know why people think these stories are for children.” Children, he noted, are read to from Grimms’ Fairy Tales, many of which are quite grim, with plenty of violence, though no sex.
A woman asked what came first in his verse, the thought or the metre? VS answered that the first line came to him, for example,
On Ganga’s greenest isle
Lived Kuroop the crocodile:
The rest came naturally as he wrote, for having got into that metre it was unlikely he’d stray. The first line is like dropping a seed into a supersaturated solution; the whole thing crystallises. He added he hadn’t thought of that analogy before. "I never thought I'd write a novel in verse. It was the inspiration from Pushkin that led me to writing verse. I took as a template, his stanza, meter and rhyming scheme," said Seth.
Another person asked if he had any words of encouragement for young writers. His apposite reply was not to get put off by the frogs of the world; VS drew attention to the frog’s ironical critique at the end about the nightingale’s song:
… she should have known
That your song must be your own.
“Use your own voice,” therefore.
Another reader wanted to know which aspects of writing a novel he found most difficult – dialogue, description, character sketch, … VS replied, “You don’t have to describe, but they [the characters] talk themselves into being, and after a while you think you know them.” About describing places VS referred to his earlier comment about re-writing From Heaven Lake.
Regarding plot, VS confessed he finds it difficult still. Do the characters take a life of their own and dictate what happens next, or can he plot them out beforehand? It’s difficult to answer. A hint was dropped by VS when he said that for the duration of his writing A Suitable Girl he is not budging out of South Asia, adding Myanmar to that geographical arc. For it’s about how Lata of ASB finds a bride for her grandson – a generation is skipped to bring the novel into the present – and he needs to keep his active mental focus here, and his subconscious too. “I don’t want to disperse my imagination when writing ASG,” he said.
He noted the maxim, “Show, don’t tell” is also subject to qualification. If you show too much, you don’t give the reader play with hiser imagination. It’s necessary to maintain a discreet ambiguity so that different readers can arrive at their own decoding. Don’t over-explain. Another rule is not to expound entire ideologies in a novel – it’s irrelevant, unless it is the obsession of a character in the novel.
Regarding research for a novel, VS stated the purpose is to get things right; and the criterion of getting it right is to ask whether the characters in the novel would do that, or wear that, or say that, etc. The idea is not to lay it on thick (as Melville does in Moby Dick about whales, or Amitav Ghosh does in his novels about opium and rubber plantations – these are my examples, not those of VS). In An Equal Music VS had to get the strings of the various instruments right for the pieces the quartet was playing. How well he did that may be gauged from the comment of the music critic of an influential Italian newspaper when the novel was translated: “No European novel before has managed to convey the psychology, the technical abilities, even the human potentialities of those who practise music for a living.” VS acknowledges his violinist partner of that period, Philippe Honoré, in the dedication for his contribution to AEM.
The tail-end of the queue shows KumKum waiting to get her copies signed
VS next read from p.63 The Cat and the Cock, upon a reader’s demand for ‘cat’ as subject of the next animal story he would read. It’s an Ukrainian story. VS noted that cocks greet the dawn with different cries according to the host language of the story. In Greek it is Kiki-riki. In Hindi, Kuk- ru-koo. In English Cock-a-doodle-doo! VS continued the story as the Cat deceives all five fox cubs to rescue his friend the Cock from the pot the Fox was preparing for him. At the lines
Just for you I’ll sing a song —
Come outside, and sing along.
VS suggested it deserves a raga. One virtue of the story is that if your parents read it to you as a child, you’ll be asleep by the time the vixen’s fourth cub is captured in a sack by the Cat.
The third story VS read was The Eagle and the Beetle on p.39 of the book. By contrast with the previous one, this is a story in which the animal could not be rescued from its fate, for the evil Beetle constantly pursued the Eagle to spill her eggs out of the nest. Though it was getting on in time one look at the audience in the amphitheatre confirmed that they were all transfixed by the warm, dear, baritone voice, articulating precisely and providing the kind of gestures that would keep a child rapt in attention. Here he was doing it to a crowd of people, many young, some old, and with only a few children! The moral of the story is
… the strong who crush the weak
May not be shown the other cheek.
Vikram Seth Absolut orange bottle in Chinese script painting
The fourth story VS read was The Crocodile and the Monkey on p.1 of the book. Pollywog, VS explained, is a tadpole. There are plenty of lines which stirred gentle chuckles in the audience, for example
He has been so kind to me;
Think how sweet his heart must be.
When you gaze into her eyes
You will enter Paradise.
I will let you choose your end.
After all, you are my friend.
To the hollow where I keep
Heart and liver when I sleep,
Half my brain, a fingernail,
Cufflinks, chutney, and spare tail.
At this point VS realized he was there to sign books, the commercial part of the evening, and asked everyone to write down the names to whom he should address his autograph. Nowadays there is a great boom in doubling vowels and consonants in names, Aarti, for instance.
Vikram Seth signing
When a person said his wife had a single A because “she was born before the ban” (on single As), VS asked if they have a child. No, came the answer. “Well you must try if you can.” It’s the sort of facile rhyming that VS acknowledges becomes second nature when you are into doggerel. I don’t think he meant Beastly Tales, though.
Asked a question about Two Lives, he said it was an emotional roller-coaster to write the book about his great aunt (German) and great uncle. They acted in loco parentis, when he went to study at an English school and took him in. They spoke in German to each other and he had to learn, and even learn the old style of writing German. He did a lot research to uncover the letters between them. But a book cannot be sunk under a load of research, although he did consult microfiches in Israel since his great aunt’s relatives had died in the Nazi persecution of Jews. He has written about them, warts and all. It is a personal, and yet a historical account.
“I like to start a book with a plain statement,” VS said and gave the example of ASB:
‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa firmly to her younger daughter.
The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.
When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England. He was Indian by origin, she German. They were both sixty. I hardly knew them at the time.
“I write as clearly as possible. What I write must ring true to the characters I’m writing about.” If more authors would follow such simple guidelines there would be a good deal more of readable books, but then they need his consummate technical skill with language! Ask him to make a crossword about the conversation you’ve just had with him and he’ll hand you one in 20 mins, complete with clues. Ask him for an acrostic poem on the name of a person he knows and it will probably take him 10 minutes.
His prose is a reflection of his lucid mind. It may hold many things at once, but when the expression comes out on paper the writing is measured and gentle; even the satire arrives with a smile. VS said he doesn’t italicise foreign words (this triggered some applause) for a reader can form an idea without the need for a glossary. Suddenly he exclaimed “Where’s my family?” That was Sashi Mama and Usha Mami, to whom the book is dedicated. There they were, perched high on the last seats in the covered amphitheatre, along with his mother, Leila Seth, and father, Prem.
Vikram Seth's family at the back of the amphitheatre
A person asked, what makes him write? VS’s answer was characteristic of his approach. “It's a difficult question. I’ve to be inspired to write.” Ideas enter his head but he is only partly disciplined. At this point he narrated the joke about Mark Twain being awarded an honorary doctorate; that meant he could respond to a call for a doctor in a crowd. (VS has one too, in default of the Econ doctorate he missed at Stanford). Once Mark Twain was taking the steamer from New York to Southampton (or vice versa) when a girl swooned and the call went out for a doctor. By the time Mark Twain came scurrying, he found two other Doctors, of Divinity, had beaten him to the gallantry! To use a cricketing term, this is the use of the leg glance when you reply to a question.
“OBSESSION is the great substitute for DISCIPLINE,” in his case, VS averred. He wanted to know what happened to Lata in ASB. That was why he pursued the story to the end, and it took ten years. Similarly, for ASG in the present time.
Another important pointer for writing from VS is this: “You must have an inbuilt bullshit detector.”
Rejections are early companions in the lives of writers. Chatto & Windus rejected ASB. TGG had 30 rejections before he could publish it, a great blessing for him, for it changed his life’s trajectory.
When someone inquired why there isn’t an audiobook of his poems, VS replied there is one, sung by a Shakespearean actress.
For some reason the conversation with the audience drifted to river dolphins and VS was a fund of information on the subject: the Gangetic river dolphin he has seen near Benares, the Irrawady river dolphin thrives in the delta of that river. These are nearly blind as the muddy water does not afford much navigational opportunity by sight; they use their audible clicks and sonar. There is a river dolphin in the upper reaches of the Amazon, pink in colour, with perfectly good vision. But once again when it comes to the muddy delta of the Amazon, the dolphins native to that habitat are blind and navigate by sonar.
A reader persisted in asking about A Suitable Girl and was told, “She’s a shy girl and won’t remove her ghungta in public.”
For the fifth and last poem, VS chose The Hare and the Tortoise, p.47 of the illustrated book. It is not an immoral, but an amoral, take on Aesop’s fable of the same name, and ends with the surprise ending:
Thus the hare was pampered rotten
And the tortoise was forgotten.
Half the book, 91 pages of exhilarating rhyming and surprising stories told by the master, made people stay until the end, and then another three hours for getting their copies of VS’s works signed! He addressed each one in the snaking queue outside as though they were a long lost friend, and must be specially taken care of by inscribing a thoughtfully conceived and completely individual wish on the fly leaf …
Vikram Seth signing for KumKum, two copies, one for each pair of grandchildren
That’s VS, the genius not far from you.