Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Suitable Son

Vikram Seth, one of the greatest of all  Indian writers, was in Kolkata  recently. This is the city where he was born and so it generated that feeling & ambience of coming home. Vikram chose to skip the hugely popular Jaipur literary festival and instead attended the Kolkata literary meet held within the premises of the Kolkata Book fair.
Besides taking part in the inaugural session, Vikram was part of another interesting session on 31st January along with her lawyer-turned-writer mother, Leila Seth , in a session aptly titled "Inheritance & Influence." This was a session where the average reader, like this blogger, was looking for a demonstration of the genetic code of writing , if something like that exists.
Though a mother is definitely the creator of  her son, there are times when the creation recreates the creator, even though the creator may not the accept the same. This is such a story  of a son, who pays his gratitude to his mother by helping her to rediscover herself through not only her recollections in her memoirs but also by aiding her in all aspects of writing a book. Editing the first draft, promoting her books as well as sharing the same dias where only celebrated authors can sit.
I enjoyed the session tremendously. The banters, the chidings, the hard truths and the maternal indulgences . In the process they touched upon many current issues like the controversial Rushdie affair or the differences over admiration for Chetan Bhagat etc.; as well as many personal-but-common memories between a mother and her son that effortlessly touch the emotional chords of the average person.
Without much ado, I reproduce below the complete transcript of the session as I heard it. My prior apologies for any mistakes that might have crept in for it was done very quickly.
Last but not the least, the session was moderated excellently by Sandip Roy, who is also from Kolkata and presently an editor with the New American Media.

On the interesting revelation by Vikram Seth that he was initially named Amit, when he was born in Calcutta, after the character in Tagore’s Sesher Kobita.

Sandip Roy to Leila Seth : Why did you want to name him Amit and seeing how he’s turned out would that have been a good name for him ?

Leila Seth : When I was pregnant a Bengali friend of mine , Kalyani, was reading out Sesher Kobita to me . I can’t read Bengali, I can’t write Bengali but I can speak and understand So, Kalyani was reading out Sesher Kobita to me , and I found this character Amit quite interesting. So I decided that if I had a son, in those days there were no ultrasound, I’d call him Amit.

Oh, I don’t know if it was a good thing or not but my in-laws were determined that the first boy in the family should be named with a V because that was what the other boys were. One was Vijay and the other was Vivek …not Vivek..

Vikram Seth : ..Vinod

Leila Seth : Vinod ….so we had to find a name with a V.Vijay, Vinod and Vikram.So that’s how he came to be known as Vikram

Sandip Roy : Well, for this hour you can call him Amit…

Vikram Seth : I thought Amit too…how do you put it ..shenshitive…

How come you like this character …maybe .. (to Leila Seth)

Leila Seth : Well it was a long time ago …I don’t remember but I just kind of thought it was a romantic character and romance was very important in those days…you are 21 and I am 20 and romance was in your heart that was it.

Vikram Seth : In those days, people got married earlier, right , yeah ?

Leila Seth : Yes, that’s why…

Vikram Seth : And if I turned to be a girl, you had decided…?

Leila Seth : Oh, I hadn’t thought about it… no, no

Vikram Seth : I find contended by the …

Sandip Roy : You are happy to be Vikram..?

Vikram Seth : yeah, yeah very happy…

Leila Seth : In Bengali it’s called Bikrom

Vikram Seth : That’s right..
Sandip Roy : Call him Vikramamit..

On the “corrupting influence” of big publishers’ interests (to sell a stereotyped India, through a handful of successful writers, to the western audience ) on Indian writing in English.

Sandip Roy to Vikram Seth : Since this is a conversation about writing I wanted to actually start by asking you …that many of you might have seen (an article) that came out recently in the New York Times by Manu Joseph (editor of Open magazine)…and he talked about the Jaipur literary festival and other things and one of the things he said was about writers. And he said , “Interests of British & 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. So there is a surge of Indian writers who are trying to sell the great Indian exotica to white people and it’s created this global literature where good and mediocre novels that the west has understood are the ones that get acclaimed.” I wanted to get your thoughts on that

Vikram Seth : um…I don’t really have opinions on every subject ….and that is one of the subjects that I don’t really have any particular opinion about….in the sense that… you know… the question of acclaim for a particular book isn’t what really enters my mind when I am writing for example…lots of books that do well are that I am vaguely interested reading in newspapers that someone has won some prize or someone has done something…but really it doesn’t bother me too much...I am talking about myself. I don’t think that people will look at it this way that I was corrupted by it because each of my books has been somewhat incomprehensible to the audience that praised the previous one. Why didn’t I write another Golden Gate since it was a success ? Why not then immediately after A Suitable Boy write A Suitable Girl ? It’s been twenty years and only now am I enthused by the idea. So, I don’t know in what sense he meant corrupting. I’d say I don’t write my books in order to be comprehensible specifically to some audience, western or an Indian audience, anyone. I’m not sure how many western people, let alone people in India, understood all the musical intricacies of An Equal Music, for example. But as long one gets the sense of what the character is enthused about…you don’t necessarily have to understand everything as long as it feels to you that the author is enthusiastic , that there is a story worth telling.

There’s another thing to think about. That there is a very large body of books which are published by Indians for Indians , in the first instance. And I’d say , for example, my mother’s book On Balance is one such. I think it will also be read by people abroad but there are some aspects of it which they might not get just as there are some aspects of A Suitable Boy which no foreigner will understand…. all these about Indian politics and stuff. “Ah, we’ll skip it,” these translators say. “No, you can’t skip it. You read it first.”

On the genesis of Leila Seth’s memoirs On Balance and Vikram Seth’s involvement in it.

Sandip Roy (toLeila Seth ): Since we are on On Balance, why don’t you tell us about the story of how you actually ended up writing On Balance & the seminal role R.K.Narayan played..

Leila Seth: It wasn’t a seminal role really. I had gone to a function where R.K.Narayan…his book was being released.. and I tripped and fell…

Vikram Seth : on a wire, what?

Leila Seth : yes….on the microphone wire.. and I was then out of function for thirteen weeks and that made me think I have to write …I didn’t write immediately.. many people were telling me to write a book, many young women were asking me so that I started practicing a bit and they wanted to know how close was that time , how difficult it was and there were many young women who wanted to know how to balance career with family . I thought I should write but I wasn’t getting around to it. Then I had a grand daughter and the moment I had a grand daughter…I was seventy years old that time….very old to have the first grand child .. and then I thought, you know, I may not live so long and she should know what life was like when I was a child. We didn’t have freedom.. places like “dogs & Indian not allowed” and things like that. When you have freedom, when you are young and you are born into it, you don’t know what it really means. And that really pushed me into writing. And I had already a publisher because when Vikram wrote A Suitable Boy, the Penguin publisher, David Davidar had come to stay with us. He would be in Himachal ,where I was the chief justice , and he kept telling me , “you write when you retire.” Well, I didn’t write for almost ten years after but he also told me, “if you write, we’ll publish it.” So, I didn’t have to look for a publisher.

Sandip Roy : Was Vikram helpful in your writing process?

Leila Seth : I don’t think I involved him in the writing process. It was exactly the way I …I didn’t know how to write. My first book. I know how to write judgments but I didn’t know how to write a book I just wrote it the way I talked, you know. Only after the book was over, he took the editing …he corrected my English and grammar, which I had taught him as a child. (laughs) So that was what he did. And he also made it much more coherent. There were certain parts of it which were cut out because it was too long

Vikram Seth : I don’t like long books , really.

Leila Seth : (laughs along with audience) And he said , this is not the thank-you book I wrote about many people. (he said) This is not the thank you book. You must write a separate thank you book, if you like. This is a memoir and you must write what is important and interesting to the reader.

He did. He was one of the co-editors. I had editor of Penguin and he was the final editor.

Vikram Seth :It was a bit of pleasure & a great privilege and a bit of a surprise as well. My mother had written briefs, had written judgments, had given the occasional lecture. But the book of this sort, which was an autobiography within the sense; a personal autobiography, a professional autobiography and also somewhat historical-it gave people a sense of the time.

It’s not easy to write a book structurally. Too many Indian autobiographies are unreadable and (if you were dreaming) self-justificatory and very garrulous . The first draft that I got read well. So , there was not a such a huge amount to be done.

Sandip Roy : Were you nervous when you got the first draft?

Vikram Seth : Well, I was nervous. I was anticipating, finding out things about the family, life in those times that I didn’t know about. Because there are certain TOYs that are readymade for the telling but there are others that need to be written about because they are quite subtle. And I was looking forward to it. But, I certainly hesitated. I didn’t want to change mama’s tone or tenor by doing too heavy an edit on it because it was her voice. And I hadn’t been induced to editing something as personal as an autobiography. So, yes I was a little nervous but..

On Vikram’s childhood influences and whether he had a 'knack' for writing and the story of “Palash”

Sandip Roy(to Leila Seth): One of the things we always hear in .. especially it is very peculiar to Bengal & Bengali culture is when people say always about their children , “or lekhai ba nachey ba drawing-ey ektoo knack ache.” We are constantly being sent off to painting school and stuff. So now since we have you here , did the young Vikram have a knack for all these kind of things?

Leila Seth : Well, I wouldn’t know whether he had a knack but you know I was very fond of reading. And books….well, we were not really well off and since we didn’t have a lot of money….but money spent on books was always well spent . And they were not necessarily study books but story books, poems. And then one day I discovered when Vikram was about 10 ; suddenly the books from my part of the house were disappearing into his room and one of the first books he took was this Albatross Book of Poems and I found a mark in it -001. I asked what does that mean? It was part of his library and so it was marked 001.

He obviously loved poetry and I used to read a lot of poetry to him. And I think that probably was the influence. But I didn’t know that he had a knack. I know that he wrote a poem once for the Doon school weekly and edited the Doon school weekly. So that comes as some sense of what he was going to do. He was going to be an economist. We didn’t know that he was going to be a writer.

Vikram Seth : There was this book…I am not revealing the person…it was given to my mother by one of her admirers and I requisitioned it and kept it in my school. But there were several admirers of her and I think (to Leila Seth) this is the time for revelation. I think you should tell us about your Bengali admirers and the business about Palash. And you should tell it in Bengali. The story mama is going to tell has a punch line. Make any corrections. She was working ..she had to work. She was 21 or 22?

Leila Seth : No, I was much younger. 18 .19.

Vikram Seth : 18. You know, ..

Leila Seth : There was no money..

Vikram Seth : There was no money. My (maternal) grandfather had died in 1942. He was in the Railway service. My grandmother was left a widow at the age of 35 with no house, with 4 children and no pension. And so basically…. I can a see a tear coming over the eyes….she brought up the children with the help of , the generosity of ….

Leila Seth : A very wonderful Bengali couple. Mr & Mrs. Dutt. Actually they were like grand parents for us. They were really....I can never forget what they have done for us. We must ….all our education, our food and living was done by them in Darjeeling. Really I owe a lot to Bengal and Bengalis in that way.

Vikram Seth : You are not going to escape the story ….(Leila Seth laughs)
So were working in Bengal Assam railways…

Leila Seth : Yes, I learnt stenography. It was the quickest way of working to well paid jobs. So I got a job in something called the Bengal Assam rail link. It was setting up the railways through the.. And there was a young man there who was too working as a stenographer. And then one day he came and said to me , “aami bhebechhilam aapni palash, kachhey eshey dekhlaam aapni golap.”.. (audience laughs)

Vikram Seth : So, I may not have been named either Vikram or Amit….but someone else

Sandip Roy : You could have been named Palash.

Vikram Seth : We put a dhak on where we are from….yeah, palash

On the blurred distinction between literary & commercial writing and on Chetan Bhagat, the local literary trend, Tweeter and the Rushdie controversy.

Sandip Roy : So one of the things that you said, talking about books, "I do hope that this distinction between the literary and the commercial will increasingly get blurred." And you talked about Dickens & Austin and some of the popularity they enjoyed. In India, people like Chetan Bhagat, Amish ..everybody is at literary fest. Do you think that this distinction needs more blurring or is it blurred enough ?

Vikram Seth : I am not a huge follower of trends , local trends. I certainly think that as long as the book is written clearly and not too pretentiously, let’s say, you can judge its level pretty clearly. And you are reading it for the story, no harm in that. It may not stay in your mind through very long, one book might one book might not. My reading is very various as well. Sometimes I don’t care to read a very improving or a very profound book. But I think one of things that happens is that once you get a sense of judgment and discrimination there is a certain impatience for something tangible, which is a book that tries to be more than it actually is. So perhaps it is that kind of literary novel. The novel that seems to have a kind of contempt for the ordinary reader ; who might want to know something about the characters, the story & so on and just tries to pooh-pooh the idea of style and un-intangibility. As far as whether it is going in this direction or that, I don’t know. What is you view on that (to Sandip Roy)?

Sandip Roy : I think it’s the great democracy, free market where people will read what they want. I was in Jaipur where Chetan Bhagat and Amish were both there and audiences were really hanging on to every word they said. The only thing I had was I didn’t know whether people wanted to write or in, sort of, this new India, the contemporary India you might set A Suitable Girl in, that is regarded as a sort of a easy step as like ‘Teach us how to be successful’ is what they were looking for. Tips and tricks on how to be quickly successful. I was astonished by people writing down little notes on all the things they said.

Vikram Seth : Chetan Bhagat is read by lakhs of readers. People in that hall might have been taking down notes as eager young things. But the Delhi readers who are reading...the programmer who spends hundred and forty or hundred and fifty rupees, whatever it is… and buy his book ….good luck to him and good luck to them.

Leila Seth : Well, I can say , I enjoyed reading Chetan Bhagat’s Two States..

Vikram Seth : You read it in Jaipur, in the hospital.

Leila Seth : I really enjoyed it. It’s about his marriage in a way. A south Indian marrying a north Indian. Two different cultures. In fact when I was in Jaipur, not this time but many years ago, and it was a morning when Chetan Bhagat was speaking. And I was thinking ,how shall I go . And I thought, no…. if so many people are reading I must find out what is this man. Let me try and I went. Normally the nine-o-clock starting show is never crowded. It was jam packed with youngsters.

Vikram Seth : Hmm. Did you get in ?

Leila Seth : I got in. I somehow managed to squeeze in. I was impressed. He said , I am not a literary writer in that sense. He says it openly but you know people enjoy reading him. I read all his books except the last one. But I read them because I felt I must find out what is this thing.

Vikram Seth : People say , I’ve got to find out what it’s like .But you read the book…there must have been something that carried you on.

The other thing is, to come back to your earlier question, of the Indian novel in English being corrupted by people trying to appeal to foreign audiences. Here’s an example of someone who doesn’t. Here’s an audience that is almost entirely in India. His livelihood is entirely here based upon his audiences. I think people should cease to generalize too much on this.

Sandip Roy : Now he is tweeting with Salman Rushdie on the tweeter about the whole Rushdie controversy..

Vikram Seth : Has he just released another book?

Sandip Roy : (laughs) ..I have to ask you something about that but first I wanted to ask you…

Vikram Seth : All controversial questions are (to be ) directed towards my mother..

Sandip Roy : You know , Amitavo Ghose has also joined tweeter. Some of the other writers too have joined tweeter. Would you be on tweeter?

Vikram Seth : Well, this is an interesting point. I mean, I like living a life as private as I can, basically. And around the time a book is published I do a lot of these (interviews). Basically I am very lazy, I like to spend the time doing nothing very much, to spend the time with family or with friends. As far as tweeter is concerned , it’s almost the opposite of that. You are almost always tweeting, chirping to lots and lots of people. I was just in the Sunderbans and that’s the kind of tweeter I like. Bird life of a hundred different varieties. On the other hand, I won’t be able to avoid it and I’ll tell you why. If I was supposed to understand what the modern world was like and I set my new book ,whether it’s called An unsuitable boy or A suitable girl, at the present….either I try to understand what a tweeter is like ..I might ask you to inform me what its like, in fact. Are you on tweeter?

Sandip Roy : I am, I am.

Vikram Seth : Maybe afterwards you can explain what its all about. I need advice. I am in that stage of the book where ideas are floating but not landing..

Sandip Roy (to Leila Seth): Are you on tweeter? I think you could be on tweeter before

Leila Seth : No, I am not there. I dislike the mobile phone. I use it only when I call my driver. And if I am out of town, I’ve to use it otherwise its switched off. I want my privacy. I find these things take up so much time & energy. There’s no time to think , there’s no time to sit in the garden and enjoy yourself, there’s no time to read. I’d really try to avoid it as much as possible.

Sandip Roy : What do you think about what’s going on right now? Not just the Salman Rushdie (affair)..because you have a chapter in On Balance on emergency and what happened to the freedom of press right then. Now, looking at our tendency…if you don’t like it just ban it, whether it’s a movie or a painting or a book. Someone doesn’t like it. Ban, ban, ban! Do you think we are going backwards when we come to freedom of expression ?

Leila Seth : I think we are speaking out. I think it’s important. Everybody has a right to say what they want to. If you don’t like the book, close it. If you don’t like the movie, don’t go to it. This ban part I can’t understand. I think that people are protesting about it and I think it will have an effect.

Sandip Roy: Do you think that has an effect? It seems like the group of minority who wants the ban seems to get their way.

Leila Seth : No, I think its more a question of politics mainly. People are afraid they won’t get the votes. Because, if they want security they can get security, there’s no doubt about that. They give security to whoever they do feel like giving. I think its basically a kind of political feeling that they might miss out some votes. And I feel slowly when most of the people feel strongly about it then they make sure that such people don’t come and talk.

Vikram Seth (to Sandip Roy): You were in Jaipur, right? So, security….

Sandip Roy : Security was immense. I was thinking while watching Oprah Winfrey come up on stage and the immense security apparatus that was rolled out for her. People lining up at 6 a.m, closing all the roads, sealing up the venue and it was proof right there in Jaipur that if the government wants it can provide security to whoever comes to Jaipur. All these talk about ,oh I don’t know what would happen, is obviously the hypocrisy of it (and it) showed very clearly. In fact, if Oprah had wanted she could have probably tucked Salman Rushdie under her arm and brought him on stage and nobody would’ve dared say a word.

Vikram Seth : The charming lady.. (audience laughs)…Talking about charm or the lack of charm (since) this is a public venue. Something strange happened couple of weeks ago, where I read in the newspapers that I had written a limerick. Now, there’s a chap called Jeremy Clarkson. He did some kind of television program about India, I hadn’t seen it by the way, which people had taken exception to and suddenly some idiot wrote a limerick , in fact a very bad limerick and a very crude limerick and claimed that I’d written it. I hadn’t. I was appalled more by the lack of skill and by the kind of ridiculous sentiments in it. And I later found out it was being spread by something called Who these people are I have no idea. You are talking of charm or lack of charm. Whoever they are; I,I,I …I don’t like you (audience laughs) and stop lying about me. I never wrote that limerick. It was just, just..

On raising Vikram & other children, supporting Vikram’s unlikely choice of a career in writing and coming to terms with Vikram’s sexuality

Sandip Roy(to Leila Seth) : Let’s talk a little bit about this book and the family since both of you are here. You said he was going to be an economist, right? Stanford and off he goes and then he shows up at your door and says he’s going to write a book instead. A novel. What did you think ?

Leila Seth : I put it in the book. I was horrified. I thought he’d starve. He’d write poetry, not even a novel. His first book was Golden Gate, which was a novel in verse. We told him, go and get this job….he was being offered a post in World Bank as a young executive. Take this job and after five years you’ll get a position and then you can write to your heart’s content.

Vikram Seth : You said , then you can indulge in your hobbies.

Leila Seth : (laughs) And Vikram said , all my creativity will be finished . I’ll be bound by chains of gold and I won’t think of giving up the job because it’s so comfortable living. I’m not going to take it. I am going to write. I’ll live in a garage. If I have to starve, I’ll starve. We said, ok. What choice do we have ? Do that. His father was most important. His father said, ok. let him come home and write.

Vikram Seth: yeah

Leila Seth : I was worried. I thought, maybe my second son, Shantum who was also talking big .about being a businessman, will support him. Now Shantum is a Buddhist teacher. And Vikram is the one who’s done well with his books. See, how life is.

Sandip Roy : What was it like to go back home? It’s a cliché when people say that you can never go back home again.

Vikram Seth : I think , you can and the problem is that not only can you go home , you can go home too well. By that I mean that even though you are in your fraternities while splurging off your parents’, your habits could revert a bit. I mean , whereas you are an complete adult with your friends; when you go back to your parents , many of those old habits of unnecessary rebellion or dependence or whatever it is get revived in the strangest way. Of course, it’s also a part of the summary of the book itself or the book that I might be writing. But I think in the purely literal sense , you can never go home again if you are a typically European or an American. But in India, not only can you but its not entirely unexpected. And as for the other thing about not being able to step into the same river twice and the general thing about nostalgia being about a place that doesn’t exist anymore; that I take your point. Yes, its certainly true. Things may change. They also say that more they change, more they remain the same. That’s part of the theme that I plan to write, which is 60 years on from the 1950s, which is when A Suitable Boy is set. I want to ask you mama, what is your next book?

Leila Seth : I am planning…(laughs)

Vikram Seth : You are also planning! You are not a very good role model for me.

Leila Seth : (laughs) You are a writer. I am a lawyer.

Vikram Seth : I should say one point. Mama’s book, autobiography, On Balance, knocked me down on the list of best sellers.

Leila Seth : (laughs indulgently) Ah....ah..

Vikram Seth : Its true. I said (then), didn’t know whether to feel resentful or proud.

Sandip Roy (to Leila Seth): You said in one of the….. I think it was in the book or perhaps an interview about the book that you must give children the space to grow. I think it’s a very important advice for Indian parents everywhere. But how did you realize that?

Leila Seth : I think my husband gave me space to grow and I think that’s the most important thing. I was 20 when I got married. I did my graduation after I got married. I did my law exams after I was married. I practiced after I was married. In those days, most of my friends were not working. That was very unusual and he let me have that space. Then something happened, he was unhappy and I said , if you don’t want me to work, I’d give it up. He said, No. I can’t ask you to do that. You have two hands. One is your family and one is your work. I can’t ask you to cut off one hand. He understood that for me it was very important. It gave me certain self-esteem also. I also realized the same importance for children’s space. The friend of mine, Kalyani, the one who was reading to me Sesher Kobita, she didn’t have children. But she once said to me that if you hold your children, your family and loved ones like this , flat (extends the palm and fingers of a hand)…its like a bird. If you hold the bird like this , they’ll fly away and they’ll come back. If you hold it like this (closes the fingers of the hand) they’ll fly away and never come back. That is the lesson she gave me. And though she didn’t have children, she told me that line. I remember that line always. You hold your children like that (extends her fingers and palm again ,flat ), you know.

Sandip Roy : You wrote that in the book that you had a hard time coming to terms with Vikram’s sexuality, which is not unusual. But a lot of people will be interested to know how did you actually come to terms with it?

Leila Seth : There are two aspects. Now, in India, there is a judgment of the Delhi high court. But earlier it was a criminal offence. Homosexuality or bisexuality were criminal offences. And I am worried for him because I am a judge and he is a young man. Something happens , somebody can misuse it. It was a difficult time because of it. Then of course this is something that one is normally not used to. Its not something that is in your normal…the way you think of getting married to a girl , having a family. Suddenly you are faced with a situation where you think , well he could get married to a girl or he could also have a boy as a partner. So, its not something that is normal , its also not something that you are brought up thinking about. Though I had as a child read a book about two lesbian women, real. And I remember I was very very touched by the book because it said truly that love is such a beautiful thing and because they couldn’t pair with anybody they had this great difficulty.

I think that book which I had read, maybe when I was 17 or something, came back to me and I thought to myself how lonely a person might be if he can’t share his love with other people. And I suppose I realized its not something you are responsible for . It’s a biological thing. And so that’s how I setlled it.

Sandip Roy : So, books do change the world ?

Leila Seth : Of course, books do change the world. There is no question. Books give you ideas, they give you so many emotions….

Sandip Roy : Which of course leads to ….Since you put your mother on the spot by trying to have her reveal past admirers and .. let me ask you…have you found a suitable boy yet ?

Vikram Seth : Um…um.. No. (audience laughs). Its not that there are no suitable boys or girls around ..its just actually they haven’t swung into my pen or I haven’t been courageous enough to find one.

Leila Seth : That’s not correct. Not correct. There was someone in your life….

Vikram Seth : Oh! No .no definitely ! I am talking about the present…

Sandip Roy : Let your mother finish, Vikram.

Leila Seth : No, I just said there was someone in your life. There was a suitable girl in one stage , there was a suitable boy in another stage. They are not there now….relationship lasts for years sometimes…since they are not marrying there’s no question…divorce…relationships can last and break up , you know.

Sandip Roy : Would you like to find him a suitable boy then, if they are not swinging into his radar by themselves?

Vikram Seth : I will point out something about …you talked about biographies for example and Indian autobiographies suffer from this expression of trying to not to talk about a difficult subject. Of basically being a series of either this or I achieved that.

I think what I liked about your autobiography, when I read the first draft, where you talked for example about not only this subject but about several other very painful subjects one way or another. Loss of a child and so on and so forth. I think that … told me the letters that have come to you from other people…..emphasize that fact. That is that really….this is what has given the book truth and life and that wonderful word on which we particularly, at this stage, lay so much stress ; incharity.

The other thing is that you did ask us whether you could talk about this subject and I said, absolutely you should go ahead and talk about this subject. Because after all, this has played an important part of your life and it was a bit of a struggle for you to come to terms with it. There must be….we come from a fairly liberal tranche of the society… there must be many fathers and mothers all around who have to deal with a situation like this.

Leila Seth : Some people have told me they were not able to accept this about their children. In fact they almost gave up their child. They’ll not have anything to do with them, won’t speak to them….’get out of the house’ sort of thing. And reading it has made them realize ..not something not to care for but to care for the child more. Because the child is obviously not in the normal routine life. He is a lonely child . So, he needs more love and more affection.

In fact when I wrote the book, I showed the book to my children. I did ask them, is there anything you don’t want me to say about you? Please tell me. Because my own privacy, I can understand. But I also need to respect your privacy.

Sandip Roy : I think that’s very remarkable because you talked about the loneliness thing. And I think what many people don’t realize is that all the conversations we have about it, parents in the end worry about their children even when they are upset about it. They worry about the future , about loneliness and there is actually a conversation about love when it comes to the crux.

Vikram Seth : Well, I am not sure I’ll necessarily be, as you say, kind in interpretation. I think some people really do close their minds. They are really willing to give up that love because of public pressure, because of what other people might say, because of some religious idea going round and round in their heads. Ideas of heaven and god and this book and that book.

So I think in general its true but it also helps form public opinion , changes in norms and so on and so forth. I think this one aspect of trying to lead your child’s life or put overwhelming pressure on your child to do one thing or another….its something we touched upon earlier with regard to my not finishing my economics dissertation. After all, I spent fifteen years of it. I’d got two MAs from two good universities. My first reaction to : “We don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come home and I think you should get a job etc. etc..” My first reaction was annoyance, to put it mildly. And it was only after I went in my own mind through what you might have been going through….I said that yes, this is borne out of concern for the future and love. I am not sure that this is true every time. I really do. I am not sure. Maybe its true in India and true in other places. After all, this is a country where if a girl marries a wrong kind of a boy …and this is happening close enough to us, we live in Noida…they can be killed. So you can’t say this is done out of love. There is a lot of this junk going round and I think public pressure can quite often come ..

Sandip Roy (to Leila Seth) : How were you able to withstand this kind of ….you know even when you say he comes back, not finishing his thing for you to say , yes come home; on the other he is going to come home , sit and write…you’re the one who goes out to the world and faces all the people who say what’s your son doing , why is he doing that …that you know , “parai lok ki bolchey”..its always the mothers’ term.

Leila Seth : In Delhi all my colleagues would ask, when are your children getting settled? By settled, they’d mean job and marriage. And none of my children was settled. There was my daughter. She was 28 years old. They were making terms “not settled.” In a typical term ‘settled’ for a girl means marriage. There was my second son, sitting in the house throwing seeds in the back garden and saying “small is beautiful,” making a mud hut and living inside it. And there was Vikram sitting and writing without a care in the world. Even his food was sometimes being sent up as he..they.. won’t come down. And they said what are you doing. I thought, have I brought up my children badly, have I brought them up the wrong way? Then I said , no….if I’ve to bring them up again , I’ll do exactly the same. (audience applauds)

Vikram Seth : I think we should temper that applause. With regards to Aradhana, I came across these extraordinary scenes of mama ..when Aradhana was 26…

Leila Seth : She was 27 ..

Vikram Seth : Clearly 27..clearly over the hill…mama in tears. This is you know the person who was acting as the chief justice.. earlier in Delhi high court….in tears saying, Aradhana, we must get you married.

Leila Seth : But she kept seven boyfriends .. (audience laughs)

Vikram Seth : Not simultaneously… (audience laughs again)

Leila Seth : No, no.. And she wasn’t making up her mind about any one of them. I didn’t say, marry X or marry Y. I said just marry someone. Don’t let them hang around….just like mushrooms they are coming up here and there…make up your mind ..

Sandip Roy : Did she say , just as my brother who wrote 1349 pages to find a suitable boy; I too can take my time ..

Leila Seth : no..I’ll tell you about the driver…we had a driver ..

Vikram Seth : Satya Singh

Leila Seth : Yes…Satya Singh…obviously my colleagues and friends found this to be a strange family…they said, “woh bachhey keya kortey hai?”

“ek to ladki hai . woh raat me der se aati hai wapas. woh telephone pe rati hai” ..must have been all those calls that were coming in. “dusra ladka, ek matti ka ghar pe rahtey hai peechey , kuch korta hai aur teesra ladka upor baithkey leekhta hai. koi kuch nehi korta khali saab aur memsaaab kaam korta hai..” (audience laughs).. we were the working people.

On teaching values to children in an age when they idolize the corrupt

Sandip Roy(to Leila Seth) : But you must have done something right because there are things, values that parents will impart in their children and just this week I was reading in the newspapers about Narayanmurthy talking about the fact that he felt, now young people idolize the corrupt because that is seen as success.

And there was a survey about who do you identify as a hero …and Anna Hazare won that survey but the interesting thing is, he won with 19% of the votes, a whopping 60% of the people said they didn’t have any hero at all. You’ve written books about what it means to be a good citizen for young people . I want to know what are your thoughts on that .

Leila Seth : You know the thing is ,its also a question of what you learnt as a child. When I was young there was Gandhi and Nehru. They were icons for us. The struggle for freedom….the whole thing was totally a different kind of a thing. But today in schools, they don’t teach even moral science. They don’t teach any value system. So, what are children going to learn? What do they want to look up to? When I have any problems, I think of my childhood , I think of what I learnt as a child and they come back to me. So I thought if they can’t teach any kind of religion because we are a secular country, let them teach the children constitutional morality. I mean the most important things are equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, secularism . you know, these are things, concepts which if you teach a child whether he is 6 or 7 years old they understand it and they keep it for them throughout their lives. And I think that’s what is going to make children realize that if you have to share it with others. Its not good enough to make money for yourselves . The value is to share it with others.

And I’ll tell you one story which I think Amartya (Amartya Sen) knew. And which says that there was one flute and there were three children. The first child says, give the flute to me, I made it. The second child says, give the flute to me, I can play it well. And the third child says , give the flute to me, I have no other toy. And I asked this in a classroom of children and 99% of children will say, give it to the child with no toy. That means Indians have a heart. You ask this to the American children. They’ll say, give it to the child who made it. They are very strong on property rights. And you ask the European children; they’ll say give it to the child who plays it well. Because they think that is important. When I asked my granddaughter, she immediately said , give it to the child who has no toy. I said , you write a judgment now, you have to give me the reason. She said to me, the first child who made it , he knows how to make it. He can make it again . The child who has played it well already has a flute or has access to a flute. And so he knows he can play it well. But the child who has no toys, he’ll learn how to make it , he’ll learn how to play it and he will have a great time. That’s the thing. That’s what is so important to teach the children. If we teach them that, they’ll not think of having bigger cars & bigger houses & bigger radios & bigger TVs, and whatever it is . Change to a flat television, change to a different whatever. But think about how much joy there is in sharing with others.. The feeling of having, sharing is so wonderful. That’s why I think its very important for children to learn that from childhood.

 Leila Seth’s tribute to Bengal & Calcutta

Sandip Roy : We’ll take a few questions from the audience. But since we are talking of sharing, would you like to share a couple of passages from your book?

Vikram Seth : Not really. I just want to share with your audience that I really chose well my parents. (audience laughs). Now would you ( to Leila Seth) care to read …

Leila Seth: Just one passage. I love Calcutta. I lived in Darjeeling and Calcutta for many many years. In the 70s left for Delhi, decided to move there. I just want to read the paragraph about what really Calcutta meant to me.

Vikram Seth : This must be a practice. I can say that the first move you made from Calcutta…you made some moves. You moved to Calcutta because of papa’s job. Then from Calcutta to Patna because of papa’s job. Then from Patna back to Calcutta because of papa’s job. And then papa said, if we’re going to move we’re going to move for your career. We moved to Delhi because it had both the high court and the supreme court. It was partly because of that.

Leila Seth : Just a short paragraph.

(reads from the book) I was very sad at the thought of leaving Calcutta. Despite its grinding poverty the city was exceptionally vibrant and full of character. I loved the colorful atmosphere and the way of life. I could speak Bengali and most of my good friends were from Bengal. I had been to school in Darjeeling and college in Calcutta. I knew its ins and outs well as students do. Our first marriage home had been in Batanagar. Premo and I often toyed with the idea of buying 52/5 Ballygunge Circular road and of making Calcutta our permanent home as my three brothers were all from here. I loved the slow moving, understated movies of Satyajit Ray and the Indian people’s theater . Jamdani sari, mustard oil and fish cuisine and the Durga puja celebrations were dear to me. I enjoyed the affection of people especially when I spoke to them in Bengali. I dressed and felt almost like a Bengali. Premo teasingly said when he first saw me, he mistook me for one.

Audience questions on constitutional morality, compartmentalization of “Indian writing in English” & Vikram Seth’s “adventurous journey” to Tibet

Sandip Roy : We’ll now take a couple of questions. Yes , ma’am.

Lady audience 1 to Leila Seth : You’ve written a second book on constitutional laws for children. What made you write that ?

Leila Seth : Well, as I was saying earlier I felt that there was no moral science being taught in schools and I thought it was very important for children to have a value system. Its just the preamble of the constitution, The preamble is of one page. Instead of writing , “We the people of India,” I write We, the children of India. Its illustrated nicely by a lady called Bindia Thapar and it clearly starts from the age of 6 or 7 and I think children of the age 17 are reading it and their teachers are telling me that they are understanding the constitution for the first time. I tried to break it down into very typical words with pictures. As to what we mean by secular. What is justice, what is freedom, what is equality.

That example that I was telling you about the flute. Actually if you look at it, its justice. Because justice is not justice in the air, its justice in the society , in equality. That’s why you’ll find the different countries have different feelings about justice because children react in that way.

Lady audience 2 to Vikram Seth : In A Suitable Boy , there’s this character called Amit Chatterjee. Any connection? He also writes poetry.

Vikram Seth : I suppose I named him Amit in ..slightly tongue-in-cheek manner. Precisely that reason. He was embedded in a garrulous, loquacious family , the Chatterjees…where there is a sister, who will quarrel all the time and so on. And the brother always said , a boy is a boy. Rather a spiritual minded brother. A series of girlfriends kept in his spiritual views depending on what their views were. Amit is a bit of a hopeless character. After all, he is writing this long novel about the Bengal famines and he never finished it. But I cancelled this for the other Amit, the ex-Amit. He finished his novel.

Male audience 1 to Vikram Seth : Excuse me , Vikram. Many of us don’t know that you had an adventurous journey to Tibet. Tell us something about it.

Vikram Seth : First, I was in China for two years doing research on the economic demography of the villages of China.I was a student that time in Stanford. And because I was an Indian , it took me a long time to get a permission to visit , where I stayed for two years, lived there and not far from Nanjing. And between my first and second year, in order to come back home I bought a ticket from Hong Kong. But curiously when I was in the deserts of the north-west; partly as a result of singing the song “Awara”, which the Chinese know because they have seen Awara and that’s one of their favourite movies; I got a stamp on my travel pass which allowed me to go to Lhasa. There was a bit of, not fraud exactly , but there was a bit of luck involved in that the phone lines to the state capital was down and the policemen who would hardly sing wrote it on the travel pass. The moment I saw this , I went back to Nanjing to get my visa. I sent a message to my parents which was written very elliptically saying , I am coming by a different route. I obviously couldn’t very well say that I am hitchhiking through Tibet otherwise the Chinese would have stopped me. And then I did go through from the deserts of the northwest across Chaidan , the Tarim basin I think they call it, and then up to the Himalays themselves , the headwaters of the Salween….Brahmaputra….finally to Lhasa and across that finally to India.

When I got back here, everyone said, lets see a slide show. Lets hear the story. They kept asking me. I was really quite tired. Then I asked papa, why do these friends keep asking me to repeat these things. He said why don’t you write 5 or 7 pages , then show it to them. So that’s what I did, then papa read it and he said , look this seems to be a core of a very interesting book. Try to write a book. I said, how can I write a book? I don’t know any publishers. I haven’t written a book in my life. I just wrote a book of poems published by P.Lal of Calcutta .Since I am in Calcutta, let me add to the spirit of P.Lal who published my first book. He said, go the library. Pick up a travel book off the shelf. Read the addresses of the publishers and sent them a letter and a map. And that’s how I did it. It was a very unorthodox way of doing it. That was the story of my first book.

Sandip Roy : Can you sing Awara now?

Vikram Seth : Not really …(then sings two lines quite well & the audience applauds)..somehow I do think I’ll have a career in music.

Male audience 2 to Vikram Seth : This is about the Indian writing in English. Actually it traces back to almost hundred years. Some of the earliest writers like Mulk Raj Anand etc..Of late only in the 80s or 90s, we are hearing this term.

Vikram Seth : you are quite right there has been quite a lot of Indian writing in English. Some of which….like R.K.Narayan’s books which are wonderful books. So you are right as far as this sudden phenomenon. Its certainly been recognized.

Male audience 2: There’s a kind of compartmentalizing….

Sandip Roy : Compartmentalization of Indian writing in English…

Vikram Seth : Ok. There’s two kind of compartmentalization. One comes from the idea of India and one comes from the idea of English. That is, one is a geographical and one is a linguistic demarcation. The compartmentalization of Indian writers in English versus Caribbean writers in English versus American or British writers in English ; yes I think there’s that. How would you classify Golden Gate? Is it an American book, is it an Indian book because its written by an Indian writer? How do you classify An Equal Music?

The other question of course is about other Indian languages. Compartmentalization of Indian writers in English & other languages. As opposed to English; Bengali, Hindi and so on and so forth. There is this tendency to have English versus the rest and for English to get all the emphasis in some regards , I think that’s a bit of a tragedy.

Sandip Roy : Time for one last question

Male audience 3 to Leila Seth : Considering your son was a successful writer by the time you published your first book, did his style leave any impact on you although you were working in a different genre?

Leila Seth : pardon

Sandip Roy : (repeats the question ) Basically, he’s asking whether you copied from your son?

Leila Seth: (laughs) I didn’t write as a writer. I wrote a memoir, which is my autobiography. Then I got invited to a festival. I said I am not a writer. I go to legal seminars. They said, are a biographer. And I became a biographer. It had nothing to do with Vikram’s writing. And I didn’t write like a writer. And then I wrote a second book on constitutional morality & preamble for children. Suddenly I got invited to Bhutan. I said, I’m not a writer..I’m only a biographer. They said , no…’re a children’s writer.

Now after a few books, I’m a biographer, an author, a children’s writer and so many things. I don’t know what I’ll be ….

Vikram Seth : You’ll be competition…

Sandip Roy : On that note , we’ll end this session.

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