What can be said with certainty is that Vikram Seth is a charmer.
In a hall packed well ahead of schedule on the second day of the Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday, Seth may have turned up a little late but the audience didn’t mind. From the minute he spoke into his microphone till the end of the session, the prolific novelist and poet also proved to be an engaging conversationalist.
Receiving a huge round of applause before he’d uttered even a single word, Seth was introduced with little ado by literature scholar and dean of humanities at Punjab University Shaista Sirajuddin.
This, in many ways, set the tone for the hour – for better or for worse. While a soporific Sirajuddin constantly drew attention to the technicalities of his works, focusing on rhyme, metre and form, Seth would tactfully oblige, only to slyly transition into anecdotes, crowd-winning one-liners and a happily comfortable use of Urdu.
When he did oblige, however, his mastery over the intricacies of poetry was clear. He quoted from the libretto “Arion and the dolphin” before launching into an explanation on ‘feminine rhyme’ structure which was made less abstract by his clarity. As the pirates throw Arion off a ship, dolphins come to the rescue:
We scatter good vibrations.
We harry herring happily
And swallow salmon snappily.
Our skins are smooth and rubbery,
Our bulky bodies blubbery.
Paradoxically, the most interesting and disappointing thing about Seth is that his ability to please the crowd was so thorough that he really left no space for rabble-rousing whatsoever. Even talking about the normality of “gay sex, or premarital sex” earned him appreciative applause rather than the usual stony silence or an indignant and spluttering audience member.
The reaction he manages to generate has a lot to do with this - Seth is master of appearing grateful for his audience’s presence. Now, who wouldn’t want to listen to a man like that? In the middle of a detailed explanation of his work on librettos and libretti, masculine rhyme schemes and syllables, the writer stopped to say:
“It’s boring actually to go on like this. Ask me a trenchant question.”
Unfortunately, Sirajuddin didn’t comply, but Seth managed to slip in some heart-warming stories regardless, creating a strange sense of intimacy in a room filled with hundreds of people.
Humorously self-deprecating, Seth spoke about his time in Delhi (after failing to complete his Phd) while writing the epic ‘A Suitable Boy’ – large enough in stature and size to be used as a murder weapon. At the time he was living off his parents in their house along with his similarly positioned siblings. “My driver asked – but what do all these people do?”
While the moderator attempted to sabotage the fun again by asking Seth to read out his own works (which was fine for a while because he reads well), Seth had a chance to be his animated self during the question-answer session. Applause and laughter aside, the writer, charismatic as he is, even managed to draw an ‘awww’ from the audience while describing his relationship with his aunt and uncle, whom he lived with during his college years.
But forget his charisma for a moment. The diminutive Seth, it was apparent, is a man blessed with versatility. It hit after the session that in the easy rapport he’d developed with the temporary inhabitants of the hall, that he had spoken of music (he was a student of it), of the Indian Constitution, of ecology, of homosexuality, of his characters (to whom he appeared deeply attached), of Chinese poetry, of family, of the Babri Masjid episode and of the trauma of the Holocaust all in an hour.
In his own words, he really is an ABD - All But a Dissertation. So it’s easy to forgive him for saying “I’m not making much progress with a sequel (to the Suitable Boy)”. We’ll wait, because it’s easy to feel generous around you, Vikram. (We can call you that, right?)
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2012.