A Life in Verse
India Today|October 18, 2021
After the buzz around the BBC’s adaptation of A Suitable Boy, a new collector’s series of Vikram Seth’s poetry puts the spotlight on the author’s poetic accomplishments. Published by Speaking Tiger, the seven volumes showcase the breadth of Seth’s genius and the recurrent patterns in his poems. In a rare exchange, Seth spoke with India today about his work.
Sonal Shah

Q. The story of your having picked up Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin is often cited as a seminal moment in your writing life. Have there been other such turning points?

A. There have been several such moments; I’ll mention just one. In my second year at university, where I was supposed to be studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics, I went to the Oriental Institute, thinking I’d slip unnoticed into a Japanese class. I went to the wrong floor, and ended up in a Chinese class. I was thrown out as an interloper a week or two later, but it gave me a taste for the language. At about the same time, a friend happened to lend me the Penguin Classics translation of the poems of Wang Wei, an 8th century Chinese poet. He wrote of nature, friendship and solitude in a way I had never come across before. These poems moved me deeply and I decided then and there to learn enough classical Chinese to read them in the original. And in fact, many years later, in the year after the Tiananmen massacre, mulling over the troubled times of famine and civil war that Wang Wei himself had lived through, I translated his poems for myself.

Q. Have your experiments with poems written in monosyllabic words been informed by your translation of Chinese poetry?

A. Yes. Classical Chinese poetry, written as it is in stand-alone ‘characters’, which are monosyllabic, has a particular feel to the ear. It also uses tones, which cannot be replicated in translation, as well as rhyme and parallelism, which can. Certain poems of my own, like ‘Soon’ or ‘Walk’ or the poems of ‘Shared Ground’, as well as certain prose passages in An Equal Music, seemed to settle entirely into monosyllables, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe the need for simplicity; maybe an analogue to exhausted and broken breath.

Q. Beyond the shayari of A Suitable Boy, could you describe the influence of Hindi/ Hindustani poetry on your ear?

A. Well, in A Suitable Boy, there’s lots of Hindi/ Hindustani/ Urdu poetry, depending on what’s going on in the story or the minds of the characters: everything from nursery rhymes to folk songs to political jingles to ghazals to nazms to marsiyas to the Gita to bandishes from shastriya sangeet to bhajans from Gandhiji’s Ashram Rachnaavali to the film songs of the period: being brought up in India, you’re surrounded by all this! Of course, it has influenced me hugely; indeed, ‘influenced’ isn’t the word—it has moulded me before I even knew I was being moulded. But perhaps for that very reason, I can’t analyse its influence in the way I tried to with Chinese poetry, which I can trace to particular times and events.

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