First things first, I’m posting a new poem by Vikram Seth, “Through Love’s Great Power,” because the New York Review of Books said I could:
Through love’s great power to be made whole
In mind and body, heart and soul—
Through freedom to find joy, or be
By dint of joy itself set free
In love and in companionhood:
This is the true and natural good.
To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak—
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.
I first read A Suitable Boy just after college, roaring through it on solitary, martini-fueled nights in my Jackson efficiency apartment. It was and is the longest single novel—at almost 1500 pages—that I’ve read. It seems, if anything, too short, with spools of life rolling outward into my world, getting tangled up into my social networks and my dreams. Set in India just after it achieved independence from Great Britain, it weaves together the lives of multiple families, conservatives and liberals, colonial defenders and anticolonial radicals, Hindus and Muslims and Christians (oh my!), politicians and performers, Brahmins and untouchables, immigrants and natives. It’s a multiethnic, multigenerational epic that managed to make me laugh out loud, make me think, make me horny, make me cringe, and make me cry.
Those feelings came across in A Suitable Boy because of Vikram Seth’s joyous language, his dryly amused tone about even the most heart-wrenching circumstances, and his discreet diction, which matches his mannered characters, who are forever worried about how they—and their families—are being perceived. Puns, anagrams, palindromes, and delicate wordplay dominate the novel—the table of contents is written as rhyming couplets; the book’s dedication is a sonnet in perfect pentameter; there’s an interior love poem that’s also an acrostic. Much of this is offered largely as indirection, as sly and secretive ways to engage with furious rages and gushing passions. When a foul word is said, and only two or three are said in the course of 1400 pages, the word slices through the brain. When a couple tumbles into sticky, hot sex towards the novel’s end, after Seth’s mock-Victorian shyness for much of the book, well, we get sticky and hot, too. And why not? When asked, Seth gleefully acknowledged the influence of Dynasty on the book’s shaping.
I made my stepdad read it, practically forced it on him, and he had almost the same reaction. I periodically try to convince people that no it’s not too long, no you won’t even notice its length after the first 30 pages, yes it’s about India and it’s also about you, and hey man you read the New Testament too and you don’t complain about the length of that, for Chrissakes. (Pun intended.)
After finishing A Suitable Boy, I went to the Welty Library seeking out more Seth. It didn’t have much but I found a large-print edition—they didn’t have a regular-type edition—of From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Cool, I thought. And it was, but—beyond Seth’s witty and discreet style—it wasn’t anything like A Suitable Boy. It was exactly what the title advertises—Seth’s travels through China and Tibet, all to get back to India for a spell. But what was Seth doing in China to begin with, I wondered? Researching Chinese poets, learning various Chinese dialects, translating Chinese poetry into English, and generally just hanging around, it turned out. That hanging around bore fruit, by the way: Three Chinese Poets, translations of work by Tang Dynasty poets whom Seth happened to love. In other words, a book that wasn’t much like From Heaven Lake or A Suitable Boy.
Who on Earth was this guy?
Since From Heaven Lake is the closest to memoir we’re likely to get from him, I started gleaning clues from it. He was clearly a polyglot, a restless writer who followed his interests whether commercially acceptable or not. He comes across as quiet and reserved but not necessarily shy. He also comes across as a charmer, a man who uses his gift for gab to lure his way into hearts and underwear. But whose underwear, exactly? There’s a quiet passage in From Heaven Lake, during which Seth is hitchhiking in a convoy on a flooded, rained-out highway with loads of other truckers, and he and the Chinese trucker are talking. Seth is discreet but it becomes clear—well, kind of clear—that they’re flirting in code, strangers feeling each other out on a night in which no one is going anywhere. At the end of the passage, there’s a moment that can only be described as the literary equivalent of a fade to black, when I belatedly realized: Hey, these two are headed to bed, and not to sleep, either.
So, Seth was gay. Homosexuality, in discreet form, is apparent in A Suitable Boy but so were all other kinds of sexuality rampant—but politely—in the novel. And was Seth gay, or just a terrific conveyor of sexual appetite and the many variants of love? He seems to charm the pants off of a young woman in From Heaven Lake, too. Maybe he was just young, horny, and lonely in a country not his own, in a travel memoir that’s as much about homesickness as it is about anything else. He’s so passionately homesick, after all, that he bulls his way into Tibet during the early 1980s, at a time—which is also now—when getting into (or out of) that embattled country was almost impossible.
After the travel book and the translated poetry, I decided to buy The Golden Gate. It’s a novel written in sonnet form—not just any sonnet form but a relatively obscure one, in iambic tetrameter. Because, hey, why make it easy on yourself, right, Vikram? It too is funny, wise, with interlacing communities and coincidences, but it’s naughtier than A Suitable Boy and angrier than From Heaven Lake. And, again, it’s in many ways unlike either of them. It’s contemporary, set in San Francisco, and largely amidst the lives of white and Asian yuppies. Stanzas 7.16-34 (pages 156-165), which constitute a speech given by an Episcopalian priest at an anti-nukes demonstration, stand collectively as one of the greatest antiwar and pro-peace statements that I’ve read, and especially convincing as written from a Christian context. (I can imagine my favorite clergyman, Rev. Keith Tonkel of Wells Methodist Church, saying something very much like it.) I photocopied this passage and have it pasted on my office cubicle’s wall.
Again, who on Earth is Vikram Seth?
Like Lawrence Weschler and Rebecca Solnit, Seth seems to follow his own literary star and seems unwilling to do the same thing twice. He’s published children’s books, collections of poetry, a lauded dual biography of his relatives, and a love story set in the world of classical music, too. He seems to relish in his changes, in having people be not quite sure of who he is, in acknowledging that who we are changes, depending on where we are and who we’re with. That’s brave. That means, quite probably, that Seth isn’t as popular as he could be, simply because he refused to be pigeonholed. (Sure, sure, plenty of people bought A Suitable Boy; I’m less sure of how many of them actually read it.) Though there’s plenty of wordplay and trickery in his work, he’s also an old-fashioned Victorian realist in a sense, which means he’s not hip. (Pico Iyer referred to A Suitable Boy as “Jane Austen in Calcutta,” which is pretty good, though George Eliot’s the more appropriate touchstone.) And, by openly and nonjudgmentally exploring various modes of sexuality and politics in his work, Seth leaves himself open for all kinds of charges.
There is a strain, a pulsing lifeblood, running through all of Vikram Seth’s work, and that is the heartachy joy of love’s great power to transform us, open us, and cause us to cast aside our judgments as so much uselessness. This new poem, written in response to India recriminalizing homosexuality, is an extension of Seth’s witty, discreet, formalist but thoroughly serious declaration of what love can and should truly do. It’s a statement of purpose, declared so slyly that we might miss it.
Related: Seth’s mom, Leila Seth, is a retired judge in India. She too has written an eloquent response condemning India’s decision.