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.
Q. The story of your having picked up Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin has often been cited as a seminal moment in your writing life. Have there been other such turning points (particularly involving other literary works) and could you elaborate on them?
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 (such as ‘Soon’) been informed or inspired by your reading and translation of Chinese poetry?
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.
But rhyme, meter, alliteration, the use of monosyllables or polysyllables the reader shouldn’t be brought up short by such devices while reading a poem for the first time. Poetry is something more than technique.
Q. I found it striking that in Mappings you translated Nirala’s poem in free verse, whereas meter and rhyme have since become such characteristic features of your style. Has your approach to translation changed over time, and how so?
Not exactly free verse. My translation of ‘Thoonth’ (‘Stump’) is free rhythmically, but rhymed. But Nirala too rhymes ‘aaj’ with ‘saaj’ in his poem, as well as ‘adheer’, ‘teer’ and ‘nayan-neer’. I happen to like rhyme; I don’t find it constrictive, but, rather, suggestive. The thing is not to let it get too insistent, but to allow it unobtrusively to enrich and emphasise the meaning and feeling of the poem.
I should add that I’m not stuck on rhyme; I like Whitman as well as his contemporary, Dickinson. Really, I tend to like poems or pieces of music or people, for that matter without prejudging them if they don’t fall into certain categories.
Q. Beyond the shayari of A Suitable Boy, could you describe the influence of Hindi/ Hindustani poetry on your ear?
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’s influenced me hugely; indeed, ‘influenced’ isn’t the word it’s 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.
Clearly, it has driven me, though; here’s one example. A few years ago, I translated the Hanuman Chalisa the dohas as well as the chaupais into English, using a similar rhyme-scheme and quasi-trochaic rhythm. I’ve only read it aloud once at the Patna Literary Festival in 2014, where I alternated between Tulsidas’s original and my translation. I have no idea whether or when I’ll publish it. Perhaps I should I have myself, after all, been the beneficiary of translations. And even if it is a pale copy of a work I admire, it may give something to a reader who has no access to the original language.
Why did I do it? Partly because I love the poem. Partly because I was thinking of my character Bhaskar and his childhood part in the Vaanar Sena in the local Ramlila in Brahmpur. Partly because Hindu symbols, texts, rites and norms that had been part of my life were now being usurped by people who wanted to use these to bully or demean or crush other Indians a profoundly unpatriotic, un-Indian, even un-Hindu thing to do.
Q. In the introduction to Three Chinese Poets, you describe each poet’s relationship (or lack thereof) with the state as an integral part of his identity, given the context of eighth-century China. In 21st century India, how would you describe the relationship between the poet (or novelist) and the state?
I think that poets, as human beings and as citizens, are bound to reflect their views in their works. This is even more true of them than of novelists, because poets are inclined to show you their own state of mind, not that of their characters. But I would be loath to generalise about the relationship between the poet and the state. I don’t think that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ any more than anyone else. Whether, when and how to speak out about the achievements and depredations of the state depends on many factors that are integral to each person, each poet. This is true whether in 8th century China or 21st century India.
If, since you mention them, one looks at the three Chinese poets I have translated, each took a different course in this regard: Wang Wei was inward and quiet by nature, and retired from Imperial service and from the court itself when young though his brother later became Prime Minister. The flamboyant Li Bai hardly cared about the state or what was going on in the world around him so long as he got lots of wine and ink and water preferably with a tipsy full moon reflected in it. Du Fu cared deeply about service to the state, and tried unsuccessfully to pass the Imperial Civil Service exams several times. In much of his poetry, he is torn between the Imperial allegiances he grew up with and the terrible suffering of the people around him at a time of violence, forcible conscription, the separation of families and calamitous famine.
Q. How do you perceive the relationship between poetry and music? When writing libretti or other poetry to be set to music, what kinds of things do you do differently?
Music matters to me even more than speech. I am more moved by a khyal in Marwa of Ustad Amir Khan Sahib or an aria from Bach’s Matthew Passion than almost anything I have read. The relationship between poetry and music is too vast a subject for me to tackle here.
As for writing libretti or song lyrics, I have, in practical terms, to be aware of two things that I can normally ignore or at least not constantly be aware of when writing poetry. First, the words can’t twist the singer’s tongue into knots. (Though the amazing composer of Arion and the Dolphin, Alec Roth, even set my phrase ‘with green fronds curled’ into singable music.) Secondly, one has to realise that a listener (unlike a reader) cannot look back over a text if they don’t get the basic meaning the first time. So overly complex syntax or heavily referential language are out.
Q. So much of your poetry seems to draw from a wellspring of natural imagery. Living in a city like Delhi (not to mention with the kinds of looming climate catastrophe you have alluded to in your work), do you feel the need to replenish this source and what kinds of things help do so?
I walk in the parks when I can; this replenishes me. Or in our local bird sanctuary by the Yamuna. ‘Sanctuary’ the very word implies how we human beings have put everything (including ourselves) under threat. Above all, I love trees, so generous in their greenery. And birds, those descendants of dinosaurs.
Q. Do you read contemporary travelogues, and have you ever considered writing another one after From Heaven Lake?
Yes, but I won’t. There’s too little time left, and (after finishing A Suitable Girl), I’d like to spend the residue on poetry.
Q. Do you think the kind of cosmopolitanism that shaped your poetic tastes (and possibly your interest in translation) still inspires new poets to, say, lift inspiration from Chinese, German, and Urdu works? Do you feel this approach is in opposition to an emphasis on rootedness or affirmation of a singular identity in poetry?
I think this choice of words is a little maybe not loaded exactly, but somewhat formulary: ‘cosmopolitan’ versus ‘rooted’. I see no such distinction myself. I don’t see myself as ‘cosmopolitan’ so much as open to other influences, not all of which come from my own country. (As for what you call ‘new poets’ and where they ‘lift’ their inspiration from, I can’t speak for anyone else.)
As regards ‘rootedness’ (which really means single-rootedness): that is an odd concept to apply in a country where the most emblematic tree is the banyan. Still, even with the multi-rooted and later multi-trunked bark, you can usually discern the original trunk.
Q. You’ve sometimes spoken about the way you begin projects as having ‘drifted’ into them, often with a sense of astonishment at finding yourself doing something you hadn’t expected. (As an example, your foray into sculpting.) When’s the last time you found yourself engaged in something new and distracting and engrossing, and what was that thing?
Actually, it was sculpture additive, as with clay; subtractive, as with stone or wood; and both, as with plaster. And then, with glass or pewter or bronze, there’s sculpture via a mould. It is an endless world of contemplation and of tactile creation. And one where, in contrast to the colour and two-dimensionality of painting, we are in a zone of chromatic spareness but three-dimensionality (with the implied ability to walk around it or even see it from below or above).
No change in perception so profound has happened to me in the last few years. But I hope, in my last decade or two, something does.
Q. From ‘The sunflower of my youth is wilting’ in The Golden Gate, to the recurring idea of detachment in the face of decay in several of the poems of Summer Requiem do you feel poetry is uniquely suited to express such reflections on mortality? Or have you found ways to do so through other genres/media?
Mortality has always been a bit of a preoccupation with me. After all, from the moment we are conceived, we are hurtling towards death.
Yes, I’ve usually expressed my thoughts on mortality through poetry; though the death of Mrs Mahesh Kapoor in A Suitable Boy could perhaps be the case of another genre.
Last month, my father died at the age of 97. Though he died at home, after a full life, with my sister Aradhana and myself there with him, it has left a strange hollow in my life. Every evening my thoughts turn to walking over for a drink and a chat with him. But the conversations are now (except in dreams) one-sided.
Anyway, now that I realise that only about a fifth of my own life (if I am lucky) remains, it will be interesting to see if I think less about death or more.
At any rate, I hope to be around for my Sahasra-chandra-darshan to see my thousandth full moon. It will fall in 2033 upon Hanuman Jayanti, Good Friday and fortuitously my Buddhist brother Shantum’s birthday.