Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Writers Reading: Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth did a reading at the Asia Society on the occasion of the release of Two Lives one rainy evening as last year was drawing to a close.

[By the way, click here for a really hot pic of Vikky a few years back when he had long hair.]

The book tells the story of Seth’s uncle and aunt, their lives and the time that Seth spent living with them as a college student at 18 Queens Road in Hendon.

His uncle Shanti was a German-trained dentist who lost an arm while operating during the battle at Monte Cassino, but continued to practice after World War II when he settled in England. Henny, Shanti’s wife, was a Berliner who escaped Germany but lost her mother and sister to the Nazis. He referred to their marriage as one “not based on confidences, but rather on great confidence in each other.” Not unlike The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, in reading Two Lives and hearing him speak about Shanti and Henny, you sense a similar admiration for their strength and stiff-upper-lip attitude toward life.

After being introduced and called up to the stage, he emerged from the front row, carrying his winter coat and his backpack. The Asia Society guy made gestures to take them from him, which Seth brushed off, and dropped them in a heap at the foot of the podium.

The stage was set with a Persian rug, a comfy chair and coffee table, and an East Asian teapot and cup. And Vikram was miked.

He sat down, kelly green scarf still draped around his neck, and began. Given the Asia Society's location on Park Avenue, you can hear the number 6 train come and go underneath. “The cell phones have been stilled, but the subways continue,” he remarked.

It was a lovely setting for the reading and Seth seemed perfectly at ease, looking out at the audience and chatting as if he were across the table in a coffee shop with you alone. He spoke of his Shanti Uncle and Aunt Henny and of home as the place that "if we have to go there, they have to let you in". His German aunt received him, a seventeen-year-old student, with “enthusiasm rather than warmth” and had, earlier on, the habit of saying things like “Shanti, your relations are here” and referring to Vikram as “my husband's nephew”. But later on, in spite of herself, she started calling him "my nephew".

His use of words and phrases like “japes” and “get a purchase on” contribute to the academic air around him, but he also oozes warmth.

Some of the revelations during the evening were that he came across Gestapo paperwork, written in “calm, measured bureaucratise” that described the removal of Henny’s family’s possessions, and how, having learned German because he thought he needed a European language to get into Oxford, when he learned more about the horrors of Henny’s past, it ruined German classical music and Heine's poetry for him. Seth commented to the audience that by the grandfather count the Nazis used, Heinrich Heine would have been considered a Jew.

More than the sadness of such things, what really inspires is the love that Shanti and Henny had for each other. Shanti was so griefstruck by his wife's death that he burned all papers he could find that had anything to do with her (fortunately for us, it turns out he missed a trunk in the attic, where, like the German woman she was, Henny had saved carbon copies of her letters to friends).

When he opened the floor to questions, he was asked “Do you think creative writing can be taught?” and he made some references to the word education referring to a both a drawing out and a stuffing in, but he seemed to infer you either have it, or you don’t.

At one point, he shared that his family refers to A Suitable Boy as "the fat one" and that the he was very pleased with the title of the Hindi title: Koi Achha Sa Ladka. He said the kernel that served as the starting point for the book that would occupy a decade of his life was overhearing a woman say "You too will marry a boy I choose".

And he revealed that he considered Two and a Half Lives as a possible title for the Hindi edition, because it's also a partial memoir of his own life.

Someone asked, still on the subject of A Suitable Boy, if the main city setting for the novel is really Patna, but he replied that it's a composite city, more like somewhere in eastern UP.

When the time came to get your books signed, he couldn’t have been chipper or more charming.

As he made his way through the entire Vikram Seth collection I had schlepped in from home and deposited on the table before him, we had the following entretien (I have no shame):

Me: Have you seen Parineeta?

Him: No, what's that?

Me: It's a Hindi movie set in Calcutta in the '60s and I was wondering what you thought of the depiction of the city then. But, it is a Bollywood film…

Him: Look, if I can watch Columbo, who am I to sneer at Bollywood movies?


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