For someone who’s written a 1,368-pager on his family and followed it up with another 503 pages of a family memoir, Two Lives, of his great-uncle and his German wife, Vikram Seth is fierce in defending his family’s privacy. There are two sacred cows in his life, we discover very soon after arriving at his parents’ home for one of the back-to-back interviews his publisher has set up on his first day back from London for a whirlwind book tour of five metros. The first is Family Time, and there will be no poaching on it, as he informs us with unusual curtness when we tentatively ask for a photo shoot at a family dinner later that evening. The other, of course, is Creative Time. With just one of the innumerable interviews of the next two days ending as we meet, Vikram is already a little snappish under the pressure, leaving his Mama, the serene ex-Justice Leila Seth, to hold fort with tea, lemonade and her calm grace, while Vikram stalks off into her bedroom, declaring: "I need a five minutes’ break before the next interview." He returns exactly on time, only his slightly ruffled hair and expression betraying how much he longs to get away from us all—cameraman, interviewer, publicist. But our suggestion that we make this a three-way conversation between Vikram, Leila and me brought back the literary star’s legendary—and sometimes acerbic—good humour. And revealed the writer in the closest—and most important—private space he shares with his mother/muse/mentor who he acknowledges as "someone who is slightly scarily intelligent and who has achieved so much that all of us are pretty much in her shadow".
Is it OK if your mother sits in for this interview because she basically inspired you with the theme for Two Lives?
Vikram: If Mama wants to...
Leila: No, she is asking if this will upset you.
This will be a sort of three-way conversation.
Vikram: Fine, I'll get a little more time with my mother. (Stretches his arm to her and they both laugh companionably).
(to photographer Jitender Gupta) Is it OK if I put the tape-recorder here on this table?
Vikram: Agar aapkii ijaazat ho to... [If we have your permission]
The photographer is the king. We reporters only get to write the fine text which nobody reads.
Vikram: I know, I know.
Your mother suggested the story to you. Isn't that a little unusual for a writer to take a suggestion from his own mother?
Vikram: You get your inspiration -- suggestions -- wherever you have to, even from your mother.
It was a family project, to begin with? You wanted to help your great-uncle at that point (when he went into a depression after his wife, Henny, died)...
Vikram: I didn't particularly want to. Mama, I think, wanted to. I didn't realise it may have that effect. I thought, if anything, it might cause him more pain, really, remembering all these things. But I think Mama was more psychologically acute and realised that it actually might help him to talk about the past. And that he needed a project. She also knew that I needed a project. So she put (these) two things together.
But you had been thrashing around for a theme for so long. How did you take to the idea so instantly?
Vikram: Not really. I became quite interested in what he had to say. But I suppose I never thought of it as being anything more than a sort of family archive. What I didn't expect was that I'd get so gripped by Aunty Henny's story once the material there came in. And for that, if my father was here, you could have thanked him .(Vikram's father, better known as the Bata shoeman, while pottering in his wife's uncle's London house attic on a holiday, discovered a trunk containing Aunty Henny's correspondence).
Otherwise you don't think you would have published this biography at all?
Vikram: I'm not sure but depends upon how rich my treatment of uncle's life had been. But I think -- if at all it was a published book-- it would have been a much slimmer one. And more mono-focussed. By bringing Aunty Henny in, I brought not only her, but, in a sense, the marriage. Not only the marriage, but also the question of history. Not only the history, but the interesting question of how a book came to be written. So it became much more multi-faceted. Quite apart from the fact that the material itself, that I got from her correspondence, was so deeply moving and so interesting and intricate in its own right.
It was a huge packet of correspondence then?
Vikram: It was a trunk... of correspondence, photographs, books, poems, documents that had been sent by her fiancé (Hans)
So you got more excited by the book half-way through it?
Vikram: (snappish) That's your take. No, I mean, the book in some sense replicates the exploration itself but I certainly was not yawning so to speak when I was writing the first half, by no means.
Leila, do you think the book was a true portrait of your uncle?
Leila: Yes, in my own book, On Balance, I had mentioned just the bones of it, but I think Two Lives is extremely well-written. I mean though it's awkward to say it of your own son, it is extremely well-written. I think he's done great justice to their lives. I didn't know Aunty Henny so well. And I had certain reservations. And I didn't know any details about her. But now after reading the book, I love her. When she was alive, I was always a little reticent with her.
Vikram: (to Jitender). Get these books of poetry into the frame... I am delighted with these, they are so beautifully produced.
And after all these years, it must be the best launch present you ever got.
Vikram: Yes. Yes. As far as Aunty Henny is concerned, for me too, although I knew her and I loved her, I must say that the Aunty Henny who emerged from these letters is someone who is even greater in terms of character and interests than the one I knew.
Leila: Yes, in fact after reading the book I really started to love her. I found that part very interesting. I knew she loved the family, but she was very high-strung, and that's the part I always saw of her. And never saw the inside. She was reserved, especially with Uncle Shanti's relations. She would say, what is this, all these grown-up nieces and nephews turn up at the door and they expect me to start caring for them. She was so...
Vikram: Mama felt a bit left out. Because I suppose you felt that she was excluded by her in some ways.
Leila: Yes, and also because Uncle was so warm..
Vikram: The contrast...
Leila: Yes, the contrast.. and I thought maybe she resented us a little bit.
Vikram: It's very difficult for someone who has lost a family to take to someone else's family very easily.
Also, were you at all jealous of the relationship she had with Vikram?
Leila: No, not at all.
Vikram: Very peculiar question to ask!
No, you did have a very special relationship with her.
Leila: Yes, because he stayed with them. He was their son, in that sense. In fact, we are very grateful to them because when he went as a student there I was worried because when he had short holidays we couldn't afford to bring him back. So he would be floating about here and there. So we were so happy that they took care of him. And also she disciplined him.
Vikram: Did she? Well, I'm not sure. I would say my uncle was more of a...[disciplinarian] Aunty Henny was, kind of, always on my side. She was keen that I dress smartly which I never succeeded in doing. But...
She wanted you to keep your room tidy.
Vikram: But she eventually gave up opening my room. She just said, Vicky, I'm going to faint, I can't stand it. But certainly in the main part of the house she tried to make sure everything was kept the way she liked it. Uncle was the one who tried to stop me from doing this or that because he thought it might be too dangerous or if he felt he wasn't acting properly as locus parentis. Aunty Henny was always tolerant, encouraging. She would say, Shanti, let the boy be.
Is family the most important thing to you?
Vikram: Yes, absolutely.
Tell me what family means to you.
Vikram: (in simulated--or real?-- pain) Ahhhhhh.(Leila laughs loudly but nervously, afraid her son is going to offend me). If I ask you, What does family mean to you? You can't make a general answer.
OK, let me put it this way: Family in the West and here mean completely different things, and here too the definition of family is changing a lot. You are perhaps the last generation to connect with family in the larger sense of the word.
Vikram: No, I don't think that's true. In fact, if anything, certainly in the cities, because of high rents, this, that and the other, quite a few young people are coming back to live with their families in some strange...
Leila: In India or abroad? Oh, in India?
(Loud clang. Jitender drops the curtain ring in his yogic distortions to get the best angles of mother and son.)
Leila: What's that? Don't worry, just leave it there.
Vikram: Yes, don't worry, it's OK.
Do you find a lot of young people moving back with their parents here?
Vikram: Well, some people are forced to do it, whether they like it or not. It is certainly true that in some respects the bonds of the extended family are loosening. But I don't think that Indian families are going to become as distant from their parents, for instance, as people are in the West.
What about you, do you feel you are particularly blessed in your children who still feel so close to you compared to the children of your friends or neighbours?
Leila: I think I am very blessed for two reasons. Most people I know have children living abroad and I am lucky that the one child who has children is actually living here. They live upstairs.
Vikram: We have one meal downstairs and one upstairs everyday.
Leila: I get to see my grandchildren everyday, which is wonderful. Otherwise, I know other parents with children living abroad, they come visiting for two weeks a year and spend one week with each set of grandparents. And then, later on, they don't even get that because with the children growing up, they want to go to places other than India.
Vikram: They don't come for holidays as well.
Leila: Taking that into consideration, I am so blessed that I get to live on a daily basis with my grandchildren.
Are your grandchildren as curious about the larger family as Vikram is?
Leila: Yes, very curious. Of course, one is only one year old, but the girl, Nandini, who is four year old..
Vikram: She wants me to tell stories about Mama's childhood.
Leila: Stories about her uncle, about me, about my father, mother, what they did..
Which you must have shared with Vikram as well when he was little?
Leila: Yes, but my mother, who lived with us, shared a lot. It's a grandmother's privilege.
Vikram: That's why you wrote the book [On Balance]when Nandini was born. That she would have something to remember you by.
Leila: Yes, I had my grandchild when I was 70, so I thought to myself, I don't know how long I will be alive, I'd like her to know something of my life, what things were like, so I wrote the book.
Vikram, does the family saga still fascinate you? Is it something you'd want to go back to?
Vikram: There's no reason why not. On the other hand, I can never predict from book to book what I am going to write. So who knows, it may have something to do with the family; it may be quite different from book to book.
Two Lives must have been something quite difficult for you to write because I presume you had to understate it and also, as you say yourself, your writerly intervention was kept to a bare minimum?
Vikram: Let me put it this way. I want the book to be as expressive, as effective and as good as it can be. But if someone else has written something more movingly than you, for instance, a letter that's been written to Aunty Henny by a friend of hers, or if Uncle expresses something in an interview that is far better than you can express it yourself, then it behooves you as a writer not to just impose and inject yourself into something that's already better than you could ever express it. So to that extent I've been a little more reticent as a writer. But there are other parts of the book where I do describe my views and feelings with as much punch and force as I always have. It isn't quite right to say that the authorial voice is muted. The authorial voice is variably muted, you can say.
Did you find the biographical form itself very constraining?
Vikram: Only constraining in the sense that I could not choose my scenario and decide which particular fictional rules to follow. But, on the other hand, it is actually very inspiring to come up against the hard nuggets of facts and then you are forced to analyse, and try to understand how these things make sense, whether or not they do in a very obvious way. To that extent, it is stimulating rather than constraining.
What I found interesting was the way the form forced you to express yourself very directly on issues such as the Jewish question or Germany.
Vikram: I have done so previously on things like the anti-nuclear movement or land reforms or tolerance and intolerance in A Suitable Boy. And I suppose In Heaven's Lake, especially in the preface, I have talked of India and China and so on. But in this book, since history seemed to emerge from the crevices of the story, and since their lives cover the whole century, it seemed to be unnecessarily self-restrained not to talk about certain things, so I did.
Otherwise you don't believe in expressing yourself on current issues like most other authors?
Vikram: I do believe it. But I don't believe in distorting the shape of a book simply in order to get your do paisa in.
Forcing yourself to think on the Jewish question, did it start any thought process about what is happening in India, say on the Muslim question?
Vikram: What do you mean? If you ever read any of my books from A Suitable Boy onwards, you know quite clearly what I think of the Hindu-Muslim question and the necessity of our nation not just being secular in terms of our Constitution but in terms of our beliefs. We could have easily have been born as each other. Not just the Muslim question, but on the gender question, it's pure chance whether you are born a man or woman, pure chance whether you are born Hindu or Muslim. So you just have to consider that we could have been born as each other and therefore there is no particular reason for aggrandising yourself just because you happen to be born a man, because you happen to be born a Hindu, or in a particular class of society. This is to start the process of thinking about that.
All the major writers, including Indian ones like Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh, feel compelled to express themselves in newspaper articles sometimes on current issues. But you have completely eschewed that medium, why?
Vikram: I have talked about these issues. It's just that I haven't written articles about them particularly. When Tiananmen took place, I actually wrote a poem which was published in various newspapers. And again, whenever any question of Hindu-Muslim relations comes up, I have always been pretty forthright. And I thank god that there are other writers who have a different point of view about how much they should put themselves forward or not. It's just that my particular style has been to express these issues through the medium of my books in general more than otherwise. Maybe because on the whole I'm a bit more hermit like. But I certainly think it's very important that writers as citizens--not neccessarily as writers, but just as ordinary citizens--should talk about things that matter to them.
But do you keep up with the news from India, do you subscribe to a daily newspaper from here, for instance?
Vikram: I don't subscribe to any daily newspaper, either here or in England or anywhere. I buy newspapers on an ad-hoc basis. People read far too much about far too little, so to speak.
You don't feel it's worth engaging with the world on a daily basis?
Vikram: You certainly need to engage, but you don't need to engage by reading newspapers for three hours every day. You need a little time to think about these things, not just to absorb endless print.
I am not trying to provoke you but..
Vikram: No, but you are succeeding. (Leila laughs uproariously).
Is this another thorny question: You took six years to write this book. Isn't that a bit long for a biography of this kind?
Vikram: I think if something is worth doing, it's worth doing well. And worth thinking about it as well. People do write books more frequently but not every writer does. Take Arundhati, for instance. Unless she has something to say, she thinks it's not worth saying it. And I completely agree with her on that. People ask why she hasn't written another novel. She says she didn't feel like it, why should she be forced into it?
I recall you saying some years ago that it makes you impatient that writers should spend so much time writing articles instead of doing what they're good at.
Vikram: I don't think I said that, did I say that? It depends upon where their strength lies. For instance, if there's a bad essay-writer but a very good novelist, then I obviously wish him or her to write more of what I think they're good at. But it's not up to me, it's up to them. If it's the other way round, if they're much better essay-writers than novelists, than I'd be much happier if they write more essays. I could think of some names..
How about Amitav Ghosh? He's a wonderful essayist, isn't he?
Leila: But he writes very good novels as well.