Not now, not soon, but not too far,

May you not still be as you are,

Untouched by love for any being,

Unsearable, unstung, unseeing.

May you know love, and may it be,

Returned to you as willingly.

If not, well, may you love in vain,

And know, if not that joy, this pain.

—Not Now, Not Soon

The world knows that Vikram Seth has been working on A Suitable Girl, the much awaited and much delayed sequel to his bestselling novel, A Suitable Boy. So it came as a surprise when it was announced that he would be publishing a book of poetry, Summer Requiem, this year. Seth has spoken earlier of how his break-up with his long-time partner led to a period of darkness that contributed to writer’s block. Reading many of the poems in this collection—melancholic, reflecting the suffocating anguish of one who has lost love—is almost unsettling, as though one were uncovering someone’s private, innermost thoughts. Yet, Seth says he has found that the poems which are most deeply personal are the ones that people have found most moving, and their response is “worth a hundred prizes".

Edited excerpts from an interview:

When did you write the poems in this collection?

(They were written over a) long span of time. Earlier, I used to bring out a book of poems on an average of every seven years or so. And then I realized I haven’t brought out a book of poems for, must be, over 20 years or so. So these are some of the poems that I have written during that period. In fact, one of them (the title poem, Summer Requiem) goes back to an even earlier period, because I was so uncertain whether to publish that poem at all.

That’s the earliest poem?

It is both the earliest and the latest in the sense that I had this mysterious object with me, and I hadn’t really known what to make of it for a long time. I sort of like it but I don’t quite understand it. And the point is, do you want to inflict it upon the world? Then I decided that eventually I will, but I tinkered with it, and I thought back, and sometimes I reverted to an earlier version. So it’s both the earliest and the latest.

Summer Requiem: By Vikram Seth, Aleph Book Co., 66 pages, 399.
Summer Requiem: By Vikram Seth, Aleph Book Co., 66 pages, 399.

Do you have many poems that don’t make sense to you?

No, in general, my theory of poetry is the same as the theory of prose—that it should make sense. Even more important than that tenet is if you happen to like something, well, there is no trumping that. So, for example, Kubla Khan. Now, you try to explain what that poem means to me. I’m sure Coleridge himself couldn’t explain it and yet the fact is that I love the poem. So occasionally I relax these rather stringent rules that I place upon myself, that the thing should make sense, that people, having read the poetry, should at least be able to say that this is what the writer has said. And perhaps in the case of Summer Requiem, perhaps they could say this is the mood of the poem; it may be dark, it may be melancholy, whatever, but it is very difficult to go from line to line and follow it in terms of its narrative.

You’ve been working on ‘A Suitable Girl’ for a while now. Does writing poetry provide a break from that?

No, I don’t see it in those terms. If a poem comes to me, if the pressure of a poem comes to me, or the inspiration for it comes to me, then I break off whatever I’m doing, even if I’m in the mid-scene of a novel. I might incorporate it into the novel, but I don’t say no to poetry. If it comes, it comes.

You had mentioned some time ago that you had suffered from writer’s block while writing this novel. Did this help you overcome it?

I wouldn’t say so. There was an earlier time for example, when I wrote Beastly Tales while I was writing A Suitable Boy, and yes there was a kind of block. And I wrote Beastly Tales, and having finished it over quite a short period of time, I suddenly found I could work again on A Suitable Boy.

But these are individual poems, not written as a group. (They were) written sporadically over the years, usually in response to some particular pressure of events or some experience, so it didn’t act as a kind of break from Suitable Girl, or a relief from, or even as a kind of pill that I could take to get me over writer’s block. Writer’s block is something that I’m sure I’m not alone to have suffered from. (It happened) pretty much even at the beginning of my writing, even with something such as Golden Gate, which I wrote over a very short period of time—nine months, and then four months to revise it. Even then there were periods when all I would do for a week was write two lines. And then I might write 10 stanzas in one day. So it is a bit erratic.

So you are not one of those writers who try to achieve a certain word count each day?

I’m not one of those, and I kind of wish I were, because I get quite anxious when I haven’t written something—I think if I’m completely washed out, will I ever be inspired again. Some very good writers, for example Anthony Trollope, he used to produce 250 words every quarter-hour, and he wrote wonderful novels. But other people sort of sit in bed and thrash their heads and wonder if anything will be written on that particular day. I can’t remember who that writer is, he said he spent an entire morning putting in a comma, then he spent the whole afternoon taking it out. There are all sorts of people, the very punctually productive and the people who produce in fits and starts. I’m the fits-and-starts who wished he were the punctual one.

Do you ever find that some of your poetry may be too personal to share with the world?

When I write the poem, there is absolutely no mental censorship. But there may be things that may stop you from publishing it. The first is if I think it is awful. The second is if I feel it’s not quite finished yet. Of course, people say a poem is never finished, it is only abandoned. The third might be if a poem mystifies me, like, I said, Summer Requiem itself. I might delay publishing it, I might wonder whether I could get a better grasp of what I was trying to say, maybe express it differently or more clearly, or by trying to express it clearly, if I might take the soul out of it.

The fourth may be if something is so very personal, then a kind of internal protective mechanism comes into play—do I want the world to know this? And yet, I feel that those are the poems that quite often are the ones that people find most moving. The ones that speak from the heart and sometimes a place of deep sadness, or even despair.

Strangely enough, one of my short poems, All You Who Sleep Tonight, which is also a title poem for a book, people have told me that it has meant a lot to them. And in all sorts of circumstances. Once someone said that there is a home in Bronx for people undergoing psychiatric treatment and they found it on the noticeboard; someone had handwritten it and put it up. People have said they sent it to people who have been recently bereaved. And I don’t see how a writer will get a greater reward than knowing that that which was born of personal circumstance has so deeply affected other people. It’s worth a hundred prizes.

But as you say, it is a personal collection, and you sometimes wonder whether you should put yourself so much out into the world.

If you read ‘A Suitable Boy’ now, you realize the circumstances you describe there haven’t really changed.

I did write it more than 20 years ago. But don’t forget there is another gap. The period I was writing about was 40 years earlier even to that. So what you are implying is that things haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, but things don’t seem to have changed much in the last 60 years. Or at least in certain aspects of our psychology, of our temperament, of our tendency to tolerance or intolerance. I think you are right. There is a famous French saying plus ça change, the more it changes, plus c’est la même chose, the more it remains the same. But it does change, it changes very suddenly, and also it doesn’t seem to change at all. But I guess that’s one of the lessons of history: how slowly and fast things change, both are true.

How important is it for writers to have an organization like the Sahitya Akademi speaking for them?

Writers are basically, in the context of their work, quite alone, quite isolated, quite lonely as well. They don’t have an office to go to, they don’t have work colleagues, they aren’t part of a government department, a commercial firm. So when there is some sort of a collective organization to give them a sense of community, a sense of protection of free speech, a sense of protection of life and limb, someone to stand up and protest if something dreadful happens. And then they find that that’s not happening, that pressure is being put on these organizations to toe some kind of line that they have not even spoken of the murders (of writers) clearly, then it does make one think that one is very isolated, and it’s not a comfortable feeling.

Watch Vikram Seth read the poem Can’t from his collection Summer Requiem.

Close