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News > Arts & Culture > 'Obsession kept me going': Vikram Seth on 25 years of A Suitable Boy

'Obsession kept me going': Vikram Seth on 25 years of A Suitable Boy

Vikram Seth (Sc 69-70)'s landmark novel, A Suitable Boy, celebrates its 25 anniversary this year. Read about it's much awaited sequel in his interview with the Hindustan Times.

The following extract is from an article in The Hindustan Times, published 22 October 2018:

It’s been 25 years since Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was published. A sprawling novel (1,349 pages in hardback) set after Independence in the fictitious state of Purva Pradesh (roughly, eastern Uttar Pradesh), the book has remained unmatched in its ambition, sweep and elegance. At its heart is the story of a young girl, Lata, and her three suitors. Over the last few years, Seth has been working on the sequel, A Suitable Girl, in which Lata, now an old woman, is looking for a suitable match for her grandson. HT managed to track Seth down in his home in England, where he has been writing the novel, to give a long, exclusive interview (on FaceTime - the wonders of modern technology) to David Davidar in Delhi. Davidar, the co-founder of Aleph Book Company, has been Seth’s editor for nearly 30 years. Excerpts from the interview:

When you wrote A Suitable Boy, did you ever think that it would become one of the most famous books of the last 25 years? Of the lakhs of books that have been published during this period in India alone, it is one of the very, very few to have made an indelible mark on the minds of readers. How does that make you feel?

Well, I certainly didn’t expect it. I thought – let me put it a little immodestly – I thought it was a good book, worth having written and spent a number of years on, but I certainly did not expect this reaction. After all, I had been, in a very minor way, a publisher at Stanford University Press and had put my toe into the rather dangerous publishing waters where the danger is not so much the sharks as the fact that most books, whether good or bad, disappear without a splash. I mean, it seems to me almost random whether a book is recognised or celebrated, whether you’re lucky or unlucky. In my case, I had no way of imagining that a book set in a comparative backwater, as most people thought of Indian history in the 1950s, without a glossary to explain itself, a novel that was far too long, expensive to publish, far too expensive to translate, far too expensive to review (you only get a certain amount to review it and you’ve got to read a thousand plus pages) would do as well as this book did. Anyway, it made me feel very good that it was recognised, but it was a bit of shock.

Why did you even begin to write such a book if you had some idea of the odds that were stacked against it? An old-fashioned quadruple-decker, so to speak, featuring multiple generations of four families, set in 1950s India, running to nearly a million words? What kept you going?

Well, what started me was ignorance, and what kept me going was obsession. It’s not a million words, it’s more like 600,000 words but anyway, I did not know it would be anything like that long. I thought it was basically just Lata’s story, three suitors, rather like the bearers of the gold, silver and lead caskets in The Merchant of Venice. Out of this I felt something would emerge and it would be a quiet and intimate story. I had no idea it was going to grow to be this monster. I couldn’t have. And – to change metaphors – once I was riding the tiger there was no getting off: I needed to know how it would finish if I was not going to end in the tiger’s mouth myself. So my feeling is that had I known, I’m not sure I would have had the courage or rashness to begin. But many of the best things happen that way. Like my hitch-hiking journey across Tibet in From Heaven Lake. I didn’t know that the Friendship Bridge between Tibet and Nepal had been washed away by floods. Had I known I might not have begun. Similarly with The Golden Gate. I’m standing in a bookstore and again I’m obsessed … and I’m thinking, well, there’s no way I can’t write a novel set in California and I didn’t know that on the anvil of that would be sacrificed my Economics PhD. Ignorance is a great way of beginning a large project and obsession – I am not a very disciplined person – is what carried me through.

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